Back in 1986 when I was a high school senior in Dallas, Texas, I had a vague thought of driving around town at night and photographing the funky neon signs that towered over so many of the city’s corner shopping malls. Even then I had the sense that they weren’t long for the world and that as a 35mm photographer, I actually had the means of preserving their memory.
But high school was a pretty busy time and I never got around to it.
Decades later, I’ve fallen back in love with 35mm photography. Now I live in New York City, which isn’t particularly known for suburban shopping malls with funky neon signs. But I’m more conscious than ever of the fleeting nature of our surroundings, and I’ve developed a habit of carrying a camera whenever I’m running errands in the city and shooting images of any bit of the landscape that catches my eye.
I’ve shot plenty of photos of some of the city’s biggest landmarks, with a special emphasis on the Empire State Building, probably my favorite building in the city. But other shots feel like my modern day version of the Dallas neon sign project I never started — such as photos of graffiti or old painted company signs on the sides of buildings that might be gone in another decade or two.
Here are some my favorite shots of the year with a few thoughts. I hope you’ll enjoy them, and I’ll be thrilled if they inspire you to take a little time to document your own surroundings.
In my first month of shooting film again, I shot this image with a Canon FTb, a Canon FD 50mm f1.8, and a yellow filter on Ilford HP5 400. This remains one of my favorite images I’ve shot all year. I never used filters in high school and college, so it was a revelation that I could pull so much more detail out of the sky with a yellow filter. But mostly I just love the way the framing and light work here. In film school at NYU in the 1990s, our cinematography teachers taught us to use light to direct the eye within the frame. I think this photo achieves that. For a fleeting moment, the sun glanced off of the Empire State Building in a lovely way, making it pop in the middle of these dark canyons of tall buildings. I also remember being dazzled by that famous shot in Rosemary’s Baby in which the camera ramps up the subliminal tension by not quite showing all of Mia Farrow through the doorway. Similarly, I love the way the framing here leaves the Empire State Building partly hidden by buildings in the foreground. It’s not a horror movie tension like Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s a bit of drama that pulls me in.
I shot this photo with a Canon FTb and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.4 lens on a 20 year old roll of Kodak High Definition 400 ASA film. It’s just a shot of Canal Street. But I freaking love it. The frame feels just right to me. I spent so many years shooting thousands of images with a 50mm lens; my eye just knows how to frame things with that focal length, and it feels so good. I also love the way this expired film renders the light, especially on the side of the building in the middle of the frame. It’s so crisp and cool and fresh. And the film holds the colors together in a special way, as if the entire scene were art directed. There’s a coolness to the sky and buildings that lets the red details of the signs and the Chinese medallion pop in a subtle, lovely way. Again, a simple image, but it makes me happy every time I look at it.
Boris Frumin, one of my brilliant NYU directing professors, used to list things that were cinematic, including flags and water and smoke. I’d absolutely add steam to the list, and was thrilled to find this great cloud rising from a grate in the Village this March. I shot this on Ilford HP5 with my old high school Canon New F-1 (newly repaired!) and, if I remember correctly, my mom’s old Canon FD 28mm f2.8.
New York City just screams for vertical shots. I was pretty thrilled with this angle on one of the entrances to Grand Central Terminal. The symmetry of the buildings is offset in a pleasing way by the car on the bottom left and the light reflections on the upper right. Just feels right to my eye. Shot on a Nikon FG with a Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
Another vertical shot that feels very similar to the Grand Central image. This is that fantastic United States Post Office building on Canal Street, but it felt like it wanted to be framed to emphasize the buildings overhead and that lovely shaft of angled light. Shot with a Canon A-1 and a 50mm Canon lens on Kentmere 100. This image really works because of the light. It’s creating the angle on the building on the right that makes the frame work in an interesting way, and it’s making the flag pop out from the foreground.
One of my ongoing themes has been the sky between buildings in New York City. I just can’t get enough of the shape the buildings make of the sky, and this image kind of epitomizes that interest. Shot on a Nikon FG with a Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
This is my NYC equivalent of my never-begun Dallas neon sign project — shooting old painted signs on the sides of buildings. I love everything about these old signs — the textures, the way the paint has weathered, the glorious old fonts, the brand names and products advertised. An added bonus is the old school water tower on the building. I love it when I shoot a photo that at first glance you think might be decades old. Shot with a Canon AT-1 with a Canon FD 135mm f3.5 on Arista Ultra EDU 400.
I shot very little color film back in the day. I just loved black and white and had the most control over its look since we had a small darkroom and I could make prints on my own. So I’m still figuring out what I’m looking for when I shoot color film these days. This image felt like it worked — with lovely detail and color in the sky while maintaining detail in the buildings. Shot with a Canon AT-1 and a Canon nFD 24mm f2.8 on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200.
Another color shot that felt good. If the previous shot was all blues, this one’s all reds, and I dig it. Shot with a Bell & Howell FD35 and a B&H/Canon FD 50mm f1.4 on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200. Back in the day, the widest lens I had was a Canon FD 28mm, so this 24mm feels considerably more funky and dramatic to me, but I think the Ghostbusters building earns the treatment.
Just an absolutely everyday image of the IFC Theater in the West Village. But in five, ten, or twenty years, this might become a treasured record of the way things were. I’m trying to shoot lots of photos like these, and I feel good every time I get a keeper. Shot with a Canon A-1 with a Canon nFD 50mm f1.8 on Kentmere 100.