Too Cold To Wander

December 14th, 2009 § 0 comments

Amsterdam’s Conclusion
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The late arrival of winter seems to have brought with it more apprehension than appreciation. For those of us who live in places that have a winter regardless of when it chooses to show up, have forebodingly suspected that its late arrival this year suggests a late spring and a late summer next year. The mild temperatures, however, dropping into the 30s and 40s only in past few weeks, have also been wonderful. New Yorkers have been strolling the waterfronts around town with a leisure and enjoyment not normally possible in the post-fall months. A few weeks ago my sister-in-law and I were wandering Central Park in sunshine and dining outdoors. Taking advantage of the weather and my sparse free time, I have been completing one of the projects I began this summer, to document the entire length of Amsterdam Ave. All told it took a month of Sunday’s to cover roughly 149 city blocks. The last leg of the project was completed just in time, as my hands lost feeling and circulation it seemed unacceptable to let the last section of the shoot roll over into 2010.

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I have discussed the initial idea for the walk before, but what turned out to be interesting was the experience of walking through all the different neighborhoods the avenue forced me into. Upwards from 100th St., the section of the walk that brought me to the bottom of Harlem at 125th, walked me past more churches that I could keep track of. From the fantastically beautiful St. John the Divine to some obscurely placed, brightly painted place of festivity, the diversity of churches made me realize this project is about juxtapositions. What caught my eye was the out of place, the surreal, the ordinary made fantastic—like the PS schools I passed by with their outrageous murals, clever design, or appalling deterioration. The closer I look the more jumbled neighborhoods seem to be. It is the older, poorer neighborhoods that have the surprising and beautiful architecture, even while the streets are filled with lingering characters and windy trash. It is disturbing and captivating, like a Disney movie, to see block by block how Columbia is eating the edges of Harlem, how its students have brought gentrification with them. The variety is what kept the walk interesting, like a tiny metaphor for new york city itself, the layers of stratification seemed visible if only you pried hard enough.

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Photographing a busy avenue like Amsterdam made it difficult to exclude pedestrians from the images, and many shots involved a good deal of stalling as people passed through. Other times pedestrians proved to be necessary additions, which seemed to involve more stalling as I waited for the right moment to catch them at unawares. At all times it was impossible to hide my overall intent of photographing, and those that walked by and those caught in the frame stared or ignored me in an identical manner. Uncomfortable in many of the neighborhoods I walked through, standing out by my appearance and often my race, and with my SLR unfortunately to cumbersome to hide, being obviously observed certainly did not put me any more at ease. Of all the buildings and locations I indiscreetly photographed I was still amused by the places that got me in trouble—a dirty wall someplace, a scaffold laden church—and one woman even followed me down a street because she mistakenly thought the police were calling to me. People, whether you photograph them or not, are always a challenge, and in new york city a location without people seems impossible to come by.

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It was hard to stay on target as I completed this project, as intended the walk showed me parks, buildings, streets, and bridges I had no knowledge of before, and at times I had to stop myself half way down another street, promising to save it for another time and a different project. With the length of Amsterdam shot and sitting on my desktop in four separate folders, I have certainly set up the task of editing out a narrative of the avenue. It seems best to give myself a reasonable number of pages and go from there.

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