I’ve been in New York, the city and the state, doing some walking among other things. On the first day there I went to my publisher’s office, a place I’d been before and it’s right there in the middle of town, on 18th Street, and so I had no worries about finding it and getting there on time. And so, I set off for a meeting, and in due course I got completely and utterly (and inevitably) lost. I suddenly couldn’t tell whether I should be on east 18th or west 18th, and in any case I had some kind of brain fade and couldn’t tell east from west anyway, and so I got there late and sweaty and panicky, and feeling like a complete rube, who couldn’t find his way around the big city. This was not precisely the impression I was trying to convey to my publisher.
Of course, when I’m in my walker/urban explorer mode, I think that being lost in the city is a very good thing, but it’s not nearly so cool when you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. The real problem, I told myself later, is that you never get quite as lost as when you’re certain you know exactly where you’re going. If I’d had any doubts about where I was going, where the publisher’s office was, I’d have double checked the address, consulted a map, taken the map with me, but I had no such doubts, and in the event my unmerited confidence undid me.
I was staying in the apartment where photographer Dudley Reed and his wife Betty live, and the place was full of photographic books, including Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a book I’d read a very long time ago, and I thought I remembered it pretty well, but it seems not. Or perhaps it’s that I now have a different set of priorities and obsessions, than I did back then when I first read it, and there seemed something very fresh about a couple of paragraphs from the book.
Sontag writes, “…the earliest surrealist photographs come from the 1850s when photographers went out prowling the streets of London, Paris, New York, looking for their unposed slice of life.”
Then later, “In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle class flaneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by
Baudelaire. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising, the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.”
Interesting and significant, I think, that she doesn’t categorize either the flaneur or the photographer as male, though historically (and with notable exceptions) the majority of both flaneurs and street photographers have been men.
As you wander the streets of New York these days it seems that everybody is taking pictures, women just as much as men. One or two seem to be “real” photographers, brandishing bulky SLRs, but the majority are using their cell phones. I don’t know how many of them are looking for the Surrealists’ “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella,” but I’m sure they’d take a picture of it if they saw one.
And of course a lot of people are looking at their cell phones, texting rather than taking pictures with them, and of course they walk into others, and others no doubt walk into them, which seems a kind of rough justice. They can’t say they haven’t been warned. The streets of Manhattan now display posters like the one below, which is actually on the side of a public phone booth. Does anybody use public phone booths anymore?
As it happened, there were was a Banksy street art exhibition going on all over New York while I was there. One of the pranks involved some guy on the street selling “real” Banksies for the price of fakes - $60 as opposed to the $15,000 or so they’d cost in a gallery. Of course $60 does seem a bit steep for fake Banksy.
But knowing that the man himself was in town and in action meant that as I walked the streets of New York I kept seeing Banksy-esque stenciled graffiti, and asking myself is that a real or a fake. Only a fool would have claimed to know with any certainty. But I did spot this on 24th Street at 6th Avenue.
Of course I couldn’t have sworn it was the real thing, but I thought it might be, and I definitely thought it was worth a picture; and having got home and done some research it seems that yes, as far as I can tell, I was looking at a REAL Banksy. I walked past it again a couple of days later, and it seemed it was being surrounded by other, much less artful-looking tags and graffiti, which you might think spoiled the effect, though for all I know Banksy might have been doing those too.