New York Stories

New York Stories – and the people who tell them… and the photographer who reports them

Review of Humans of New York: Stories

A photo-book by Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York: Stories front coverBrowsing the photo-books in a bookshop recently, looking for a birthday present, I came across this volume. I picked it up and leafed through it and thought it very attractive, but not quite what I was looking for as a present. I also thought it was rather expensive, but it stuck in my mind.

A few days later I found it again, in another shop, and picked it up and carried on leafing through it. The layout and quality of the book is attractive and the photos are portraits of interesting looking people. Best of all, attached to each photo are stories about the people portrayed. But, no, I still thought it was too expensive.

New York Stories: book coverThen I came across it again, and I decided, OK, by the rule of threes I am obliged to buy this book. What the hell, it’s only money. And indeed it was only money – but now it’s a big, beautiful book of photographs and stories on my bookshelf. A book it took me four days to read even though it’s a photo-book. (I rationed myself; I took it slowly.)

10,000 people

According to his website, Brandon Stanton – the author and photographer – moved to New York in 2010 with the intention of becoming a portrait photographer. He set himself the task of photographing 10,000 people. Apparently he started by just taking the photos for himself and then branched out into sharing them on Facebook. When people responded favourably, he took it a step further and set up his website and started posting in various other social media outlets. (He now has several million followers on Instagram alone.)

After a time he started asking the people he was photographing for quotes to caption their portraits, and went the further step and began to interview them. Humans of New York: Stories is his second volume. The first was just Humans of New York. This is what he writes in his introduction.

Humans of New York did not result from a flash of inspiration. Instead, it grew from five years of experimenting, tinkering, and messing up… The first Humans of New York book… included some quotes and stories, but largely it represented the photographic origins of HONY. It provided an exhaustive visual catalogue of life on the streets of the city. But soon after it went to print, it became obvious that another book was waiting to be made – one that includes the in-depth storytelling that the blog is known for today. This is that book.

New York stories

It is a wonderful book: 428 pages of photographs and stories. Some of them pithy one-liners…

New York Stories: Snap it quick“You’d better snap it quick because I’m jumping on the first thing that comes down this track.”

“I’m late for a show. You can try to take my photo while I hail a cab.”

“I’m trying to write a book based on myself, but I keep changing.”

“I started taking heroin to get away from the draft, then I joined the army to get away from the heroin.”

New York Stories: Not a thing about me“You’re not find out a thing about me”

“Our agents set us up.”

“I’m a science writer. I like anything complicated.”

“I shouldn’t have moved in with him just because I was lonely.”

Others are longer pieces – some of them linked to 2 or more photographs.

New York Stories: It just happened“I wasn’t planning on it happening. It just happened. I don’t know what to say. I lost about 10 or 15 pounds during the affair, just from the stress. The longer it went on, the more the other woman wanted to control me – that’s how they always get. She wanted more and more of me as time went on: ‘Come over,’ ‘Let’s do this,’ ‘Let’s do that.’ It got more and more difficult to hide. I’d been with my wife since we were 16, so she knew something was up. One day she just straight-up asked me, and I said: ‘Yes.’ It was almost a relief. There was crying, screaming, yelling. All my shit went out on the lawn. Then it was back in the house. Then it was out on the lawn again. But we went to therapy and we got over it, and she forgave me. I think.”

Dialogue

Sometimes there are dialogues between the photographer and his subject:

“Studying the brain is like working in a toy store. Nothing could be more fucking fun.”
“What do you think is the greatest weakness of the brain?”
“That’s a lousy question! I’m not answering it.”
“Why is it a lousy question?”
“What do you want me to say? Road rage? That we get pissed and shoot people? That the newest parts of our brain should have been in the oven a little longer? How is that going to help you? If you ask a crappy question, you’ll never get a decent answer. You need to ask smaller questions – questions that give you a pathway to finding some more pertinent information. The major advances in brain science don’t come from asking crappy questions like, ‘What is consciousness?’ they come from microanalysis. They come from discovering pertinent information at the cellular level.”

Leaf through

New York Stories: Leaf throughI just leafed through the book again there and disappeared for 10 minutes. It’s such a fascinating document. For anyone who takes photographs – for anyone who is interested in the stories that people tell – the book is catnip.

I’ve always admired people who can take street photos – portraits of strangers – and then talk to them. I’d like to know how Brandon goes about that. Does he take candid photographs and then talk to his subjects, or does he ask permission first? Some of the pictures in the book look so completely unstudied that I think he must take them without asking. Others are clearly posed.

How?

In a review of his first book in The New York Times, a journalist, Julie Bosman, describes following him around for a day to see what he does. She writes:

He does everything he can to warm up his potential subjects, wearing a backward baseball cap, gray hoodie and New Balance sneakers to look casual. When he approaches a stranger, he hunches over or squats down, sometimes sprawling his 6-foot-4 [1.95m] frame on the sidewalk.
“It’s all about making myself as nonthreatening as possible,” he said. “I lower my voice, I get down on the ground.”

So that’s what he does now, but I wonder if it was always how he worked.

New York Stories: FireworksMy other question, to which I haven’t found an answer, is how he gets his subjects’ permission to publish their photos. Does he have some sort of a printed formula he gets them to sign or does he just count on them not complaining? This is especially relevant for the photographs he’s taken of young children. (Though the captions sometimes suggest there’s a parent just out of frame.)

Better on paper

New York Stories: Brandon on the flyleafAs soon as I realised Brandon Stanton had an Instagram account, I started following him. Here’s a strange thing. I don’t find his photos on-line nearly as appealing as the ones in his book. I don’t know whether that’s because as he’s become more famous he has changed his style. (Apparently he lives by his photos now.) The verbiage of the stories he reports now seems to overwhelm the photos. It could be the format, or it could be that the photos in the book are a “best of” selection. Or perhaps he is still evolving as a portrait photographer – and has evolved in a direction I’m less willing to follow.

No matter, I’ve got the book now and I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into Humans of New York: Stories for quite some time to come.


Is Humans of New York: Stories expensive? It may be expensive in bookshops, but I’ve since discovered the book on-line at half the price I paid for it.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Paddy’s journey: Gifts, woods and broken roads

Paddy’s journey: Gifts, woods and broken roads – a review of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy about walking across Europe in 1933, and of the allure his story still holds

Gifts: Patrick Leigh Fermor passport photo
Patrick Leigh Fermor aged 18 – his passport photo

In December 1933 a young Englishman, just 18 years old, stepped off the ferry from London in Rotterdam. He shouldered a rucksack and set out on a walk across the continent that would take him, eventually, to Istanbul. His name was Patrick Leigh Fermor – Paddy. Forty-four years later he published an account of his journey. Or, rather, the first part of his journey – the book was conceived as a trilogy.

Although Paddy was known as a travel writer in 1977, it was this book – A Time of Gifts – that introduced him to a wider audience. Between the Woods and the Water, the second part of the trilogy came out in 1986 and suddenly he was famous. One reviewer described him as “perhaps the most captivating travel writer of the century”. But it was not until 2013 that the story was concluded in The Broken Road. And now you understand the title of this article.

Paddy’s spell

Paddy was not a prolific writer. In the end he wrote little more than a handful of books. But his style, observation, fascination with the most obscure and esoteric subjects, charm, daring and above all his command of English make each one of his books a fascinating read. His readers fall under a spell. There are societies dedicated to his memory, websites where his books are debated and many travellers have set out to follow in his footsteps.
I’m going to guess many, many more have thought about doing so. I’m one!

Gifts and Woods

A Time of Gifts coverA Time of Gifts tells the story of his journey through Germany, Austria and into Czechoslovakia during the earliest period of Nazi control. Paddy was aiming to live off £1 a week. (His family sent him his money by post a week or a month at a time, so he wouldn’t overspend. In the book he describes how sometimes, when his plans didn’t work out, he would be in fairly desperate economic straits. How he struggles to get to the next post office where his cash is waiting for him post restant.) He travelled on foot, sleeping out under the stars, or he stayed in the cheapest of hostels, or with people he met on the way.

The journey had a hard beginning. After a time, though, good fortune (and Paddy’s charm) led him into more aristocratic circles. A few introductions he’d brought with him from friends in London helped too. By the time he reached southern Germany and Austria he was being passed from one Schloss to another.

Between the Woods and the Water coverBetween the Woods and the Water sees him across Hungary and Yugoslavia to the Iron Gates, a gorge of the River Danube on the border with Romania. Continuing on from A Time of Gifts, Paddy keeps moving in aristocratic circles. At the same time he insists on walking and spends long periods alone on the road or travelling with gypsies.

The two books taken together, although written so long after, are still a fantastic record. They paint a picture of a post-First World War world that still remembers the pre-war empires of central Europe. A world soon almost completely erased by the horrors of the Second World War and the long period of Communist dictatorship that followed.

Broken roads

The Broken Road coverPaddy’s fans looked forward to the final volume. The book that would take him across the Balkans and bring him finally to Istanbul. It never came and Paddy died in 2011.

However, in 2013, his biographer Artemis Cooper and fellow travel writer Colin Thubron published The Broken Road. This is the conclusion to the story, edited from Paddy’s notes and diaries. It goes some way to satisfy those of us who were captivated by the first two volumes and looked for closure.

Paddy’s journey, which started in December 1933, came to an end in January 1935 just a month before his 20th birthday. He had a life of action and adventure ahead of him. He became a war hero and, after the Second World War, dedicated himself to Greece and all things Panhellenic. Travelling in the footsteps of the poet Byron, he was himself a Byronic character. One of his obituaries described him as “one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century”. Another said he was a cross between “Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”.

Ill met by Moonlight

Ill Met by Moonlight film posterAll his obituaries seem to mention the trilogy Gifts, Woods and Broken Roads as the second thing of importance about Paddy. They all start by describing his most daring exploit of the war. In 1944 on the island of Crete under German occupation, he led a group of Greek partisans to kidnap the German commander of the island. The partisans took the commander across the island, hiding him from search parties, and then smuggled him away to British-held Cairo. Later – in 1957 – this dramatic story was filmed as Ill Met by Moonlight. (Night Ambush in the USA, Generalen kidnappad in Swedish.)

There is an incident in the film that is very revealing of Paddy’s character. (It is described in the memoir Ill Met by Moonlight. If memory serves, I think it also made it into the film.)

The partisan Kreipe Abduction Team - Paddy is in the middle
The partisan Kreipe Abduction Team – Paddy is in the middle

As they were moving their German prisoner, General Karl Kreipe, across the island they came to Mount Ida. This, the highest point of Crete, was capped with snow. Looking up at the peak of the mountain, Kreipe recited the beginning of a Latin poem about another snow-capped mountain. Paddy recognised the poem and immediately recited the rest of it. Captor and captive realised they had something in common – a love of classical literature.

Common ground

Time and again in the trilogy Paddy demonstrates a similar ability to find common ground with people he meets – whether through literature, experience or empathy. It seems to me this is one of the secrets of his success, both as a traveller and a travel writer. His ability to open himself and build bridges with everyone he meets, whomever they may be. Early in the first book he stays overnight with a young man, a labourer he meets on the road. The young man turns out to be a Sturmabteilung member – one of the Brownshirts. Paddy gets him to confess that up until quite recently he was a Communist. They explore the reasons the young man switched sides.

Inspiration

Gifts: Paddy photographed by Dimitri Papadimos
Paddy photographed by Dimitri Papadimos

Paddy’s account of his adventure continues to inspire people. The idea that you  can just pick up your pack and step out onto the open road to meet adventure one day after another – it’s very alluring. One man who succumbed, journalist and travel writer Nick Hunt, set out in December 2011 to follow in Paddy’s footsteps.

Beyond buying roadmaps and putting out calls for accommodation, I deliberately did no research into where I was going. Paddy’s books, eight decades out of date, would be my only travel guide. With his experience underlying my own, I would see what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, adventure, the mysterious, the unknown, the deeper currents of mists and story I believed – or longed to believe – still flowed beneath Europe’s surface.

Nick Hunt completed the journey in 221 days – less time than it took Paddy. He also produced a book of his whole journey in far less time than it took Paddy! The book – Walking the Woods and the Water – is a very worthwhile read as a pendant to Paddy’s trilogy. I recommend it.

And my own walking adventure ambition? It is to cross Sweden in the footsteps of a gentleman with the mouth-filling name Bulstrode Whitelock. Whitelock was the ambassador of the Republic of England to the court of Queen Christina between 1653 and 1654. But more of that another time.


Picture acknowledgements: The passport photograph of the 18 year-old Paddy comes from the website of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society. The book covers all came from websites selling second hand copies of the books, except for The Broken Road, which is on my shelves here. The film poster of Ill Met by Moonlight I found on Pinterest and unfortunately can’t be more precise than that. The picture of the Kreipe Abduction Team and portrait of Paddy in middle-age are both from Wikipedia.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Referendum maps

The EU Leave/Remain poll in Britian last Thursday resulted in a collection of interesting referendum maps – an excuse to revisit ideology and map-making

In last week’s entry I described the forthcoming British referendum on continued membership of the EU as a bit surreal. After the event, things have not become less surreal, and there’s little prospect they will do so in the near future. The traditional media as well as the more informal Internet-born media is awash with the aftermath. I have neither the knowledge and fighting spirit to want to take it up myself, nor have I the distance and emotional detachment to turn away and spend time with something completely different.

Maybe next week.

However, I need to find something to post here now.

This is a travel blog, so let’s revisit maps. As I wrote in my review of Judith Schalansky’s Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, ‘all maps are ideological’. This came back to me again looking at the various referendum maps that the news media produced to chronicle voting on 23rd June. Compare these two, for example.

Referendum maps: Telegraph-Yougov maps for Referendum results

The Telegraph was, like most of the British print media, a supporter of the Leave side. This map underlines the strength of the vote for Leave, showing the final result in the 12 regions of the UK (and in Gibraltar). Also notice that, though Scotland is a large area for Remain, nine of the 10 areas of England and Wales are solid for Leave. The only exception is little London down in the south east corner.

[A couple of days after I published this I was re-reading and noticed that The Telegraph’s map colours Gibraltar red for Leave. This is false information. In fact Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly for Remain – 96% according to this article from elsewhere on The Telegraph’s website. I was travelling and unable to edit the page, but I’m putting it right now, on Monday 4th July.]

YouGov, an international internet-based market research firm is presumably attempting a degree of impartiality. Their map has greater nuances. The shading indicates the strength of the Leave and/or the Remain vote in each of the 382 voting districts of Britain. (I’m not sure why Northern Ireland is missing from this map. I fear it may be my fault in the editing.)

In the next referendum map, the BBC (which attempts to be impartial) chooses to show the 382 voting districts, but without the nuances of shading of the YouGov map. By choosing blue and yellow, they seem to have meant to reflect the colours of the EU flag. (I guess the choice of red and blue in The Telegraph’s map is supposed to remind people of the British flag.) The BBC’s yellow and blue caught the eye. The Twitter comment reproduced here (via The Sun) was not an isolated one.

Referendum maps: BBC-Twitter-Sun

I could go on, but there’s only one more of my collection of Referendum maps that I really want to share. Below is the map from the website of the pro-Remain newspaper The Guardian. The Guardian’s map was interactive – hover a cursor over a district and you could see the results after they had come in. However, as you can see, that was not the only special feature of the map.

The Guardian’s cartographers chose to distort the geographic representation of the UK to better represents the population of each of the 382 voting districts. You can easily identify the map as the UK, but compare it with the other more conventional referendum maps above. You’ll see at once how the weight of the population of Britain in London and the South East makes a huge difference. Especially compared with The Telegraph’s map, the phenomenal Remain vote in London is seen in its true proportions. Though also the swelling population of Leavers in the Midlands.

2016 EU Referendum - Guardian distorted Britain

Well, I could certainly write more, but I think that’s enough from me on this subject now. Back to more conventional Stops and Stories next week. I hope.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Particular smells

Particular smells can be immensely evocative. Think of the smell of new cut grass or of damp wool, of wood smoke or the perfume of a rose

Human beings are visual creatures. For most of us sight is the most important of our senses, and the one we use most often to understand our world. This is not true for the blind or the partially sighted, of course, or for certain other individuals, but it is true by and large for the majority of us.

However, we all know that sight is just one of several senses. Growing up, we are often told we have five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). This platitude is the origin of references to the “sixth sense” – that mystical extra ability that some people are supposed to be gifted with that lets them read another person’s thoughts, see dead people or look into the future.

Of course we all have more than five senses. For example, we all know about – but often seem to forget – our sense of balance. Many of us also all tend to underestimate our abilities to use our senses other than sight. We even sometimes need to be reminded of our other senses. It’s a common instruction in creative writing classes, for instance, to remind students to think not just about how characters look, but also to think about how they sound. To ask: If this character was a fruit, how would he or she taste? To imagine a fabric or a structure in terms of how it feels to the touch.

Our sense of smell is one of the senses that most often gets passed over. Conventional wisdom chimes with scientific research to suggest that humans do not have a very developed sense of smell. (Although some modern research challenges that.) And yet I think most people can agree that a particular smell can be immensely evocative.

Think of the smell of new cut grass or of damp wool, for example, of wood smoke or the perfume of a rose or lavender. I would guess that at least one of these scents conjures up a very vivid image in your head, and very possibly a specific time and place too.

Last year I came across an article about a “smellmap” of Amsterdam. I was in a hurry, but it seemed a good subject to return to later for a Stops and Stories article, so I bookmarked it and moved on. As usually happens, I then forgot about it until this weekend when I was looking through my notebook for inspiration. I found the link and went back and read the article properly – and then started to follow the associated links.

What a wonderful treasure trove!

Let me introduce Kate McLean, PhD student at the Royal College of Art in London, “a multi-disciplinary artist working in visual and olfactory communication.” She has one foot in the world of science, the other in the world of artful cartography – and her nose in the air. If I’ve understood things right, she started out trying to find ways to make visible statistical information. (The fat consumption of the average Scot sculpted in beef lard was one example!) She experimented with the other senses – but struck gold when she started looking at how people perceive their environments in terms of the smells around them.

She has carried out research and exhibited her work in various cities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, Amsterdam and Singapore, building “smellmaps” and creating “smellscapes” with the help of local people who have joined her on her “smell walks”. These visualisations of the way people perceive and feel about the smells around them are necessarily subjective, but at the same time may give a valuable insight in how people experience their local environment. An insight that might be useful for urban planners, for example. Her work is showcased in portfolios on the website of Sensory maps.

The video clip of her smell map of Amsterdam is visually very satisfactory, but I most liked her Paris Postcards Poster – a distilled creation made after an exhibition in Paris. At the exhibition a series of small bottles containing scents collected in Paris were available for visitors to sniff. Then they were invited to write down on a post-it note the place and/or feeling they associated with the smell and stick their notes on a board. See the poster here (it is a pdf file that you can zoom in on to view and read more easily.)

Finally, if you are tempted (as I am) to try creating a smell map of your own, Kate McLean has produced a “Smellfie” or do-it-yourself smell map kit. Again, it’s a pdf document – in the form of thirteen slides – which you can view, download and print out.

And I can’t do better to conclude this week’s article than borrow Kate McLean’s valediction: Happy sniffing!


The featured image at the head of this is a screenshot of the front page of Sensory Maps. The image is copyright Sensory Maps/Kate McLean and no tresspass is intended.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Review of Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands

Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands:
Fifty islands I have not visited and never will

by Judith Schalansky
translated from the German by Christine Lo
published by Penguin Books

This is a most fascinating, delightful and beguiling book.

It is fascinating for the information it contains. In one sense, it is a gazetteer of fifty islands scattered about the globe with snippets of the stories – often just one story – and people associated with each. Fifty delicately drawn maps, all to the same scale. Brief notes on the islands, what they are called – or have been called – their allegiances (which states claim sovereignty), their physical sizes, populations or otherwise. And for each the distances from three other pieces of dry land at three different points of the compass, and the merest outline sketch of a timeline.

The book is delightful for its beauty and elegance. It is a pleasure to hold. The quality of the paper, the printing, the binding – the care that has gone into creating it. The typography and layout, the maps. The pocket version that I have is something you want to carry about with you and the full sized version would adorn any bookshelf.

Robinson Crusoe's IslandHowever the Atlas of Remote Islands is also beguiling because of the clash it illustrates. The crash when the desert island paradise romance runs full tilt into the sometimes sordid, sometimes horrific, sometimes cryptic, sometimes heart-wrenching reality. Here are stories of castaways and disappointed explorers, mutiny and rebellion, insanity and corruption, rape, incest, murder and cannibalism, lonely scientists and erotically disturbed merchants. The very title of the introductory essay is: “Paradise is an Island. So is Hell”. Don’t say you weren’t warned!

In the introduction Judith Schalansky – a designer and typographer (of course), an author and a teacher – describes how, as a child born in East Berlin, she became an armchair traveller at an early age. How she used an atlas to explore the world she could never visit, until the fall of the Berlin Wall suddenly opened that world to her. But the reunification of Germany also revealed the insidious political agenda of the atlas.

The first atlas in my life… was committed to an ideology. Its ideology was clear from its map of the world, carefully positioned on a double-page spread so that the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic fell on two separate pages. On this map there was no wall dividing the two German countries, no Iron Curtain; instead, there was the blinding white, impassable edge of the page. That, in turn, the provisional nature of the GDR was depicted by the mysterious letters SBZ (Sowjetische Besatzungszone, ‘Soviet Occupied Territory’) in the atlases used in West German schools was something that I only found out later… Ever since then I have not trusted political world maps…

Of course, all maps are ideological. Flat representations of the world in atlases, projections of a three dimensional globe onto a two dimensional surface, skew the image of the world into something we are all familiar with and take for granted with barely a thought. Europe, that hard-to-delimit peninsular sticking out from the Asian landmass, is at the top and in the centre of the world map (unless you are in the USA in which case North America is top centre). The rest of the world is beneath, below, peripheral – with all that implies. And Africa, the world’s second largest continent, appears the same size as Greenland, which is in fact 14 times smaller. (I note that, for the endpaper maps of the world in this book, Schalansky has chosen what I take to be an equirectangular projection which avoids the Greenland/Africa distortion to some extent.)

Is a globe better?

The globe is certainly a better representation of the Earth than the collection of maps in an atlas, and it can rouse wanderlust in the young. But the shape of the globe is problematic. Constantly in motion, this Earth has no borders, no up or down, no beginning and no end, and one side is always hidden from view.

This is an approximate book. It contains the truth – “I have invented nothing,” says the author – but like an atlas, for all its apparent objectivity it is a subjective and partial report of these remote islands. An approximation. An interpretation.

Easter IslandAnd there’s a warning even in the title of the book. That little subjective word “remote”. What is remote, after all, depends very much on your point of view. Easter Island nearly 3700km from South America in one direction and a little over 4000km from Tahiti in the other is, from a European perspective, one of the most remote places in the world. The locals, though, call their island Te Pit Te Hunua – Navel of the World.

In an interview, Judith Schalansky describes herself amused when she comes across her Atlas shelved by bookshops in their Travel section. I understand her. The book is more akin to poetry and/or philosophy – even geography – than it is to guide books. But at the same time, I understand the bookshops too. It is about travel; about travelling in the mind and the imagination.

So, the Atlas of Remote Islands – hard to categorise, but well worth searching out.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

This review also published at Goodreads.com here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1464082556