(more details later, as time permits)
I’m writing these notes about halfway through the 2014 World Cup, and I can’t help wondering if anyone will have the slightest interest in seeing photos about a bunch of guys running around the streets of New York as they hit a small pink rubber ball with what looks like a broomstick. Indeed, the Wikipedia article on stickball (which you can find at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stickball ) tells us that
"Stickball is a street game related to baseball, usually formed as a pick-up game played in large cities in the Northeastern United States, especially New York City and Philadelphia. The equipment consists of a broom handle and a rubber ball, typically a spaldeen, pensy pinky, high bouncer or tennis ball. The rules come from baseball and are modified to fit the situation, for example, a manhole cover may be used as a base, or buildings for foul lines. The game is a variation of stick and ball games dating back to at least the 1750s. This game was widely popular among youths growing up from the 20th century until the 1980s."
So, what I was photographing here was definitely not soccer; nor was it the more “traditional” American sport of baseball … and definitely not (American-style) football either. It’s a game of its own, though the particular game that I happened to watch and photograph was a variation typically referred to as “fungo” — where the batter tosses the ball into the air and hits it on the way down, or after one or more bounces.
Like many of the other really, really good days on my 1+ years of photo-walking in NYC, today’s experience was completely unexpected. I was trudging along 109th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — and shortly after walking through a tunnel that supports the overhead train tracks carrying MetroNorth trains (and Amtrak/Acela, too, I guess) up and down Park Avenue to the final stopping point in Grand Central — I found myself at a corner that has come to be known as the “Stickball Hall of Fame Place,” at 109th Street and Third Avenue. Two different stickball games were underway, but I was reasonably safe as long as I stayed on the sidewalks. (If you’re interested in the Stickball Hall of Fame, check out this web site: northattan.com/2013/10/07/keeping-a-tradition-alive-in-ea… )
As I’ve learned, you can never tell when unexpected occasions like this will happen — and they may indeed happen only once a year. Most days out on the street with my camera are relatively blah; and many (like most of Manhattan’s west side, especially the area from 57th Street down to 14th Street) are frustratingly unproductive. There are a few good days, and a few good shots — but a concentrated burst like today happens only on rare occasions …
Thus, when such occasions do occur, it’s important to exploit them for every bit they’re worth. Thankfully I realized that today — and decided that I’d be happy to stay on that one street (109th, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue) for the entire afternoon. In particular, I made no effort whatsoever to leave quickly in order to walk 108th Street, too; after all, it will be there tomorrow (and the next day, and the day after that), whereas the photo opportunity may never come back again.
Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to meet some of the stickball players, chat with them, learn about their friends and relatives (several told me of starting to play the game with their own fathers, many years earlier) and offer to send them some photos (which, thus far, nobody has done). Maybe one of the reasons that I have not gotten involved with many NYC people on the street before is that I really wasn’t particularly interested in what they were doing, and there was no obvious way they could continue doing what they were doing without my being an obvious intrusion. Not so today …
In addition to the still photos, I took about a dozen video clips, though I didn’t actually think of doing so until roughly halfway through the photo episode. But in retrospect, it should have been obvious: it’s a sports-game, so it depend on motion; and the yelling, shouting, and overall noise is a very important part of the experience, too. So I finally started shooting short 10-20 second clips when each of the batters was about to wallop the ball, and then run on to first base …
I was tempted to go back to watch the game again next weekend, weather permitting; but I already had other commitments for those days, so it didn’t happen. Maybe 2 weeks from now, or 2 months … or whenever.
This set of photos is based on a very simple concept: walk every block of Manhattan with a camera, and see what happens. To avoid missing anything, walk both sides of the street.
That’s all there is to it …
Of course, if you wanted to be more ambitious, you could also walk the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. But that’s more than I’m willing to commit to at this point, and I’ll leave the remaining boroughs of New York City to other, more adventurous photographers.
Oh, actually, there’s one more small detail: leave the photos alone for a month — unedited, untouched, and unviewed. By the time I actually focus on the first of these "every-block" photos, I will have taken more than 8,000 images on the nearby streets of the Upper West Side — plus another several thousand in Rome, Coney Island, and the various spots in NYC where I traditionally take photos. So I don’t expect to be emotionally attached to any of the "every-block" photos, and hope that I’ll be able to make an objective selection of the ones worth looking at.
As for the criteria that I’ve used to select the small subset of every-block photos that get uploaded to Flickr: there are three. First, I’ll upload any photo that I think is "great," and where I hope the reaction of my Flickr-friends will be, "I have no idea when or where that photo was taken, but it’s really a terrific picture!"
A second criterion has to do with place, and the third involves time. I’m hoping that I’ll take some photos that clearly say, "This is New York!" to anyone who looks at it. Obviously, certain landscape icons like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty would satisfy that criterion; but I’m hoping that I’ll find other, more unexpected examples. I hope that I’ll be able to take some shots that will make a "local" viewer say, "Well, even if that’s not recognizable to someone from another part of the country, or another part of the world, I know that that’s New York!" And there might be some photos where a "non-local" viewer might say, "I had no idea that there was anyplace in New York City that was so interesting/beautiful/ugly/spectacular."
As for the sense of time: I remember wandering around my neighborhood in 2005, photographing various shops, stores, restaurants, and business establishments — and then casually looking at the photos about five years later, and being stunned by how much had changed. Little by little, store by store, day by day, things change … and when you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s even more amazing to go back and look at the photos you took thirty or forty years ago, and ask yourself, "Was it really like that back then? Seriously, did people really wear bell-bottom jeans?"
So, with the expectation that I’ll be looking at these every-block photos five or ten years from now (and maybe you will be, too), I’m going to be doing my best to capture scenes that convey the sense that they were taken in the year 2013 … or at least sometime in the decade of the 2010’s (I have no idea what we’re calling this decade yet). Or maybe they’ll just say to us, "This is what it was like a dozen years after 9-11".
Movie posters are a trivial example of such a time-specific image; I’ve already taken a bunch, and I don’t know if I’ll ultimately decide that they’re worth uploading. Women’s fashion/styles are another obvious example of a time-specific phenomenon; and even though I’m definitely not a fashion expert, I suspected that I’ll be able to look at some images ten years from now and mutter to myself, "Did we really wear shirts like that? Did women really wear those weird skirts that are short in the front, and long in the back? Did everyone in New York have a tattoo?"
Another example: I’m fascinated by the interactions that people have with their cellphones out on the street. It seems that everyone has one, which certainly wasn’t true a decade ago; and it seems that everyone walks down the street with their eyes and their entire conscious attention riveted on this little box-like gadget, utterly oblivious about anything else that might be going on (among other things, that makes it very easy for me to photograph them without their even noticing, particularly if they’ve also got earphones so they can listen to music or carry on a phone conversation). But I can’t help wondering whether this kind of social behavior will seem bizarre a decade from now … especially if our cellphones have become so miniaturized that they’re incorporated into the glasses we wear, or implanted directly into our eyeballs.
Oh, one last thing: I’ve created a customized Google Map to show the precise details of each day’s photo-walk. I’ll be updating it each day, and the most recent part of my every-block journey will be marked in red, to differentiate it from all of the older segments of the journey, which will be shown in blue. You can see the map, and peek at it each day to see where I’ve been, by clicking on this link
If you have any suggestions about places that I should definitely visit to get some good photos, or if you’d like me to photograph you in your little corner of New York City, please let me know. You can send me a Flickr-mail message, or you can email me directly at ed-at-yourdon-dot-com
Stay tuned as the photo-walk continues, block by block …
Tagged: , New York , everyblock , Manhattan , stickball , Upper East Side , Streets of New York