Articles

The Impossibility of Documenting New York City

by Jillian Steinhauer on October 26, 2012

Brandon Stanton, photograph for Humans of New York

Brandon Stanton, photograph for Humans of New York (all HONY images via the project’s Facebook page)

Like most people (I assume), I had heard about Humans of New York in passing, with a share on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter, but until recently, I wasn’t actually following the blog. Then I found myself looking at a portrait one day — I don’t remember which — and being overwhelmed by its simultaneous focus and tenderness. I realized I wanted these pictures to pop up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds all the time.

Brandon Stanton, photograph for Humans of New York

For those who don’t know it, Humans of New York is a project by photographer Brandon Stanton to take portraits of the people of New York City. As his short description puts it: “The photographic census of NYC. One street portrait at a time.” The photos tend to follow a similar format and have a unifying aesthetic: tightly composed, mostly head-on color shots of people that feel deeply humanizing. Sometimes they veer into sentimentality, but other times they’re just fabulous. And always they seem joyous. Stanton also includes quotes or nuggets of information he’s gleaned about the people with his pictures, which makes the subjects come alive.

Jason Polan, "Man on E Train,"

Jason Polan, “Man on E Train,” drawing for Every Person in New York (all Polan images via everypersoninnewyork.blogspot.com)

With more of Stanton’s photos popping into my life these days, my mind started jumping to another art project that attempts to document the people of this city: artist Jason Polan’s Every Person in New York. Polan’s task is a bit harder: he’s trying to draw everyone in New York, people who aren’t necessarily stopping and posing for him. So the aesthetic is sort of the opposite of Humans of New York — crude, black and white, often cartoonish. And yet there’s still a tenderness to the drawings; Polan has a way of capturing at least one striking detail about each of his subjects — big lips, the angle of someone’s shoulders, a contemplative face — that conveys a kind of sensitivity of perception.

From Polan and Stanton my thoughts wandered to I’m Just Walkin’, the work of — I’m not sure what to call him: walker? artist? walking artist? — Matt Green. In 2010, Green walked across the entire country, from Rockaway Beach, Queens, to Rockaway Beach, Oregon, as a New York Times profile poignantly points out. Now, he’s walking every street in New York City, not counting highways but including greenways and bridges with pedestrian walkways. Green treats the project as a full-time job, averaging about 10–12 miles a day, and photographs some of the more memorable sights he sees as he goes along. As he writes on his website:

This is the counterpoint to my walk across the US. Instead of seeing a million places for just a minute each, I’m going to spend a million minutes exploring just one place.

He estimates it will take him more than two years to finish.

Matt Green, photograph of a memorial to Ramarley Graham in front of his house, shot for I'm Just Walkin'

Matt Green, photograph of a memorial to Ramarley Graham in front of his house, shot for I’m Just Walkin’ (image via imjustwalkin.com)

All three of these projects are connected, of course, by the common thread of New York City, and this strange desire to conquer it in some way — or maybe simply to know it on more intimate terms. What is it about New York that inspires this drive? What kind of alchemy is there between creative people and this cosmopolis that leads to these obsessive projects? Polan, having made two books titled, respectively, The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book and All of the People in People, obviously has a penchant for this kind of thing, and not to stereotype, but I suspect many other artists do, too — a kind of patient, long-term relentlessness.

Jason Polan, "Woman at Kinko's on 54th Street"

Jason Polan, “Woman at Kinko’s on 54th Street”

But one of the most notable things about these types of projects is that they’re basically unrealizable — the impossibility is built into the form. Stanton and Polan will never actually know if they’ve captured everyone in the city, not least because the population changes constantly. Even Green, who can document his progress and, in the end, definitively say he’s walked every street in New York —  even he knows that what he’s doing comprises only one small part of the whole. As he writes on his website:

In many ways, this is an exhaustive approach to getting to know a place. By the time I’m finished, I’ll have seen as much of New York as anyone ever has. And yet, the sum total of my experiences over these thousands of miles will be just a tiny little speck, imperceptible against the immensity of this city.

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