White New York

I’m no landscape photographer.

duckssnow walkwaysnowHell, I might not be any kind of photographer. I’ve taken two classes at Photo Manhattan and I own a Nikon D-7000 and what I’ve learned is that any number of people can still take better landscape pics with their iPhone (albeit the chip inside the 7000 takes nice low light photos). But if New York and Central Park are dressed up in a fresh snow fall,  anyone can feel like Ansel Adams (click on photos to enlarge). I took these shots, including the header, starting at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. Most were taken near West 67th street.

One sad note, my tripod head came unscrewed and slid off the stand as I carried it over my shoulder. I didn’t even know the head could be detached. Boom. The camera was saved because my relatively new Nikkor 24-70m took the brunt of the hit. So the filter was destroyed but it looks as if the actual lens may have suffered some damage and the canister was bent at the filter so that I couldn’t screw it off. I also couldn’t zoom in or out anymore. This is a very expensive lens and my favorite and I’m bummed because it doesn’t look good. If you have any tips, please let me know.

Times (too) Square

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Who can argue that New York wasn’t a sexier place to photograph 30 years ago?

Pimps and prostitutes were common in Times Square as were drug deals.

Pimps and prostitutes were common in Times Square as were drug deals in the 1970s. This is quite a contrast to the carnival-like atmosphere in the square now. Photo courtesy Ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com.

I’m looking at Sue Kwon’s work in “Street Level,” a collection of photos taken of some of the city’s neighborhoods from between 1987 and 2007. What leaps off those pages is a much more culturally and racially diverse place. Rudy Giuliani cleaned up the crime and graffiti, but in the sanitizing he scrubbed away some of the color and character. Nobody wants to go back to the days when muggings, graffiti, garbage strikes and police corruption were common but look at what was lost.

There were legitimate artists colonies in The Village. Neighborhoods had distinct characters.

In Kwon’s book, punk rockers with shaved heads spill out of CBGBs. The Beastie Boys, long before any of them had gone gray, goof for the camera during a rehearsal on Mott Street. In another pic, a group of Spanish kids cook burgers on Elizabeth Street.

People dress up as Batman, Elmo and M&M's make Times Square a family fave.

People dressed up as Batman, Elmo and M&M’s make Times Square a family fave.

CBGBs, one of the all-time great music venues, is closed. Puerto Ricans and the artists got priced out of the Village and Chelsea. The Hell’s Kitchen Irish community is long gone. There was once Italians in Little Italy but no more. Most of these areas now teem with affluent young families and ascending tech workers. Take a photo of people living in the Upper West side now and it’s unlikely to be distinguishable from one taken in midtown or Alphabet City. The place that best illustrates the arc of the city’s transformation is Times Square.

TS is an international attraction but native New Yorkers detest it for the tourists and blinding illumination from the countless jumbo screens. To long-time New Yorkers, Times Square is now the world’s most overhyped amusement park, with people walking around dressed as cartoon characters and boxes of candy. The area is dismissed typically with a single word: “Disneyland.”

Not everybody is buying into all the changes in New York.

Not everybody is buying into all the changes in New York.

What was Times Square before? This is how Gael Greene remembered it:

“Even as an intrepid girl reporter for the Post, I had avoided the sleaze of Times Square. And now in the late seventies, the neighborhood was scabrous, full of desperadoes, dealers conducting brazen drug sales on Forty-second Street, scantily dressed runaways from Minnesota in white plastic boots offering themselves on Eighth Avenue.”

I get it, that New York was interesting to photograph but not so much fun to live in. Here’s hoping that a more polished New York still has plenty of interesting stories to tell.

My new home

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The Verge is growing. The tech news site, which launched in November 2011, have hired Greg Sandoval (me) and Carl Franzen this week.

The Verge is growing. The tech news site, which launched in November 2011, has hired Greg Sandoval (me) and Carl Franzen this week (click on photo to enlarge).

I’m saved.

Two weeks ago, I resigned from CNET after seven years at the technology news site. Today, I can report that I have accepted an offer from The Verge to become a senior reporter. I start in a couple of weeks. 

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Greg Sandoval

When I say “saved,” I’m probably being too dramatic (I wouldn’t have ended up in a bread line). But in this job market and after recent events I won’t deny that I was a little worried about finding a good home. I’m now confident that’s exactly what I found.

I know that because some really smart people who happen to work for several of The Verge’s competitors told me so. In interviews, some of these editors couldn’t offer me a job, so instead they offered advice. They said that if they were in my position, they’d go to work for The Verge. It made a big impression on me that The Verge has earned such respect from rivals.

What it came down to though was that The Verge and parent company Vox Media possess a large stock of new-media secret sauce. Vox began its climb with SB Nation’s popular sports sites, and it’s clear that the audiences of The Verge and sister site Polygon are skyrocketing. That’s due in no small part to the leadership of Vox’s CEO Jim Bankoff and COO Marty Moe.

Then, there are a couple of guys who are quickly becoming the Lennon and McCartney of tech news: Josh Topolsky, The Verge’s editor in chief (sitting front and center in the photo above), and Nilay Patel, the managing editor. They helped build Engadget into a winner and now they’re taking the same but more refined formula to The Verge.

This is what I mean: The Verge breaks news. Their stories typically take the right tone. The photos, video and graphics tend to be a cut above. They know the tech reader as well as anybody.

Nilay Patel, The Verge's managing editor (left) and Josh Topolsky.

Nilay Patel, The Verge’s managing editor (left) and Josh Topolsky, editor in chief.

The Verge also won me over by providing something of great value to me. I possess a written guarantee from management that nobody from the business side of the company will ever have any authority over my stories. Long before I arrived, The Verge committed itself to editorial independence.

Before I move on I must thank my former CNET coworkers and Jim Kerstetter, my manager and mentor for most of my time there. I also am grateful to the many editors and executives at the publications who met with me during the last two weeks. I suspect some of them called without much room for a new hire but were just eager to help.

The past two weeks have been tough ones, but I think it’s worth noting that after visiting with so many great news people recently, my faith in journalism and journalists has never been stronger.

“Become invisible”

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The NAACP last summer held a protest against the city's "Stock and Frisk" policy, which city officials says is effective at ridding the streets of guns. The NAACP says the policy unfairly targets young black males.

The NAACP last summer held a protest against the city’s “Stop and Frisk” policy, which city officials say is effective at ridding the streets of guns. The NAACP says the policy unfairly targets young black males (click photo to enlarge).

This guy was running and then leaped onto his hands and started doing shoulder presses. I can't do that. Can you do that?

This guy was jogging and then leaped onto his hands and started doing shoulder presses. I was down the street and used a longer lens for this shot. By the way, I can’t do that. Can you do that? (click photo to enlarge).

Learn to make yourself invisible.

That’s the advice about street photography given to me in the back of a cab last week. I was talking on the phone while watching the cab’s TV (yes, New York cabs have TVs in them) and there was a brief bio on a longtime New York photographer. He was known for snapping great shots of the city during the 1960s and 70s. I didn’t catch his name or hear much else he said but I do remember an image of a woman walking down the street with a hand on her hip and a lot of men gawking.  She was looking right into the camera and it was obvious the photographer was close.

I loved that shot and I wondered how he got it. Did he know her? Did she get angry at him? I doubt he used a zoom. In the bio, the photographer held a small camera, maybe 35mm. That might be one of my problems. The Nikon D-7000 isn’t a full-frame camera and the housing isn’t particularly large, but my favorite lens, the Nikkor 24-70mm, is as subtle as a bazooka. I raise that big tube to my eye and immediately heads turn and subjects tense. I love the sharp pictures it takes but it’s just too big for taking candid photos of strangers.

I have a prime 50m and an all-in-one 18-200m, which I’ve discovered is excellent glass for journalism (good for shooting conference speakers on stage as well as wide angles) but doesn’t provide the sharpest images.

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Protests and other public events like the anti “Stop and Frisk” march last summer, are much simpler to photograph. Cameras are plentiful, people expect to have their picture taken and there’s typically plenty of action (click photo to enlarge).

I think it’s all about perception. The Nikkor isn’t a powerful zoom lens but it looks like one. It gives the impression of intrusiveness. I’ve seen the same thing happen when I do interviews for work. I take out my notepad and pen and the subjects tense up, even more than when I pull out my digital recorder, which is about the size of a cigarette lighter. I can see interviewees start to relax after I begin asking questions while casually holding the recorder in my hand and not too close to their face.

The recorder looks harmless, like a toy and is easily forgotten. The pad and paper are powerful symbols of journalism. Maybe the trick to reporting and this kind of photography is the same: you have to build trust by hanging around, letting people know what you’re about. After a while, you and your equipment become part of the scenery. Invisible.

Camera shy

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I don’t want to get punched just for the sake of a photo.

Making someone feel threatened is the last thing I want. That’s not how you get good photos or interviews. That’s how you lose teeth. I’ve learned that most of the time, people will help if you’re honest about what you’re doing.

Sure, they’re plenty suspicious at first but I try to make them understand quickly what I’m after, thus the tagline for this blog. When I tell someone I want to photograph that I’m trying to create art, it’s such a goofy statement that I usually get a laugh. I’ll then scroll through the photos stored on my phone or on my camera display to show them my work. I’ve even carried coffee-table books filled with similar work in my backpack. That one is very effective but schlepping those big books around sucks.

Getting spontaneous shots of interesting New Yorkers is tougher than asking someone to take their portrait. Taking a photo before asking permission is already an aggressive move for some. If a person doesn’t like what I’ve taken, I’ll delete it right there in front of them. One time, a large man on the 6 train got pissed and he wasn’t even in the frame, but I killed it anyway. Again, it’s not worth a confrontation.

sunIPODIn contrast, portraits can be cinch. The woman above (click photo to enlarge) was buying coffee at a Starbucks on 125th street when she noticed my camera. That started a conversation and I asked if I could take her picture. She worried that because she just had finished working out she didn’t look good. I assured her she did.

I asked her to turn towards the window slightly and i began snapping. The soft indirect morning light coming in was perfect. Then, I got nervous. There are so many things you have to think about; shutter speed, aperture, composition, white balance, ISO, etc and I didn’t want to take up her time. In my haste I failed to zoom in more and I lost some of the lovely angles in her face. The white balance was wrong (yes, that’s why I went black and white). In the end her great features saved me.

cropped-harlemball_4.jpgI had a similar experience with the two kids to the right (click photo to enlarge). They were walking down the street and I liked their look; the knee pads and basketball, the upturned collar. These guys had style. Again, it took me a while to get everything set and I sensed after a couple minutes they were losing patience. I hurried the shot and again made all kind of mistakes with the composition. Overall, their look and the beautiful facade of that old brownstone saved the pic. I was inspired by those black-and-white photos from the 1950s of the great jazz players. Those too were taken in Harlem.

Empire building

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Don’t be fooled. Photography only seems to be the focus of this blog.

With the help of a camera lens, I plan to chronicle American might, creativity, and spunk – perhaps a little of our bickering, bungling and douche baggery as well. Most of the backdrop will be provided by the city of New York.

I’ll write less about camera gear and technique than I will about what I learn about street photography, being relatively new to the pursuit and to the city.

My credentials are these: I live in Manhattan. I own a Nikon D-7000. I pack a healthy amount of love for New York and snapping photos. I don’t claim to do either any better than anyone else. But I am ambitious.

In my day job I’ve been a reporter for two decades. The job has taught me a few skills that may prove useful to a novice shutter bug (I’m not afraid to talk to strangers or make an ass of myself). So, wish me luck, because I’ve already learned this: NBA player Vince Carter once spent five minutes screaming at me in a crowded locker room. Photographing a camera-shy New Yorker can be much scarier. 

–Greg Sandoval

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