New York City is many special things to different people. For some it’s museums, for others the New York Public Library. For some it’s performances at Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater or any number of Broadway plays and musicals. For others it is the world-famous landmarks: Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or thousands of other places, too many to mention here.
But New York City is really about one other thing: people.
Photographer Brandon Stanton has captured this in Humans of New York, his debut book… it has skyrocketed on the various book charts since its publication in October 2013, and for good reason. Based on his HONY blog, which now has over two million followers and fans, this book is a visual delight of about 400 photos of the people that he has encountered in his travels across the five boroughs that make up New York City. His people images make a gorgeous, sometimes funny, truly genuine, and often moving compilation of photos that capture the spirit of the city through its diverse people in often inspiring ways.
Brandon Stanton did not start his career with the goal of becoming a photographer, as he explains in the introduction of this book. He noted that while working as a bond trader in Chicago, he spent his weekends with a camera that he had acquired in 2010, and that photography "felt like a treasure hunt." After losing his job as a trader, he traveled to various American cities, but his first impressions of NYC were unforgettable, as he notes in the intro:
"I remember the moment my bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel and I saw the city for the first time. The sidewalks were covered with people. The buildings were impressive, but what struck me most were the people. There were tons of them. And they all seemed to be in a hurry. That night, I created a photo album for my New York photos. I called it ‘People of New York.’"
From that simple beginning, the rest became photographic history; from his early attempts at a Web page, he discovered social media in the form of Facebook and Tumbler. Fans of his images reacted, and soon became regular followers. At first it was hundreds, then thousands, and zooming forwards to today, his Facebook page has over two million loyal followers, and hundreds commenting on his images daily, with many of those sharing his people photos to their own pages. Each of these is a capsule of a moment in time.
On these pages we see everyday people as encountered by many of us on the New York streets; subway images, people in Central Park, in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, by the Strand Book Store in Downtown Manhattan, at the Brooklyn Museum and at Manhattan’s iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art. We see a young well-dressed girl in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, a well-dressed older woman at the Waldorf-Astoria, people carrying boxes of pizza as gifts for the firefighters (the owner refused payment), people at Union Square on 14th Street, and a Marine recruiter in uniform on the street in Downtown Manhattan. Some are camera shy, while others are striking a pose.
And there are some that stand out, strikingly so. We see the full-page view of the model in her black and white striped evening gown at Lincoln Center, the chess players at Washington Square Park, people with their pets, the Sikh gentleman whose gentle smile is hidden behind his iconic mustache and beard, and the two page image of two ballet students captured in a lunchtime pose, standing in front of a steam grate in Tribeca. It is this same image that has served as the iconic avatar on HONY’s Facebook page.
There are people at play, at work, sleeping on benches in parks, dancing, eating, kissing, hugging, and frolicking in the water gushing from fire hydrants. We find people of all ethnic backgrounds, and of all ages, from teenagers to folks in their nineties, to children. There are many superb images of children here, and they must captivate Stanton, as it is said that he will be publishing a children’s book, "Little Humans" in 2014.
There are captions, though they are limited and to the point. Maybe because Stanton is upbeat and not condescending, so his captions never stereotype, even when he photographs people that close-minded individuals might think of as "sketchy" or strange. His book radiates his own natural curiosity, along with diversity, appreciation and respect for the people that he photographs. For open-minded people watchers, this book is a treasure.
It’s difficult to classify this as a traditional coffee table photo book, if just by size alone. My copy is 304-page hardcover first edition printed in the U.S. with a vellum cover, and published by St. Martin’s Press on October 15th, 2013. It measures 9.2 x 7.3 x 1 inches, which is hardly a coffee table book like another favorite, The New York Times Magazine Photographs by Kathleen Ryan. That Aperture edition measures 12.2 x 10.5 x 1.8 inches, a good bit larger.
On a personal and highly subjective basis, I rank Brandon Stanton’s book right up there with Robert Frank’s The Americans, a powerful book in post-WWII American photography. First published in 1959, his black and white photos were remarkable for their distanced view of both high and low strata of American society of the time. In contrast to Stanton’s book, there is an element of sadness, even despair, in some of the images, but there is joy as well.
To many, New Yorkers are standoffish, cold and impersonal. For those of us who have spent time on the streets here, this is generally not so, and as a relative newcomer to the city, Brandon Stanton has proven that to be a myth. I am reminded of this quote that was written down when it was passed on by a friend:
"My favorite thing about New York is the people, because I think they’re misunderstood. I don’t think people realize how kind New York people are."
~ Bill Murray, Moviefone interview, April 27th, 2010
What makes Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York so different is that it is not about high-profile celebrities. It features people who aren’t normally documented, who one might find anywhere on the New York streets if one just looks. It’s a book that I have already gifted to some special friends, ones who also enjoy real people in everyday settings. It’s not just a personal favorite, but one that may well go down in books of NYC street photography as a landmark chronicle of this era. Only time will tell.
• Note: Portions of this review originally appeared on Amazon.com on January 2nd, 2014