Six seasons and counting
Exploring The High Line with my camera
In that funny way Internet sometimes chooses to put the least deserving things on life support, that first album is still there, in the earliest crevices of my Flickr account — even though each and every photo inside is badly cropped, colour-incorrected, and embarrassing in its lack of deliberation. Not that the High Line itself was in a better shape then. A carcass of an arrested train freight line in a decaying neighbourhood, inaccessible unless you were willing to trespass, it wasn’t yet a glamorous park or anything more than an eyesore to some, and historical curiosity to others. If my photos didn’t do it justice, there wasn’t that much justice to be done, and one can almost understand all the voices asking to tear down this obsolete piece of New York infrastructure.
This was my first visit to the east coast; my first DSLR, overnighted hastily from Amazon as if to make up for years whining about “one day buying one”; my first in-person encounter with that artifact of Old New York I’ve read about a few years before and which excited me the way I get excited about anything so rampantly retro-futuristic occurring in real life.
The photos were bad, and The High Line was in a sorry state. But both would get better.
Two years later the camera was already an upgrade, and the lenses much more capable. So was I, having taken many photos in my home town in the interim. Most importantly, The High Line’s transformation into a beautiful, modern park started earlier the same year. I’ve walked it more than a few times that summer: first with hesitation, then embarking on a few photographic experiments. My infatuation with fresh camera equipment was amplified by the fascination with The High Line’s new clothes. One of the photos from those sessions, the blue-tinted The ghosts of The High Line, remains one of my few “artistic” photographs to date. One of the few ones that I dared to title, too.
2009 was slow, absent-minded evening strolls through the refurbished first half-mile of The High Line. The next winter found me waking up — and less than a minute later frantically putting on whatever clothes I could find and running outside with my camera. What I discovered outside the window was that one thing that can make a long-time west coast transplant from east Europe happy.
It was snowing.
Among the captures I made of that curious combination of the 80-year-old rail structure and fresh flora planted the previous season — both now treated equally mercilessly by snow — there was one that would became one of the most important photos I ever took. And it happened to be an early throwaway, taken through the hotel window as I was waiting for the elevator. That photograph, of two park employees clearing the snow while a sole visitor soldiers on, eventually ended up in the official High Line book, on a set of postcards, and in a recent calendar.
Miraculously, the story from 2010 happened again during my short visit the following year. I woke up seeing the entire city surrendering itself to snow. The new wide-angle lens — and my still-half-asleep imagination — provided an opportunity to re-imagine The High Line as a silent witness to some sort of an apocalypse, and The Standard Hotel straddling it as the last remaining home base, the geometric benches directing the survivors towards it.
What a difference a few months can make; The High Line on my photos from that scorching summer couldn’t possibly be any more inviting or lively.
For me, that week was a series of deliberate trips, each one canvassing the newly extended park back and forth with a different lens bolted onto my camera. And, as a parallel challenge out of an imaginary photographic Maslow’s pyramid: thinking of a story. How to weave a narrative through a set of images? How to force yourself to throw away more than 99% of the photos you took? How to post-process everything so that the photographs all look like one happy family?
During my last visit to date, it again was the weather that framed that entire set. This time it transformed the park into a quiet garden, with both the plants and the infrastructure glistening in the morning rain — inviting slower, careful, more contemplative photo taking… and reflections on my five years visiting The High Line.
2013, 2014, 2015…
I found some inanimate objects to be my best photographic inspirations. I spent many days capturing old machines at the Computer History Museum, and made repeated visits to that much-hated concrete-festooned 1970s business complex just off of San Francisco’s waterfront. The repeated visits part being the key, the staccato of photo sets allowing to easily track your improvements and compare which approach works better.
And while the objects are infinitely patient, they are never constant. The equipment you bring, the weather you encounter, the hour you choose, the mood you’re in — they all make a difference. Sometimes the best photo entails weeks of planning. Other times, it’s that snapshot you mentally discard the second you take it, only to rediscover it later and salvage through post-processing.
(Kind of like the story of The High Line itself.)
In just a few encounters with it, I saw many faces of New York’s park in the sky. I strolled through a warm, lush garden. I braved a desolate structure carrying frigid winds from the Hudson. I saw an abandoned remnant of New York’s prior career once, then Structure Zero of an entire neighbourhood’s reincarnation. And an odd companion on my journey to become a better photographer; me discovering many of photography’s infinite secrets, just as the High Line itself discovers and rediscovers again what it means to the city of New York.
How it all came to be, I am not too sure. Ten years ago, reading that post on Jason Kottke’s blog introducing me to The High Line, I couldn’t have imagined any of it. What I know today, at least, is that I will be back. I will bring the entire pretentious bag of criminally expensive pieces of oddly shaped glass fragments, or I’ll just carry the iPhone I recently embraced as a camera. I will walk the paths I know by heart, or chart the soon-to-be-opened final spur. There will be flights of fancy or meticulously planned photographic projects. But whatever happens, I can’t imagine New York without The High Line, and I can’t imagine The High Line as something you experience fully without a viewfinder in the way.
Perhaps all a photographer can wish for is finding something that makes them feel this way.
Written in late 2012. Thank you to Bill Couch, Katie Lewis, and Ans Bradford for inspiration to write this, and to The High Line staff for their support and encouragement throughout the years.