Brooklyn BookBeat: Photographer/Author of Photographic Census to Speak in DUMBO
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn photographer Brandon Stanton is not afraid to take risks. While many artists might be characterized similarly, it was Stanton’s adventurous streak that led him to become an artist in the first place. After losing his job as a bond trader, Stanton – who bought his first camera in January 2010 – decided to move to New York to photograph people on the street.
Despite his lack of formal training and his parents’ disappointment in his decision, Stanton had an objective; in the summer of 2010 he embarked on an ambitious project to create a photographic census of New York City. He purchased his camera with money he won on a football bet and began walking the city streets in search of inspiring images of New Yorkers. He compiled his portraits on a remarkable blog titled “Humans of New York,” juxtaposing quotes and anecdotes to contextualize the images.
What started out as a photography blog quickly became a poignant tribute to the astonishingly diverse group of people who call New York home. “I can’t call it [a photography blog] anymore,” Stanton said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “It’s a storytelling blog. Before, I was visually responding to the street. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Now I look for someone sitting alone. I look for people who are approachable.”
Stanton’s ability to enliven a subject through text matches his skill in capturing a visual representation; his captions are evocative yet succinct. Describing a photograph he took of a homeless man, Stanton writes, “Despite being homeless, he was genuinely concerned about my ability to ‘make it’ as a photographer.”
Another photo, which depicts a schoolboy dressed in shorts, includes a quote from the subject: “A kid wore shorts to school yesterday and the headmaster got really mad, so the whole class wore them.”
A vibrant testament to the spirit of New York, Stanton’s book gives voice to hundreds of individuals and to a city at large. In fact, he dedicates his book to the city of New York. “I hope you enjoy the Humans of New York as much as I have,” Stanton writes in the book’s introduction.
Stanton will appear in Brooklyn for a book launch party on Oct. 22 at DUMBO’s powerHouse Arena. In anticipation, the Brooklyn Eagle caught up with Stanton, who tells us about his introduction to New York and reveals how "Humans of New York" came to be.
After growing up without a background in photography, what led you to embark on this project?
I bought a semi-professional camera at the age of 26, using the winnings from an NFL football pool that I won. At the time, I was working as a bond trader in Chicago, and would photograph on the weekends as a way to take my mind off work. When I lost my job, I decided to take a few months off and travel with my camera. I went to a few different cities, and began to focus more and more on photographs of people – especially portraits. When I arrived in New York, I felt that it was the perfect place to pursue this type of photography. So Humans of New York didn't really emerge as a fully formed idea. It was more a series of small evolutions, arising from a love of photography.
Had you spent much time in New York before moving here? What drew you to photograph in New York?
I had never been to New York before the age of 26. I chose to stay in New York because it's the only place in America with this sort of density, and diversity, of people. Of course, that's only one of the reasons this city is amazing.
What does your typical day of photographing entail?
I try not to take days off, and normally photograph for two to three hours before the sun goes down. The light is good, and people are getting off work so the streets are more crowded. I pretty much keep moving the entire time, stopping only briefly to photograph and interview subjects, so I normally walk several miles.
Can you talk a bit about your experience photographing in Brooklyn in particular?
I live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, so you'll notice that a lot of my photographs come from that area. With that being said, I also cover the surrounding neighborhoods quite a bit: Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill and Crown Heights. I also make it up to Prospect Park quite a bit.
Have you noticed distinct differences between the subjects you shot across the various boroughs?
Many of the neighborhoods of New York have very distinct ethnic make-ups, of course. And with that comes different cultures, different clothing, different perspectives, etc. But I get good portraits pretty much everywhere I go. Except one or two places where there is a strong cultural aversion to photography.
You’ve taken thousands of photographs over the past few years – how did you edit your portfolio for the book?
Wasn't too tough for me. I'm a sentimental guy, and I have my favorites. It was a fun process.
What are you working on now?
Humans of New York! No immediate interest in moving on to something different. I feel like I have so much room to grow within the format of the blog, so I am trying to focus on improving my storytelling and photography.
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The Oct. 22 event will begin at 7 p.m. powerHouse Arena is located at 37 Main St. in DUMBO.
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Brandon Stanton studied at the University of Georgia where he explored his interest in film before founding the “Humans of New York” blog. Brandon has appeared on the Today Show and the BBC and in Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, called Humans of New York his favorite Tumblr blog. Brandon is also actively involved in fundraising and philanthropy. He grew up in Marietta, GA and now lives in Brooklyn.