Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Of course New York in Plain Sight isn't a survey in any scientific sense of the word, social or otherwise. And yesterday's little exercise, or the beginnings of it, shows just how and why this is the case.

The key is the difficulty — which I found myself enjoying — posed by the "generosity" of the medium. What's important in the photographs, or in any photograph, and what isn't?

Well, you can't ask the photograph itself to answer that question, particularly when the photographer has deliberately employed none of the means — composition, lighting, selective focus, viewpoint — to give emphasis to one or the other aspect of the subject.

The problem being, of course, that for any even modestly scientific purpose, you pretty much have to begin with a question, or a group of related questions, and design the survey instrument in such a way as to eliminate in advance all that irrelevant stuff that constitutes the dense reality of life and the world.

And to do so in a way that, hopefully, doesn't already by its very exclusions prejudice the answer too much.

(Anyone who has ever bothered to answer a telephone survey has probably had the experience of feeling that the questions asked and the choices given for answering them somehow miss what one thinks altogether, so that no matter how one answers, the result is a serious misrepresentation. — It's a real problem, which is why survey design is such a fine and difficult art.)

Broadway & Canal Street, Northeast Corner

Of course, one could take the photographs of New York in Plain Sight — or probably any other photographs too — and just regard them so to speak as tissue samples, a sort of visual biopsy, and then approach them with much more specific sorts of questions.

For instance, "how many people are to be seen standing and talking on a street corner, on average, in daytime Manhattan"? Or perhaps more interestingly, "how many people in wheelchairs are to be seen?"

But even with this kind of simple — and naive — question, one would have to ask after the question behind the question: "why would you want to know?"

So, really, New York in Plain Sight isn't that kind of a survey, though some clever boots might find a way to make it useful in that way. (I wish I were that clever person, but I'm afraid I'm just not.)

"Survey" can also mean, however, a general or comprehensive view of something, and in that sense New york in Plain Sight is, surely, a survey.

Does it matter, this question, whether it's a survey or not?

Perhaps, if only because the word captures the most distinctive thing about New York in Plain Sight," which is its comprehensiveness. (I hope of course that that's not the only distinctive thing about it, but still don't doubt that it's the main thing, despite the fact that I can't claim that it's the most comprehensive such "survey" of the island of Manhattan.)

Food for thought — maybe — on a rainy Tuesday morning.

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