Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Saturday, April 24, 2010

New York in Plain Sight as a survey

[Adapted from a recently finished longer essay on the New York in Plain Sight project.]

New York in Plain Sight is or can be regarded as — among other things — a large-scale photographic survey of everyday life at street level in daytime Manhattan, shot for the most part in 2006.

The survey is based on the Manhattan street map, which provides a straightforward plan for obtaining comprehensive coverage of the island at a relatively uniform density throughout.

The 3,300± intersections of Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks are distributed across the island at an average density of 182 intersections per square mile (exclusive of parks and other public open spaces).

Though local densities range from as low as 140 to as high as 300 intersections per square mile (but only in a few areas, each extending over less than a quarter of a square mile), most of the island is close to the overall average, largely as a result of the famous Commissioner’s “grid” plan of 1811 and its subsequent extensions, which defined an average of 168 intersections per square mile over about two-thirds of the island.

Broadway Terrace & Fairview Avenue, Northeast Corner

The unit and motif of New York in Plain Sight is the street corner.

Not counting the corners of streets that are permanently closed to traffic, staircase streets, park roads, on/off ramps, medians, and traffic islands, there are perhaps 11,485 street corners on the island of Manhattan — some ambiguous cases make the exact figure a matter of judgment — or about 633 street corners per square mile.

As a result, New York in Plain Sight comprises some 11,485 photographs: one for each of Manhattan’s 11,485 street corners, each viewed — with a few exceptions — from its diagonally opposite corner.

A more important result is that New York in Plain Sight is a reasonably equitable survey of Manhattan’s human geography, capturing its range of demographics — age, race, ethnicity, income — in roughly the same proportions as their physical distribution across the island.

New York in Plain Sight is a “random” sampling of its subject in the sense that the pace of the shooting meant accepting whatever was or wasn’t happening within a very brief interval of arriving at a corner.

If nothing was happening — especially if no people were present — a single shot might suffice, requiring only a few seconds, while if a lot was happening — many people doing many different things — several minutes and a dozen or more shots were sometimes warranted.

The actual averages were about 18.3 seconds and 2.1 shots at each corner.

New York in Plain Sight was also conceived as a survey of a single “moment” in the city’s history: the long summer season from March 10, 2006 through November 24, 2006, during which I photographed 10,563 street corners (92% of the total) in 91 days of shooting.

Most of the remainder have since been shot — and some of the original 2006 photographs reshot — in coordination with the work of cataloging and processing the whole set.

[Over the next week or two I'll post some closer looks at the questions raised by this view of the project as a survey.]

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