Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Tenth Avenue mile, interrupted

As much as I've enjoyed the conceit that New York in Plain Sight is a survey, however informally conceived and executed, and without the apparatus of any real research methodology, I've never sat down and made even a minimal effort to tabulate what there is to see in this "survey" or even in any part of it.

So here we go, spreadsheet in hand — well, on the screen — for a mile on Tenth Avenue, from 14th Street up to 34th Steet (twenty blocks to the avenue mile in Manhattan per the 1811 "grid"), 78 corners in all.

And already, just nine corners into it, I'm brought up short by how demanding an exercise this is (I'll continue tabulating, but not for this post — results in a few days or a week, maybe).

But what's so difficult, you ask?

What's so difficult is actually seeing all that's there to see.

Take, for instance, the northeast corner of Tenth Avenue and 16th Street — right where I've got stuck — which I might have and no doubt did characterize without thinking much about it as one of those "nothing" corners you pass in a taxi taking 16th Street across from the West Side Highway to the middle of the island in order to avoid the traffic on 14th Street.

Tenth Avenue & 16th Street, Northeast Corner

And maybe not quite so easily dismissed the photograph itself, as a picture, owing to the strong lines and shadows of the elevated railroad — the "High Line" — together with the strong colors of the advertising and the near match between the orange in the ad and the orange in the dress of one of the women in the corner, and perhaps the various near-complementaries of this orange and also the yellows in the ad with the purple on the back of the truck on 16th Street and the greens of the displays on the chain link fence of the Chelsea Garden Center just beyond it.

(Not making any strong claims for the quality of this photograph, just saying it ain't so bad, either.)

Like many people, apparently, I've long loved Lee Friedlander's famous statement about photography's being "a generous medium" but I'm not sure, despite having looked, and looked closely, at who knows how many hundreds of thousands of photographs, that I've ever been as acutely aware of just how "generous" the medium really is until a few minutes ago, when I began to seriously try to enumerate everything I can see in just this one photograph.

For instance, I see at glance that there are three people on the corner — hard to miss, especially with one of them wearing that orange dress and also because the composition naturally leads the eye right to her and the other two as well.

But of course, it's four people, since one of the three is pushing a stroller with a small child — whom I must surely count too.

And aren't those two dogs sitting at the feet of the woman in the orange dress? Or is one of them a cat? (Note to self: if I ever do this project over again, as I think I want to, I must get one of those 60 megapixel digital backs, 16.7 megapixels was clearly not enough ….)

And the woman pushing the stroller, am I sure that's not a man?

OK, hard not to miss the man standing in the street off to the left — looks like he's going to hail a taxi, or is looking for the bus that will stop just behind him. The M-11, does it still run up Tenth Avenue? — Probably.

Now for those ads: must be a "luxury" condo going up (a cyncial friend says that "luxury" in Manhattan just means that the toilets are alleged to work most of the time). What was there before, is the new building up now? I should go over and have a look. What happens if I call 212-633-1717 today? (Don't do it, resist the temptation.)

Whoops, there are two more people, just emerging into the sunshine from behind one of the High Line pillars.

Oh gosh, and someone else too: a woman walking towards me on the other side of 16th Street, chatting on her cell phone.

I find myself wondering: is the Gourmet Coffee Service really Metro New York's best, at least for offices? I suppose there's no denying that coffee is one of the corporate essentials ….

There's a "cobra light" on the far right, one of the ugliest designs ever (IMHO), very 1970s — is that true? — but here it seems to fit right in with those very 1970s oranges and browns.

Looks like the woman in the orange dress with the two dogs (or the dog and the cat) is looking at her cell phone — does she have the number for the woman she's talking to? Or is she calling someone? Maybe the Caledonia sales office at 212-633-1717?

Incidentally, about those ads on the high plywood fence: may be one of the highest tech items to be seen in the photograph: large scale digital printing, now ubiquitous, which it wasn't when I moved back into Manhattan going on twenty years ago.

OK, enough, I'll stop. But isn't this the real magic of photography, any photography? This unlimited richness of the visual world, revealed by stopping it in its course and having a closer look at a single moment?

Well yes, of course everybody knows that, and so, of course, do I. But the fascination remains undiminished for all that. For me, anyway.

[I'll get back with my "survey" results later in the week, or maybe next week.]

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