Frank Van Riper on Photography
Picturing New York One Face at a Time
By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
What happens when street photography meets formal portraiture?
If the setting is New York City -- 42nd and Broadway, to be exact -- and if the photographer is Neil Selkirk, a transplanted New Yorker by way of England -- the result is "1,000 on 42nd Street" [PowerHouse Books, $35], one of the most arresting, beautiful, and wonderfully bizarre, books of photographs I've ever seen.
There is a sameness, and uniqueness, about the human face, which of course is why artists have been fascinated with it for millennia. Neil Selkirk, a commercial shooter who has traveled the world for big-ticket corporate clients, but whose first love is portraiture, is one such artist. I first met him more than 15 years ago at the Maine Photographic Workshops, where he taught a master class in location lighting. He taught me a ton about lighting, but he also gave me a terrific insight into how to work with people and to make great pictures of them.
One lesson was to work fast -- or at least to seem to work fast. If a corporate suit would bluster into a portrait session, saying, "I can only give you 15 minutes," Neil would usually shoot the job in 10. But that was because he had gotten to the site at least an hour before, set and checked his lights, made Polaroid test shots using a stand-in, and thus gotten ready for the bigwig long before he showed up.
Another lesson was to be flexible. "If the conditions are perfect, just make the picture," he used to say, the corollary being, if conditions were not perfect, make them so.
As the years passed and our friendship grew (I took two more lighting classes from him in Maine and have stayed in touch over the years), I realized there was one area on which Neil and I probably would never agree: the juxtaposition of words and photographs.
The writer in me loved twinning text with my pictures. The photographer in Neil felt that the picture "is what it is" and that, in most cases, text was unnecessary, if not outright harmful. His thesis was that accompanying words could wind up keeping the viewer from bringing his or her own experience to the interpretation of an image.
I still love twinning words with images. But I have to admit I was surprised at how wonderfully successful Neil's book is -- a virtually wordless gallery of diverse faces coming at you in what feels like a small, pleasingly hefty telephone book, designed by award-winning art director Yolanda Cuomo.
And, in a sense, that is what this is: a visual directory of a self-selected group of people who decided on two days in 1998 to take part in a spontaneous celebration of New York and of themselves.
"The moment it started happening, people wanted to be part of it," Neil recalled. "There was tremendous enthusiasm in the mob."
"This was a group of people who, when they got up and got dressed that morning, had no intention of being photographed [but] they opted to accept the opportunity…. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever been a part of …a real celebration."
In one sense, "1,000 on 42nd Street" grew out of necessity. When the 42nd Street Development Project faced the prospect of having one of the world's best-known crossroads cloaked in scaffolding and fencing, the late Tibor Kalman, whom Neil called "the architectural and cultural guru" of the Project, had an idea. "He proposed that the fences be covered with poster size portraits of the denizens of Times Square, whomever they proved to be, as a way of giving the sidewalks back to the people who used them."
"He asked me to take the photographs, and the dates were set: a Saturday and a Tuesday at the beginning of March, 1998."
The concept was fine. But what about the execution? Here came Neil's penchant for preparation. Working with a staff of about a dozen people, especially his chief assistant for the shoot, Patrick Farrell, Neil set up an informal portrait studio in the doorway of the old Times Square Theatre. Wanting to create a uniform white background, he set up a sheet of white Plexiglas, a few feet in front of which was a "frame" made of lightstands and aluminum poles. Subjects would position themselves in the frame (standing on one or two wooden boxes, as their height dictated) and when Neil shot, he would simultaneously trigger four Dynalite strobe heads, aimed to shoot through the Plexi from behind at roughly two and one half stops hotter than the ambient light exposure for the subject, thereby creating the uniformly white background.
In most cases, Neil said, "the subjects were unaware of any lights at all because [they] were completely behind them." [When it became too dark to work by natural light, a single lamp above the camera was used to light the subjects.]
"At 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, March 7, we opened for business." At first passersby paused to see what was going on. A few stepped up to the frame and had their picture taken. "Suddenly there was a line, then a crowd." From then on it was a breeze, or as breezy as it can get when you shoot 200 rolls of film within two hectic days. [nb: the film used was Fujichrome Provia, rated at 64; the camera was a Nikon F4 with an autofocus 50mm f/1.4 lens.]
The book itself contains 300 portraits, including such well-known passersby as designer Oscar de la Renta, writer Tama Janowitz, and singer Bobby Short. But Yo Cuomo's fold-out cover, calling to mind the great Walker Evans Photo of a Photo Studio, shows all one thousand.
Was all of the book totally spontaneous? Well, yes and no, Neil admitted. He recalled that 24 hours before the first shoot, nobody knew if anyone would show up, or want to pose. A few calls to a few PR agents -- promising that there were billboards in the offing -- produced a smattering of celebs, who are scattered through the book along with all the regular folks.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.
The cover of Neil Selkirk's book, "1,000 on 42nd Street," designed by Yolanda Cuomo.
A portrait of a New Yorker named Louis, just one out of the thousand portraits found in "1,000 on 42nd Street."
Street scene of New Yorkers and the billboards of Neil's work during the Times Square construction.
Photographer Neil Selkirk during his marathon 1998 portrait-shoot documenting everyday New Yorkers, tourists and celebs who were strolling through the crossroads of the world.
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