Michael Webster

New York


The mythology of New York is known to anyone who has watched more than a dozen hours of television or skimmed magazines in a dentist’s office. But like ancient Greece, New York is too big to have a single, central story; its myth is carried by its demigods, or what in show business they call types.

Take a type we’ll call the New York Tough Guy. Now, there are tough guys all over the world; wherever you live you probably know at least one of them, and so the term “tough guy” will call him, specifically, to mind. This guy you know who talked about knocking a guy out as if it were nothing, and looked as if he could do it, is a tough guy, for instance.

But link these terms to New York and the focus shifts. The New York Tough Guy, for example, may be someone you saw perp-walked on the cover of the New York Post. Or he may be some actor who mugged a character on a movie you saw that was set in New York. He may be an antique figure with cross-hatched stubble, a lantern jaw, and a black eye-mask like the Beagle Boys wear in Scrooge McDuck comics. Maybe he’s tough in something other than a physical way. Some people (certainly not you, sophisticated reader) think Donald Trump is tough. Some people (perhaps you, sophisticated reader) think Anthony Bourdain is.

In any case, this image you’ve conjured matches the term New York Tough Guy more than the authentic avatars you actually know because there is Tough and then there is New York Tough, which may or may not be real Tough but which is certainly real New York. You almost have to imagine the Tough Guy standing defiantly against a filthy brick wall at night, harshly illuminated by car headlamps, and probably wearing shades, because all the New York Tough Guys wear shades. (Doesn’t Jay-Z? Didn’t Lou Reed?)

I’m not saying these people aren’t real tough guys, though I do think if somebody came at them with a knife a few of them might not react totally in character. I’m saying the Tough Guy, the Fast Talker, the Big Shot, the Wise-Cracking Waitress, the Hard-Bitten Journalist, et alia, are mythic figures. By that I don’t mean that they’re fake, though they often are, but that their usefulness is not to be found in the real world, but in the dream landscape that explains New York to the world and to itself.

This is why you often see people move to New York and immediately start conforming to stereotype. The pressure, whether overtly felt or only dimly sensed, of being part of something as overwhelming as New York blows the mind of anyone who does not have a perfectly solid-state personality, which is to say most of us. So citizens psychically run for cover under the robes and aegides of the demigods of New York myth.

(Where do you think hipsters  — that is to say, New York Hipsters — come from? New York magazine? Pitchfork media? They come from Patti Smith via Marlon Brando via George Cram Cook via Walt Whitman via Edgar Allan Poe via some ur-Hipster whom Peter Stuyvesant had to keep putting in the stocks for shirking.)

You and I could sit here all night identifying the constellations in the New York galaxy, but I wish to draw your attention to the least acknowledged member of the pantheon, who is nonetheless as important as any other: The Out-of-Towner.

The Out-of-Towner, aka The Greenhorn, aka The Rube, belongs to the mythology, too. His is a special role. Because one thing is true of all of the other New York demigods: They are Wised-Up. So they are all pretty evenly matched, and also extremely motivated to get over on one another. If they had only one another to deal with, things would quickly get ugly and stale — like the Manhattan of Escape from New York, an island of madmen with whom the rest of the world cannot deal.

The Out-of-Towner brings some air and light into the action. For one thing, he can be a victim, and replenish the ecosystem with whatever the wise guys can get out of him. He can be a foil, a straight man to set up their jokes and set off their unique qualities, and an audience to flatter the endless self-regard of the true New Yorker. And on occasion and with sufficient motivation, the Out-of-Towner can stick around and, if he has the moxie, become a citizen himself.

Indeed, every New Yorker who was not born there enters the town in this role, and struggles to divest himself of it. Why, for example, do New Yorkers respond so positively to being asked for directions? Because this offers them the chance to show that they’re not Out-of-Towners. (This is especially important in front of present Out-of-Towners.)



But there’s a catch. Every wise guy in New York is in perpetual danger of reverting to Out-of-Towner status. For one thing, the town is always changing — hot spots, catchphrases, top Filipino lunch places — and it’s a struggle to keep up. But more importantly, unless he has become so jaded that nothing at all matters to him anymore, the wise guy will always retain a touch of Out-of-Towner about him. The things that excited him before still excite him — though he has become of necessity very good at concealing it, lest he over-effuse and give his roots away.

All this is to begin to say what I like so much about Michael Webster’s “New York.” I do admire the formal schtick of shooting it all from the top of one of those horrible tourist double-deckers that strafe the streets (ah, there I go, sounding like a wise guy). But it’s more what the schtick reveals that pleases me. The tour bus passengers — sometimes cheaply plastic-slickered against rainy weather — seem anonymous, ordinary, like the opposite of the thing they’re observing. (And those few observed New Yorkers who notice them seem surprised but unimpressed.) But the New York vistas and tableaux that Webster sees are lovely, specific and suggestive at the same time; you could write novels about the five folks waiting for the Seventh Avenue bus, for instance, or just bask in their ennui. And the wonderful thing is, they are as available to those bus-riding Out-of-Towners as they are to anyone else. Like those two well-dressed Indian folks in the front row: They certainly look like they’re enjoying the scene. Maybe they, too, see in New York what we see. Or maybe — you know, we can hardly admit it, even now — they see more.

— Roy Edroso




Michael Webster is a photographer currently living in Brooklyn.


Related links

Michael Webster

Roy Edroso

36 thoughts on “Michael Webster – New York”

  1. Mike, I’ve seen all kinds of essays shot in New York City. Everybody has. I am certain there are more photo essays shot in New York City than in any other city in the world. I’ve even shot an essay of sorts there (and I am proud to say that I was a tough guy from the moment my out-of-towner shoe first struck New York concrete), but I have never seen an essay that looked anything like this.

    Yes, same buildings, same sorts of people, yet nothing like this.

    And you did it by the joining the tourists who every day shoot thousands upon thousands of frames from that very vantage point. Yet, until you did it, I had never seen it. I doubt anyone had.

    Congratulations and good job!

    I like it! A lot!

    I am going to go to bed now. I am pretty certain your images will spawn a few strange dreams in my night.

    Maybe even a nightmare.

    I won’t know for sure until morning about the nightmare.

  2. I don’t really get it. Yeah, I get the “tour bus” perspective, but it doesn’t distinguish the photos. Photos are o.k. Just doesn’t work for me. Another city, another rainy day.

  3. Congratulations Michael.

    This is indeed a different photographic NYC. I’ve never been there myself, but knowing me and the way I “see” new places this is what I imagine it like. Not from the tourist bus perspective (never done that yet either) but from the demystified one. I never connected with Gilden’s New York and always felt that Klein’s is too close to my cinematic preconceptions. Davidson’s is a classic and memorable one but still, the myth and context blurs everything.

    And Jim as for your last sentence, that’s exactly the point I think. If I may say so, NYC IS just another city in any day, rainy or not. What makes it special in people’s imagination is the accumulated accompanying mythology.

    And finally, this is an essay that could have been shot in one day. A few hours in fact. And it’s not just fine with me, it is straight to the point again. I can smell the streets and hear the noise. “Mind your head” reads on the bus and this is a story that does just that.

    All the best Michael, thanks.

  4. At first I did not get it. I saw the images without reading the essay. Yes…I could tell what it was, sure.
    But after reading the words it all clicked.
    I have one question and the answer (for me) will not change anything in this work….but did you shoot this and then Roy came up with the mythology or was this your intention from the start? again it does not matter…it’s my curiosity, thats all.

    Awesome essay! #1 and #5 are my favorites.

  5. Congratulations Michael, really fun stuff.
    New York seems to be another universe. Never been there, not sure I would want to if this were my only impression of it. Dreary comes to mind.

    I loved Roy Edroso’s intro essay, and did not get the tour bus angle until I read it.


  6. Clever concept and fun pictures. You have channeled lots of NYC photography — the standard street stuff, bits of Weegee, Law & Order locations, tourist snaps. A nice homage.

  7. I like the concept very much. It is different.
    I like the tour bus pictures, especially the first, because it reminds me of a roller-coaster.

    Well done!

  8. “New York City is a living organism; It evolves, it devolves, it fluctuates as a living organism. So my relationship with New York City is as vitriolic as the relationship with myself and with any other human being which means that it changes every millisecond, that it’s in constant fluctuation…..I think of every double-decker loop as another loop towards my death. And that is why I’ve always thought of the double-decker loop as – each loop as a continuous and individualized search for perfection….”–Tim ‘Speed” Levitch, THE CRUISE

    I am a New Yorker!

    I’m not a tough guy nor have I ever felt as one nor have I ever imagined to be one (but in those clausterphobic moments between the sheets when I was wrestling with self) for I always troubled myself less over whether or not I was made of that soft-at-heart city than whether or not I was capable of allowing her stains to remain upon the length and limbs of my life. New York stains, from the moment you step outside: the fingers and the pants noticeably first. What person has not lived or visited or spent even a fraction of a moment huddled around her skirtband and not been amazed at the stains later at night before bed? It is not an act of indifference to her people (in and outers) but the opposite: her need to touch and in the washing away at night, her need to be touched even if through the encircling downward through her drains.

    I was born in a city, San Diego, as far from her as Far Rockaway is from Battery Park and yet her pull was long and hard and unwavering, upon my entire family and eventually upon me. Those of us who has been raised by her, spent some time with her, dreamt her and loved her and loathed her and been inspired by her and careened and caressed and tossed aside by her often remark that there is no other but her, before or after. A consummate lie, for inners and outer-towners alike. There were and always will be others. Those of us who have left her often remark: ‘i was able to escape.’ ‘i was odysseus who broke free of the island for something more substantial or sustaining or real-right.’ But this too is a kind of lie. For though, now, I haven’t lived there is a long while and though I doubt I shall ever return to live, in the back of my head, in the more truculants parts of my heart, in the softer, meatier parts of my groin, I realize that i think on her always, like the ghosts that haunted Richard III, she calls out always, ‘bob, you poor lonely fuck, in the battle tomorrow think on me…’….New York may no longer be my most arduous love, but she is the one stain that seems impossible to remove….

    Nowhere is this more true, it seems to me, than for those who experience New York in all her grand, grainy illusions: the visitor, the dreamer, the ambitious and the joker. People pile there way, not for illusions of love, as in Paris, but with the illusion that simply by being mediated by New York somehow they will have succeeded or at least been challenged or at least have ‘become something.’ Another of her siren songs….and yet….the yearning masses, the hungry humunculi, the addled and the addicted, the fucked-up and the fucked-over, continue to seek out their dreams and drama’s there. This is both about the people who comprise the city (though, having spent a great deal of my youth and adulthood living and surving there, this also seems another lie for there IS NO REAL NEW YORKER, the individuals as varied as the boroughs and history and architecture and food and smells) and about the city itself…..

    for me, the story, Michael’s story here, is really like Ahab riding and being ridden upon, by the whale…

    I LOVE the opening shot….because it reminds me of the whalers who row out to see in their chase to haul in the leviathan…covered and excited and eager and scared…and the great perspective, down low, only the backs of their heads, suggests that journey across the expanse of water to begin the chase….and what a chase it is….

    All the repetions of frame and content, for me, is what makes this project so interesting, like the repetition of sentences in Whitman or Selby, like the same rythms of night in Taxi Drive, for the repetion of the pictures is both literary and musical, both aesthetic and real: when seeing new york, when living with her, in her, it is the quotidian and the repetition that makes the most sense of the city, let alone if you were cruising around on top of one of those insane buses. In fact, I love them so much, that I would respectfully tell Michael that i want MORE MORE of those back-of-the-head/same perspective shots. In fact, that is ALL i want…for that story itself is revealing, beckoning at the con in the appearance that is ‘New York’. More more same same back of the heads, punctuated with a view of the over-the-rail views….These begin to offer a Parr-esque perspective, both the absurdity and its humor….or, to quote from one of my favorite films ‘Yi-Yi’ (about a family in Taipei): ‘i want to photogrpah the back of people’s heads because no one thinks about what they look like from behind’…..

    The project is also an interesting juxtaposition with Frank’s project about riding around NYC inside of buses….his frame was the window and very much Frank’s melancholic take. Here, Michael’s frame isn’t a window, nor a bus rail, but the City backdrop itself. In otherwords, the subjects are what I AM INTERESTED IN..the people on the bus, not the street folk or even new york…and how much better to glimpse NYC than actually have her in the background rather than the foreground…and yes, nyc is the most photographed place on the planet and for me, most photographers get it ‘wrong’…i mean, they pay attention to NYC, rather than looking at something simpler….the congregation’s desire and sense of self within that gurder-rich landscape….

    Most of the ‘street shots’ don’t do anything for me, except the magnificent #5, which is the kind of image i want pushing up against all those shots of the people’s backs on the bus…more bus, less street, except for the exceptional ones: 5 & 16. The rest fluff…not interesting or important to me: jsut pictures…but take 5 & 16 (and if you have others that strong) and place them carefully against an entire army of these shots of the people looking (READ!, are they?), one becomes entranced and lost and nervous and, well, a bit understand…what the fuck are these people looking at….

    what the fuck are any of us trying to find in and of and with new york?…

    i answered that question long ago, and so left the city for something inside…something not bound to a place or a street or a borough…in this sense, i feel lucky, not to have escaped but to have bit grown up by her…let go…or freed…for the gaze now is elsewhere…but then again, how possibly could the city survive if all felt that freedom to leave and to stop obsessing over her….

    and lastly, to Michael and to Preston (and erica and david) and the rest of you still in New York…i want to tell you about a great film. A film that broke my heart when I first saw it in 1998…about a tour bus guide…the film is one of the finest documentaries ever about new york…about new yorkers (not the out-of-towners)…it too allowed me to leave the city….

    THE CRUISE…about the life and believve of Speed Levitch…you MUST now rent it…especially given this project


    and also, i want to celebrate the Essay by Roy Edroso. From one writer to another: that just positively sings…and one of the best statements I’ve read at BURN….i may not agree with all the premises, but that tough-guy out of towner sure can sing like Runyon…..:))…loved every sentence of it…

    Congratulations Michael…now get back to work…

    MORE HEAD(s) Please! ;))


  9. Bob Black:

    I am impressed by this statement:

    I LOVE the opening shot….because it reminds me of the whalers who row out to see in their chase to haul in the leviathan…

    You are right!

  10. hey frostfrog ;))…thanks…it’s a great great opener….but, as usual, i made a typo (many in what i wrote about since i was typing directly into the comment box)…should be

    “I LOVE the opening shot….because it reminds me of the whalers who row out to sea in their chase to haul in the leviathan…”


  11. BOB

    great text as usual…however i saw what Thomas saw in that opener…a roller coaster!! and i live by the sea, and now i see the fishermen too, but first i saw the roller coaster…please do not analyze that too much :)

    nice to have you here…

    cheers, david

  12. Sidney Atkins


    I gotta say that when I saw your name, the title, and the opening shot, I was primed to see something impressive or at least provocative. I’ve seen a little of your other work, and have been reading your very articulate and often thoughtful text postings here (which I often don’t agree with, but at least you can both think AND write) for quite a long time, so my expectations may have been higher than usual. I have viewed the essay four times now and while one or two photos have grown on me a bit, in general my reaction hasn’t changed. I really hope you won’t think it is either personally hostile or harsh of me to say so, but I think you can and should do a lot better and a lot more… you have a good idea, a bottomless subject, and a very good opening shot… but what follows does not, for me anyway, live up to the promise of those three things (not to mention Roy Edroso’s essay, which I only read after the second viewing… I think I might have been even more disappointed if I’d read it earlier).

    As we have all seen and heard, not every photo needs to be equally strong to make a good essay, but other than the excellent opening shot and one or two others (like Bob, I’d maybe keep #5 and #16), the other pictures are quite forgettable filler… they left no particular impression with me. I think the idea is a good one and you should pursue it but come up with much stronger pictures… so that #5 and #16 (and maybe #7?) become the filler “conjunctions” of the essay.

    Particularly in the company of Roy Edroso’s essay, this set of pictures doesn’t hold up (and now it’s got two essays accompanying, if we include Bob Black’s).

    Just incidentally, I’m an ex-New Yorker (really, really ex- like more than 40 years ago), and while there are certainly a lot of people there who wear a mask of being tough, and maybe a fair share of genuine tough-guys, maybe it’s because I attended a college full of wise-guys, but New York has always struck me as more of a wise-guy town than a tough-guy town… Philly and Chicago are definitely tough-guy towns, and on a smaller scale, Newark and Jersey City. Maybe things have changed in the years I haven’t been back, but Manhattan and Brooklyn in particular were always the archetypical wise-guy towns. I still like Roy’s essay, though.

  13. Just want to jump in and say a quick thanks for the comments so far. Will try to post something more substantial tomorrow or the next day. And I especially want to thank Roy Edroso for the intro. For those of you who don’t know him, Roy is a quintessential New Yorker — caretaker of the infamous Alicublog, columnist for the Village Voice, and former leader of the legendary New York punk band The Reverb Motherfuckers (Roy’s bit starts at 3:30), among other accomplishments.

    To briefly answer your question, Carlo, I shot this with my own intentions and Roy’s take is his own. I think there’s room for multiple interpretations. Certainly hope so. Thanks again for your comments.


  14. DAVID ;))

    yes, absolutely saw the RollerCoaster too! :))…but then felt they’re fisherman…must be the sailor/whaler in me more than the thrill seeker ;))…

    never over-analyze, just write what i feel and see when looking, you know me ;))

  15. I’m guessing I probably shouldn’t do this. I generally think it’s a bad idea for artists to explain their work, but since the relationship of the intro to the narrative is such an experimental part of this piece, and I’ve never been known for prudence, I’ll go ahead, or at least tread dangerously close to that edge. The little experiment that follows does not explain the story or it’s meaning. It’s about the process of finding a story to tell and following it through the inevitable twists and turns to completion. You might find it amusing. I did.

    New York started out as a visual idea, and it wasn’t titled “New York.” For years I’d been fascinated by the tourists on those buses in their cheap plastic ponchos and always told myself that some rainy day I’d explore the idea. Then a project I was planning in the midwest fell through and I was stuck in New York with a lot of free time on my hands. I checked the weather forecast and it was supposed to rain for the next few days so I said what the hell and bought a three day pass. The working title at that point was “Staycation.”

    Of course I am a narrative photographer and not particularly interested in singles. Were that not so, I could have quit once I got #8, which is pretty much what I had in mind at the outset. But I had to have some story structure, however inane, to work within. So I thought about the tourists saw — Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, 30 Rock, etc., and thought it would be funny to photograph the things they didn’t see that were right in front of them. Never did I consider the possibility that this would be a publishable project. These would just be walking around photos, only I’d be sitting instead, and on high. The whole idea sounded cliched. You know how I feel about cliches.

    But I stayed up late the first night processing the photos, creating a little slideshow and obsessively watching it, or as I like to call it: editing. It was sometime around 3 am when I saw the story I wanted to tell. A shot of the huddled tourists reminded me of a scene from one of Jose Saramago’s novels. Like the image of glistening plastic ponchos that got me started, it was a visual idea, not a language-based narrative. But unlike the ponchos, it gave me a visual framework in which to explore the idea about what the tourists don’t see. The working title at that point was “Blindness.” Or “Seeing.” I could never quite get that straight.

    And either way, it was a horrible working title that I felt was cliched and terribly distorted the story I was trying to tell. This became apparent when I tried to write the intro. As Burn readers know, many a good photo essay is ruined by its accompanying text and the crap I was writing for this one would have carried on that ugly tradition. I had been working with a professional writer on my Brooklyn Carnival project and it occurred to me to do the same with the New York photos “New York photos,” btw, was David’s term for this series and I got in the habit of referring to them like that as well. It slowly morphed into becoming my third (or fourth, depending on how you count them) working title. Anyway, when I thought about professional writers, Roy Edroso jumped immediately to mind because he is such a consumate New Yorker, and one of my favorite writers on the web. I was thrilled when he agreed to do it and thought his essay the perfect intro for the piece.

    Of course Roy’s interpretation of the story is not the story I am telling. My work with professional writers on these two projects got me thinking more about the whole intro thing so I did a brief little study of how outside writers typically handle them. Charles Bowden’s intro for Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” is a good example. It deals more with Bowden’s personal relationship with the work than the work itself. Apparently, that’s a common strategy for literary intros. I’m playing with it myself (and right before your very eyes, ha).

    Anyway, at some point between adopting “New York photos” as the latest working title and getting a Real New Yorker to write about the series, it occurred to me to just name the thing “New York.” I laughed out loud when I thought of it. I’m smiling right now. But underneath the joke lie some essential truths. Roy and Bob Black have explored more than a few of them. My questioning of what the tourists see and don’t see explores a few others. The tour bus companies do it in their own way. The images they sell of “New York” are in many ways for many people definitive. Of course people like me and Roy and Bob and no doubt you, discerning reader, have different definitions. Or perhaps we reject definitions altogether, they being little more than walls that separate the blind from the seeing, or in this case, the tourists from the city.

    “Say to a blind man, you’re free, open the door that was separating him from the world, Go, you are free, we tell him once more, and he does not go, he has remained motionless there in the middle of the road, he and the others, they are terrified, they do not know where to go, the fact is that there is no comparison between living in a rational labyrinth, which is, by definition, a mental asylum and venturing forth, without a guiding hand or a dog-leash, into the demented labyrinth of the city, where memory will serve no purpose, for it will merely be able to recall the images of places but not the paths whereby we might get there.”

    ― José Saramago

  16. Michael,

    Thanks for answering my question….and as I said, it does not change anything for me.
    What you wrote is the type of thing I love to read about work I don’t really understand.
    You explained but left room for interpretation.
    I think what you have done is fresh and not cliche…you had an idea and went for it and now it’s here.
    We are seeing what they missed.
    To borrow Kubrick’s words….we are not seeing with eyes wide shut.

  17. I liked #11 the best-even at its lowest you couldn’t find a lot of skeleton sex on Times Square, and even back then it’d be difficult to see someone popping a boner during daylight.

  18. Sidney, I appreciate your comment. Who would I be if I got offended by honest feedback? And you have some sense of how hyper-critical I can be. When looking at this work, at one point I thought “What would Bruce Davidson have done?” Well, not really. The actual thought was “Bruce Davidson would have spent a year riding those damned buses and every single photo would be a masterpiece.” So I considered it, but in the end I wasn’t all that sure I really could do any better. I like all of these photos. I like them by themselves. I like them in the context of the story. Of course I recognize that they are not all jump-right-out-at-you visual appealing and that if I took Davidson’s approach and spent a year at it I could make them so. But I honestly don’t think that would make the story any better. It might actually make it worse. Of course we might also consider the possibility that I make these rationalizations because I hated riding those damned buses.

    Another thing is that different people have different favorites, so although this one or that one don’t do anything for you, someone as equally discerning may find them appealing. David, for example, thought #2 was easily the best when we had our little editing session. The consensus, outside of #1 seems to be #5 and #16, both of which I considered not including at various times — #5 because I felt sorry for the poor woman who’s probably still seeing stars from that flash, #16 just because. Of course I bring my own hangups to the mix. My favorite (outside of #1) is easily #3. I like #s 14 and 18 a lot as well, which I suspect would be the first two most people voted off the island. And then there’s #11 which has nothing to do with the story at all, and probably contradicts it. But how can I not include fucking skeletons? I have to think of Akaky.

    Anyway, what I appreciate most about your comment is that you have high expectations for me. That was truly a pleasant surprise. Hopefully my future work will better live up to your expectations. And just to be clear, no sarcasm whatsoever is intended in that statement. I genuinely appreciate your giving some thought to this.

  19. Thanks, Mike, for the further statement.

    Bob, yes, I picked up on your word goof right away, but it didn’t bother me. I kind of liked it. And I make so many typos and word goofs myself. I just remain blown away by your analogy. I am probably the only one here who has actually ridden to the very back of the leviathan with whale hunters (not fishermen, David – hunters… never call them fishermen! No… no… no!) and yet I did not make that visual link, but you did.

    I doubt that Mike did, either, but now, every time I look at the picture, I see the symbolism… the whale breaching in the buttress ahead, the intensity of the hunters focused on it…

    So… Mike’s picture + Bob’s words and my own personal experiences has produced what for me is a highly symbolic image from my own life. Before I read Bob’s words, I found the image interesting and I kept wanting to liken it to something, but I could not think what. I thought it must be something from New York City that I had seen pictured before, but could come up with nothing.

    Turns out, it was Arctic Alaska, the whole time.

    Please share this story with your daughter, Mike.

  20. This is very good, original I like the view, kind of like looking at insects running around the garden. Maybe because it’s street photography from a different angle and at least personally it’s a fresh one… From above and at a big distance, physically safe distance. I wish I had thought of this idea as I adore other photographers street images but I live in a town where people HATE being included in a stranger’s photo. The scowls, bad looks and always a couple of threatening comments always make me somehow give up. Yes give up every damn weekend I walk with my family shopping or window gazing. But Michael has found the trick a safe distance and so did Robert Frank who if I’m correct made a series of photos from a bus with a 90mm lens. Then I suddenly realized there were two threads in this story…the people on the street and the bus passengers Michael every so often includes in the essay. So he does go in close, a little more risky and a lot closer, but from behind…usually safe unless the camera click is heard.
    The thing is Michael I believe has found a way to make photos of somewhere I think he’s fascinated with, somewhere everyday he perhaps coming home from work or off to work can get perhaps every so often a new image for this essay. Comfortably safe and numb from the scowls, far very far from Bruce Gilden territory and DAH’s distance also. But Michael is Michael Webster and he’s got to do what he feels at ease with and that’s the trick. Be you. So Michael I want more pictures day and night, because I’ve really enjoyed this essay and you’ve given me some inspiration. I want more New York.

  21. Perhaps as I’ve never stepped foot in this city I find all the views fascinating. Far more than someone who has lived the real NY.

  22. Paul, thanks for the comment. This was the middle of three essays I did pretty much back to back. Each is radically different in subject, approach to people, and style. It’s true that in this one I had no personal contact with any of the subjects, but in the others I got quite close and almost always had permission. It’s rare that I’m not ill-at-ease when photographing people, but finding that zone is worth the effort and sure feels sweet when you get there. And it’s true that as far as point-and-click goes, this was incredibly easy. I did nothing particularly difficult with the camera. The difficulty was in visualization, planning, and story construction. This was a minefield of cliches. When I look at the three together in a ramdom slideshow, I’m amazed at how well they fit. As different as they are, the one consistent thing is that I shot them mostly from an elevated perspective. The first one I just held the camera high, this was on top of a bus, and I carried a step ladder around for the third. While explaining my succession of working titles above, it occurred to me put the three essays together and call it “New York Trilogy.” Again, I laughed when that occurred to me. I’m smiling now. But I realize I have no idea how to go about doing an actual book. The 25 slide essay is difficult enough. But at least I’ve got a title if I see some artistic reason to go there.

    Regarding showing more pictures (thanks everyone for asking), my policy on published essays has always been to not do that. It’s very tempting but I put a lot of effort into the editing and all those other pictures were cut for a reason. I do have quite a few fairly interesting shots left from this project though. I did, for example, take a lot of pics of the huddled tourists facing the camera. The same scene as the opening shot with the tourists’ faces and the bridge behind them is a nice composition (wedding photographers take note). But for the purposes of the story it was important to for me to objectify the tourists, to turn them into symbols. When you see their faces they become people. And in many shots they could be perceived as looking somehow ridiculous. I felt that by far the most dangerous cliche in a project like this would to in any way be perceived as ridiculing the tourists. It was very important they be portrayed with dignity. And then there was another little sub-plot that got cut entirely. Some of those pics may show up elsewhere as you wouldn’t be able to tell they were part of this. Maybe on Burn Diary, eh.

    Anyway, I sympathize with your plight Paul. Taking pictures of people who don’t want to have their picture taken is by far the worst part of this profession. It drove me away for many years and I try to avoid it as much as possible. Are there any nearby towns? I don’t know about other photographers, but I almost never take pictures in my own neighborhood. Don’t want strangers who know where I live to see my cameras for one thing. But it’s more than that. You might consider a step ladder.

    Bill, your relationship with the bridge photo makes me very happy. Those kinds of connections are what make looking at photography (and other arts) so worthwhile. And you’re right, I didn’t make that connection or even the one to the roller coaster, which now seems obvious. I just saw colors and lines and shapes and symbols (that would be an interesting conversation sometime; what we see when photographing. I rarely see the details of what’s actually happening when I take a picture). I will certainly tell my daughter. I know she remembers the night we saw your slideshow fondly and she read your blog when you wrote about your real-life part in the events depicted in the movie. Do you know when it comes out on DVD or will be available on NetFlix? I added it to my queue but there’s no release date.

    Finally, I hope my responding and continuing to talk about this work at such lengths is not unseemly. I don’t know the best way to approach these things. My default attitude is to say nothing (which I managed in the artist statement, bio, and captions), certainly not to explain the meaning of the work, but I thought I’d try different things with this particular opportunity.

  23. Mike, I wish every photographer who publishes here would then interact in comments to the degree you have. There is nothing unseemly about it and anyone who might think there is would just be pedantic.

  24. Dear Mom,
    I recently took a trip to New York City where I naively boarded a tour bus driven by one Michael Webster. Mr. Webster gave us a view of this iconic city that I will not soon forget. Picture this if you dare:

    We were a cold, crowded, faceless mass huddled ineffectually under sacks of shapeless saran wrap which failed to either hide our miserable sodden rags or prevent our flesh from spoiling, despite the chilly clime. A bleak sky pelted us with a grey caustic liquid that fell equally upon those victim-citizens far below as they struggled helplessly through their dogged routines. Every minute massive concrete slabs imperiled us on all sides as we belched and rumbled through the wet, greasy, filthy avenues, far below. Occasionally a passer-by looked up to face our threatening juggernaut of smoking steel tearing down upon them, and then in passing, our myriad gazes of privileged voyeuristic ambivalence. Our gazes were met defiantly, or alternately, with an intensely personal dispassion, a kind of insult by omission. Those faces reverberate now in my minds eye as through cataracts, naked and revealing, but blurred and unrecognizable.

    But Webster drove on. A night as black as any I have ever endured enshrouded us in a cloying grip that stifled the very air, if it can called air, more like a noxious vaporous thing lurking just out of view. In these neighborhoods, impenetrable but for the electric lights blaring a cacophonous music spewing from every fixture, every moving object, every static aperture. A warped palette of urban neon stretched across the twisted, soggy blackness, winking and strobing, insinuating a kind of civility, a domesticity, a placid repose that lay upon the ragged escarpments like canvas.

    Finally, we penetrated through the night and roared into the daytime hubbub of shackled and fenced-off work sites, stacks of rocks boxed and filed amid flapping ID badges, unbreakable hats and neon clothing. And always the smoke, the smoking, the smokers. That morning, if morning it was, Webster brought us back to earth amid green gardens swaddled tenderly in hardscape, where children darted for safety from their exposed positions on the playgrounds. A hopeful message, scrawled and nearly mis-spelled upon a wall, ready to fall: READ. I callously conjured a postscript: ..AND RIGHT! Who are these people? These denizens of decay, these multicolored army-ants building up from the litter, scrabbling hopefully up from far below us?

    I paid the fare. I took the ride. Now I will reap what we have sown. Yes, we. I admit some small affinity, some second-cousin-kinship with those creatures strewn helplessly below us on our brief sojourn through what is, for me, a foreign land. I doubt they would reciprocate, but that’s another photo-essay. Mostly I will wonder. A wonderment unanswered for the most part, like a brief glimpse captured forever but never completely revealed: A smoking hand, trapped by a red door, an altercation, average in it’s implacable frustration, and that blatant performance of public joy, an irrepressibly tender humanity exposed by 2 copulating skeletons.

    That was quite ride, thanks Mr. Webster.

  25. Whichever way you cut this it is still always going to be just a bunch of very ordinary grab shots from the top of a bus. The idea behind it far outweighs its execution.

  26. “a bunch of very ordinary grab shots”
    Maybe and what’s wrong with grab shots? What makes the difference between a brilliant grab shot and a ordinary grab shot? Or does a brilliant grab shot stop being a grab shot and just becomes brilliant even though deep down we realize it is still a grab shot. As far as I’m concerned Henri Cartier made lots of grab shots many brilliant but still grab shots, machine gunning the street with his camera and every so often getting something amazing. The Matisse portraits and a couple of other portraits were the only images he seemed to have totally planned as he was grovelled on Matisse’s studio floor.

  27. C’mon John, your comment reminds my of the old “how many photographers does it take to change a lightbulb?..one to change the bulb and several watching saying “no big deal, I could’a done that”.

    That is true, many of us could have shot this,..but didn’t. It is original, entertaining, makes an interesting statement, and gives food for thought. I say bravo Michael.

  28. MICHAEL – congratulations for being published here on BURN. It is so well deserved!

    It took me a good while to comment on your essay, and I’ve surely watched it 20 or 30 times now. I really like this concept a lot. The fab opening shot already carries a lot of the story, and there are several pictures in your essay that stayed with me for a good while. As a visual visitor, in almost every essay you get to that point when you wonder why a certain picture was included (or what the missing link in your own head might be not to understand…). That’s what happened to me with some of the pictures in your essay. Until I find out, I strongly believe that it would be a shame if you did not get back on that bus every single rainy day of the next say six months.
    Again, I love what I see here. Hope to talk with you about this one soon – in person” ;-)
    All the best from over here, Dominik.

  29. Since yesterday I was catching up on old comments, thought I might as well check in here, too. Regarding the “grab shot” questions, although there are a few, most of the shots in this essay were thought out over a number of years. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m an obsessive walker and have walked pretty much the entire bus route and surrounding areas many times, so I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to photograph. The grab shots were just icing, as they say. It’s okay if you don’t like the project, but for the most part the photos weren’t just haphazard.

    And as general photographic advice, that’s not a bad good way to approach projects: Research, research, research, planning, planning, planning, then grab the unexpected opportunities as you can…

    Speaking of Gladdy though, is he okay? I now realize he’s been missing from comments for a while now. I hope you’re well, John.

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