It was the first week of January, and I found myself aboard a Manhattan-bound train, en rout to meet a total stranger. Staring through my window, the familiar sight of the Hudson River’s opposing banks was lost in a white abyss. Outside, winds howled and dense walls of snow swirled. Inside, my stomach churned in anxious anticipation.
I had secretly looked forward to this day for weeks and maybe months. I stumbled upon Mallory’s instagram about six months before and had grown slightly infatuated with her online presence. Mallory was an up-and-coming model and I thoroughly enjoyed her work. I had recently committed to shooting more portraits, and knowing that I’d be staying outside NYC for a week, could not let this opportunity pass me by. I was entranced by her auburn hair, her pale skin, her blue eyes. But most of all, I admired her timeless sense of fashion and style, and her instagram posts which were filled with witticisms and a blunt authenticity that is rare to find on such a superficial app.
Another reason why I felt so drawn to this complete stranger was because I believed we had a lot in common. We both shared sarcastic, dry senses of humor. I worked at a record store and she was a music nerd who worked at a record label. I graduated from the University of Michigan, moved to NYC with dreams of becoming of journalist, and a combination of disillusionment and depression led me to photography. Mallory had graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and moved to Boston to work for a pharmaceutical company, only to discover that she hated it. And so, she quit her well-paying corporate job to move to NYC and pursue modeling.
We met on this day, in the middle of a blizzard, at a Starbucks in SoHo. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, had issued a State of Emergency. The streets of Manhattan, usually filled with buses and rickshaws and the periodic sounds of angry car horns, were empty and dead silent. I arrived first and sat at a booth, nervously anticipating her arrival. Ten minutes pass and all of a sudden, I see a tall, familiar figure appear out of a sea of white. As Mallory approaches the door, freezing and covered in snow, she yanks one of the handles to no avail. Wrong door.
It will never not be awkward to meet someone from the Internet in real life for the first time — of that, I am certain. But witnessing this very human and slightly funny moment strangely put me at ease. At 5'9 or 5'10, she was taller in person than I imagined, and to my surprise, she spoke with the most subtle southern twang. Over a coffee, we told each other Sparknotes versions of our lives before bundling up once more and heading out into the frozen ghost town that was lower Manhattan on that day.
I had a difficult time containing my combination of nervousness and giddiness. I looked up to this woman and I wanted nothing more than to become her friend and artistic peer. Perhaps I tried too hard. I was so concerned about making a good impression and I tried really hard to crack jokes and be funny. Mallory entertained these occasionally corny attempts. We joked about how cold and mean her instagram persona is compared to her real-life self. She maintained a professional distance throughout, but was certainly friendly and conversational.
The night before, I had fashioned a pair of custom gloves just for the occasion. I stopped into Walmart and bought some cheap hunting gloves. They were camo and I used scissors to remove the fingertips, enabling me to depress my camera shutter and alter the settings without acquiring frostbite or having to take my gloves off every minute.
Mallory knew exactly what to wear. Pairing a bright red sweater with an identical shade of lipstick and wearing a retro parka on top, her outfit contrasted perfectly with the whiteout surroundings.
In the days before the shoot, I spent hours pouring over photography blogs for tips on shooting portraits. I wrote down the word “CATCHLIGHTS” about ten times in my notebook as a reminder. But much to my dismay, I was unable to tell where the sun was and the conditions prevented any obvious direct light from reaching Mallory’s eyeballs. Luckily, a hint of light reflected off the snow on the ground into her eyes, and I was able to enhance it in post-production.
We shot in the middle of the blizzard for half an hour, maybe 45 minutes. Mallory had to wipe the snow from her eyebrows every five minutes or so. At one point, we spotted these cool columns at the entrance of a subway station and we decided to take some shots. I placed my half-full cup of Starbucks coffee on the ground some 20 feet away, and when I looked up from my camera, it was gone. An older, bearded, and somewhat dirty homeless fellow was walking away from that very spot, my still-warm coffee in his poor, freezing hands. I hastily snapped an underexposed photo of the very moment as he inconspicuously glided down the escalator. One year has passed and I’m still salty.
We were freezing cold and decided to take a break inside a nearby corner store before planning our next move. I ordered a hot chocolate that was nothing but Swiss Miss and would end up disappointed with my beverage in more ways than one. We had an hour or two left to shoot, and debated whether to check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art or to return to Mallory’s apartment in Ridgewood, Queens and shoot there. Unsure of what to expect at the Met, we opted for the second choice.
On the way to the subway station, I spotted a golden photo opportunity in the middle of a typically busy street. I told Mallory to pose off in the distance, and the very second that I looked through my viewfinder and held down the shutter, a roaring gust of wind blew across the street, knocking Mallory off balance, her long curly hair wisping across her face like a WWE wrestler. I’m so happy I captured that moment on camera, and I thought it perfectly encapsulated the whiteout conditions that we shot in.
As we started to walk down the subway steps, Mallory asked me if I smoked. Already nervous and giddy and not wanting a THC-addled brain to ruin my ability to engage in civilized conversation or operate a camera, I politely declined. A part of me still regrets it. On the first of two subway trains, I sat down and decided to take a sip of my mediocre hot cocoa. The lid was not fastened correctly, and the hot chocolate spilled all over my winter jacket and brown pants, covering them in a rather embarrassing chocolatey stain.
We got off the L train at the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop in Brooklyn and to my surprise, darkness had already set in. We walked a few blocks towards Mallory’s apartment, crossing over into Queens in the process. But we hit a snag. Mallory, still unpacking her belongings into her new space, couldn’t figure out how to work her new key. Or perhaps she didn’t even have it in the first place. She was forced to call her roommate, and while we waited, we conducted an impromptu photo shoot in her stairwell. For the first time ever, I shot a subject from far above, and a sense of pride and wonder filled me as we looked over my captures, taken from this newfound perspective.
Mallory’s roommate, Hannah, arrived in no more than 15 minutes and her highly advanced key skills granted us access to the apartment. It was a long and narrow space, yet homely, with wood floors and very high ceilings. There was exposed brick along a wall. The skinny kitchen led to two bedrooms with large windows, which I’m sure were graced by a flood of natural light in the daytime hours. Right outside Mallory’s room, the Myrtle Avenue el-train rattled along, the faces of the passengers clearly visible. She joked about how she had already become friends with the train conductors.
Two, maybe three hours had passed since we had met, and when we weren’t shooting, we were talking about music. She had mentioned her love of Mitsky and Frankie Cosmos and asked me if I had heard of all these somewhat obscure indie labels. Being a record store employee and self-proclaimed music snob, I shook my head with a hint of embarrassment.
One of the first things that Mallory did when we entered the apartment was pull a large tote bin full of hundreds of vinyl records out from her bedroom for me to look through. I flipped through each and every one of those records, pausing to exclaim my excitement every 30 seconds or so. The bin was full of goodies. I had mentioned to Mallory that I loved the band XTC, and when I stumbled upon her copy of Drums and Wires, I just about lost my shit. While I dug through the stacks of vinyl, a hungry Mallory sat on a stool, devouring a cold slice of pizza. It was a New York-style slice and probably larger than either of our heads.
We decided we would take a few more shots, using the exposed brick wall as a backdrop. Mallory changed into a much more casual outfit. The winter sweater was traded for a vintage Frank Zappa t-shirt that had been passed down from her mother. It was baby blue, and the words on the front read, “You Are What You Is.” She ditched her bright red Doc Martens and socks, revealing long, slender bare feet that were just as pale as her face. We moved a guitar amp from Mallory’s room and set it against the wall to serve as a prop.
I remember feeling a lot of self-doubt while taking these shots. For one, Hannah, a fellow photographer with more experience than I, was watching and I felt self-conscious. I feared that I would be exposed as some sort of fraud. I wasn’t getting the lighting that I wanted and Hannah recommended that I use a bounce flash, which I did. But the truth is, I was a beginner portrait photographer at the time, and I had little-to-no-experience using flash. And it showed. Some of the photos came out wildly overexposed with red eye. The other ones were underexposed, and I found the composition to be overly simple and flat. If I could do it over again, I would have asked a fellow photographer for guidance. But in the moment, my ego and desire to seem like I knew what I was doing prevented me from soliciting any advice.
For all of the disappointment I felt, a couple of the underexposed photos turned out quite nicely after a lot of editing. For some reason, the combination of Mallory’s pose and that vintage Zappa t-shirt set against the brick background remind me of an American Apparel ad. We wrapped up and exchanged some friendly goodbyes before I walked out into the snowy New York City streets.
My adventure was far from over. I took the subway back to Grand Central and proceeded to board a Poughkeepsie-bound train back to my parents’ house. Everything was going smoothly. But somewhere in lower Westchester County, the train reached a station and just sat there. About 10 minutes later, the conductor announced over the intercom that the snowfall had affected the switches and that all the Metro-North trains would be stranded indefinitely.
I waited aboard that train for a good 45 minutes and watched as passengers trickled out to catch rides from loved ones or hop into their Ubers. All I needed was a ride back to my car at Croton-Harmon, which was maybe 10 miles away. But due to the weather, every time I checked Uber, the rates were surging above $100 for a measly 15 minute ride. Eventually, I got tired of waiting and called for a yellow cab. Over the phone, a younger driver spoke with a thick New York accent, and told me that he had room for one more passenger. I breathed a sigh of relief.
As I ran into the station’s parking lot, I realized that the cab was not yellow or a cab, but just some guy’s compact car which he referred to as a taxi. And while he was very friendly when I spoke to him, he drove like a madman, speeding through 45 mph zones despite the ice and blizzard conditions. “Don’t worry, I got winter tires!” he said. Instead of splitting the ride four ways, he did this thing where he would call his boss before dropping each of us off. And he’d ask how much to charge, and the boss would respond with a seemingly arbitrary number. Even though my destination was another 5 or 10 minutes from the previous passenger, I was charged $75 for the taxi. The driver, who looked about my age, had told me that he only made $10 an hour working 10 hour days and I felt bad. I gave him $80 and told him to keep the change.
In the days after shooting with Mallory, the exhilaration at having lived out this experience faded and was replaced by a weird mixture of emotions that were often at odds with one another. I looked at the photos, and though I beamed with pride, I also became aware of the many mistakes I made and missed opportunities that passed me by.
I was nervous to show Mallory the edited photos because I feared that she wouldn’t like them. I remember texting her one time to choose between two different edits that I had made. The difference between the two was a barely noticeable 300K change in white balance. I second-guessed myself so much. It was my first time ever working with somebody who dedicated themselves to modeling, and I was so obsessed with what she would think.
Eventually, I shared the photos. And a few days later, to my delight, Mallory posted one on her instagram page. But I still felt a sense of dread and emptiness following our shoot, and we slowly lost touch. I dreamt of receiving some sort of elusive validation from her and it never came.
After some weeks had passed, I realized that what I wanted was for Mallory to see me as a creative equal and as a friend. But seeing as I did not view myself as her equal, how could I expect to get that in return? I also realized that neither of us owed each other anything. The fact that no friendship materialized between us felt disappointing considering that I liked her, but it was not a statement about my own self-worth or ability as a photographer.
I fell victim to my own expectations and even before meeting this person, placed so much emphasis on having them think highly of me. I put Mallory on a pedestal while simultaneously feeling so insecure about myself and my skills as a photographer. It was not fair to her nor to me, really.
It took some time, but I slowly started to feel better about my NYC photo adventure. This had only been my second photo shoot with an adequate portrait lens (50mm, f/1.8), and at the time, these were the best portraits I had ever taken in my life. It’s been almost a year, and I’m still super proud of these shots.
The self-doubt associated with the experience definitely lit a fire inside that motivated me to get better at photography and prove myself. I’ve studied portraits for hours and read dozens of articles that I probably would not have otherwise. And I’m a better photographer today because of it.
But most importantly, my experience provided me with one hell of a story that I will never forget: the time I traveled from Michigan to New York and braved a blizzard to meet and photograph a beautiful stranger who I felt a weird connection with. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is. Perhaps I will cross paths with Mallory once again, or maybe not. Either way, I will never regret reaching out and I will always cherish the cold, snowy, miserable, amazing day we spent together.