Suzanne Stein walks the streets of New York City, investigating New Yorker Life through intimate street photography and powerful writing. Follow Suzanne on Instagram and visit her wildly popular first blog with us: Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg.
When I Was a Street Photographer – Suzanne Stein
I know someday I’m going to be desperately sentimental about the long hours I spend every day walking the streets of New York City. I often wonder if I will live long enough to become an elderly woman, occasionally looking over my images, and miss these often tedious days with an intensity I cannot yet imagine. Occasionally I feel a sense of dread when I consider the perfect certainty, the virtual guarantee that someone I’ve met on the street and photographed extensively passes away. I don’t know if I will be able to glide through a loss so substantial. I consider the odds of avoiding assault or other violence directed at me as a lone female constantly outdoors with expensive camera equipment and try to calculate how many lives I have left as an active and productive street photographer, having been very lucky most days. I have not always been fortunate, though, and my physically damaged right eye and two concussions from assaults on the streets have removed some of my naïve perceptions that nothing bad could ever happen to me… My perception of that sense of personal specialness we all have has evolved, and I understand that the inviolate belief that we all possess for a time in our lives that says no true harm will ever befall us is a falsehood.
I think about how many steps I take every day—between 14,000 and 23,000 without fail— and understand that my stamina and agility will change over time, that I must actively preserve my joints, tendons and that the delicate balance between overwork and injury must be cautiously observed.
On exceedingly rare occasions I will make a picture very close to home. I have gotten some great images within a few blocks of my apartment, but generally, that is not the case. Many many days I am into the sixth mile of my daily promenade through the city before I create anything that doesn’t scream for immediate deletion. I go through my SD card at the day’s end and wonder what I was thinking about when I stood for thirty minutes in a particular spot, utterly convinced in the moment that a brilliantly conceived image was imminent, only to see hours later upon review that I must have been hallucinating.
Street photographer dresses to blend in
I adore every moment. Every memory, along with every memory of miscalculation and false starts is the knowledge that I am hugely privileged to be able to do what I do. I don’t always look the way most women do when they present themselves to the world because I dress to blend in, and have occasionally been mistaken for homeless myself, and offered money by a kind passerby. That makes me happy because it means that I don’t present in a way that would indicate those outward signs of privilege that I detest and avoid whenever possible.
Street photography in post-pandemic New York City
New York City has changed throughout the pandemic. It can be very difficult to consistently create engaging images in this Instagram age with all its pressures to constantly produce images that please. I have turned the other way in some respects, and have developed a commitment to creating art that is at times in defiance of what I see that gains traction with general audiences. I see this newly minted, pandemic-era New York City as a pallet with fewer hues, but with much more subtle gradations of color than used to be present. These changes in availability of choice and subtlety of hue create a necessity for more thought and consideration from a photographer of life. Life becomes art every day, and the ability to discern great art must be refined. Popular representation is something I ignore because I want to preserve my personal vision without compromise. New York City has always offered artists a place of refuge, but in the days of social media tyranny, the creation of highly individualistic art has become more and more difficult, especially because New York City is burdened and beleaguered by false perceptions, created by too many images that bolster a myth that approaches propaganda, and not at all the city that I see every minute of the days that I spend incessantly walking and observing and photographing. Observation is key, and must always override the urge to create a fantasy image calculated to garner likes and comments on social media.
Because this great city is yet again undergoing a metamorphosis that has yet to be determined, photographing this unruly process is an unimaginable joy. A joy that is sometimes marred by unexpected confrontations on the street, occasional blood and violence, and long days spent seeking the magic that never materializes.
Sometimes I think that the magic is in fact always present and that my ability to perceive has to be fluid and forever malleable.
I am willing to risk everything in pursuit of magic, for as long as I am physically and emotionally able in this novel, strangely captivating incarnation of New York City.