Top of the Rock

I was walking around Rockefeller Center over the weekend when a ticket vendor came up to me and asked whether I had been up to the Top of the Rock before. I hadn’t. Would I be interested in a $5 discount? I would. A major reason why I hadn’t been up to the Center’s observation platforms before was because the face value of the ticket was a hefty $17, and while everything in New York is expensive, $17 goes a long way towards other city pleasures as well, like a decent meal, for instance.

Anyway, the vendor was offering me $5 off ($5 is not what it used to be; most magazines on the newsstand now cost easily more than that, but it will still buy you a copy of The New Yorker), so why not finally go up for a “look see.” Plus, he buttered me up by claiming that he could tell I was a New Yorker, not a regular tourist, since I insouciantly had my hands in my pockets (despite the fact that I had a camera bag and a post-World War II era camera slung around my neck). Well, actually, he didn’t say, “insouciantly.” He said that I looked “cool and all,” or something like that. Was there a long wait, I asked? No, he said. That sealed the deal.

I can safely say that the Top of the Rock (as Rock Center calls its observation area) smokes the Empire State Building’s observation deck. Anyone who has been up to the Empire State Building before knows that the hour-plus-long process for going up to the top feels like a cattle call. At Rock Center, after a quick security check, you’re whisked within minutes to the first observation deck. Along the way the staff actually greets you from where they’ve been strategically placed at each elevator, escalator or turn of the hall to guide you.

The day was overcast, so I didn’t get the great shadows that I saw during my visit to the deck of the Empire State Building, but getting a chance to look over the top of Manhattan seems certainly to always be a treat. A guard I chatted up told me that part of the observation area used to be an office for boxing promoter Don King, while the rest of it had been used as storage for the Rainbow Room! In between sheltering himself in a doorway from the brisk cold, an event photographer at the top asked visitors who had forgotten their camera if they wanted their pictures taken, and he was well placed when a young man dropped to his knee to propose to his girlfriend. I snapped two images too, not anymore than that, though. I didn’t want to encroach on the event photographer’s space, plus isn’t it a little unbecoming to be in paparazzo mode when a young couple is getting engaged…?

***

I’m not crazy about the photos I’ve been taking with my Zorki and its collapsible Industar 22 lens. I’m not sure if the shutter speeds are slow or the diaphragm settings off, but both rolls that I’ve run through it so far have been overexposed. I’ll probably take my Fed 2 for my next spin instead, since the first  roll I ran through that camera came out better.

***

These little excursions remind me that I don’t get around the city enough. Having a newborn son contributes to that, of course, but you have to take advantage when you live in one of the most photographed cities in the world.

For inspiration, I’ve recently been looking through the New York photographs of Andreas Feininger and Berenice Abbott. (Can’t forget to mention Andre Kertesz, who will always be one of my favorite photographers of New York scenes.) Abbott had some of her photos collected in a book called New York in the Thirties, while Feininger did a follow up called New York in the Forties. The drab print quality does not do any justice to their images, but it’s still useful to look and see what subject matter captured their attention. Abbott, who had a pilot’s license and adventurist spirit, had somewhat of a daredevil reputation. She was known to often crawl out on the gargoyles of the Chrysler Building, where she had an office. The son of painter Lyonel Feininger, Andreas Feininger studied as an architect under Le Corbusier. You can see the focus on geometrical lines and shapes in his photographs. Travis Ruse shows how you can take your daily mundane commute, and convert it into photographic opportunity. (Photoshopsupport interviewed Travis last year.) Travis’ project is very different from Walker Evans’ famed Many are Called project, where Evans (supposedly) surreptiously took photos of subway goers with a Contax camera.

It is always a scary moment when I raise my camera to take a stranger’s photograph. I seldom ask for permission. A friend once said, “To seek permission is to seek denial.” If I stopped to talk to the subject before I made the photo, the moment that I was drawn to would be gone. My policy is that if I take someone’s photo and they express their displeasure then I will not post the image. That has never happened. I also feel that since the intent of this project is to celebrate the subway commuter no one would be offended by the images. I’m trying to tell a story, our story. What it’s like to live in NYC in 2006 and commute on the subway. I also carry business cards with the website address to hand out. I’ve gotten some great feedback that way.

Given how many hours of my own day are devoted to trains and buses, it’s a good lesson on how good photographers can pull out moments from the most mundane periods of daily life.

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