An experimental mix of pedestrian and auto space shows Times Square in transition, 2009.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS I WRITE THIS, in about the eleventh hour of the new year 2023, cleaning crews are still restoring Times Square to its regular state of controlled chaos, a steady rhythm of wretched excess that, every December 31st, erupts into an even more intense blizzard of litter and license, a national ritual marking the shift from one year to another. And along with the tons of confetti and collapsed Planet Fitness top hats that will be swept away, the square itself, like an endlessly re-sculpted shoreline, settles back into a shape that is totally the same and yet totally different.
It’s hard to believe that ’23 will only mark the ninth year since the conversion of the world’s most famous address to 100% pedestrian traffic. What began in 2009 as a partial experiment in accident control (following a tsunami of auto mishaps in the neighborhood) proved so popular that, by 2014, a permanent change was effected, making Times Square a total walking district/would-be park, or “public space” as we now call it. During the transition, native New Yawkers griped about the Square’s total surrender to the dreaded onslaught of tourists, and the area’s main architectural feature became five-story, perpetually-blazing billboards for Broadway shows, chain restaurants and soft drinks. Nearly a decade later, the jury’s still out on whether the changes produced a bright, cheery playland or a grotesque Sodom. The answer you get depends on who you ask.
Just two years later, in 2011, the Square has been completely converted to 100% foot traffic. How Times (Square) change(s).
The take-away for photographers is that if, on any given day, you see a version of the Square that you like, preserve it, as I did in the above from a Sunday morning in November of 2011. Like all other images before it, this particular “Times Square” is now a frozen abstraction of a place that is just the same, only different. And it was ever thus: going back nearly a century to when the “new” Times building opened to literal explosions of dynamite to mark the incoming year, the neighborhood has served as a mercurial barometer of America’s quick, impatient transit. Perhaps it was the crossroads effect, the coming together of so many disparate motives, all colliding near the nexus of the popular press, show business, and loud, insistent commerce. Perhaps it is our worhip of the novel, the new. For whatever reason, the Square evolved from day-to-day like the subtle oscillations of a seismograph, taking a measure of the country’s cultural plates and how they scrape and grind against each other in the city’s inexorable tectonic ballet.
We all understand the concept that only change is permanent. After all, even the New York Times only occupied offices at “One Times Square” for eight years. Still, there are few places on Earth where that impermanence is evidenced in such undeniably visual detail. Life in New York at large is all, to a degree, arranged around the dictum of Do It Now. But in Times Square, the frames of film flicker by so very quickly that individual images, no longer distinguishable, rush into a blurry illusion of continuous motion….the ultimate movie. Small wonder that we treasure a few frozen frames as the parade crushes past us.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GREAT CITIES ARE NOT MUSEUMS, statically basking in their greatness as if showing off a finished product. Metropolises are as organic as the flesh and blood creatures they host, identified by their own signature breathing rhythms, seasons, vital signs. They are always in the process of becoming.
No city displays that work-in-progress ethos better than New York. It is always in dress rehearsal, while meanwhile always staging an opening night. Both the wrecking ball and the ribbon-cutting scissors are always ticking and tocking back and forth, opposite extremes of the same pendulum swing. It’s a constant thump/rest/thump/rest drum beat that, like its namesake, never sleeps. And that adds a stunning opportunity for showing contrasts in any kind of street photography.
NYC declares daily winners and losers, and since both its Newsmakers and the Yesterday’s News folks live cheek by jowl, images taken on Manhattan streets are almost guaranteed to show that juxtaposition. In the above image, the glitter of Times Square, easily the brassiest sector of the city, can easily be framed up alongside the ubiquitous “pipe” scaffolding that attends a million different renovations and remodels throughout the town. The city’s ongoing motto might well be, “hey we’re working on it”, as the undying American hunger for the new conducts a daily road race against eventual obsolescence. Photography is, primarily, built upon contrast, placing an infinite number of bright surfaces against an infinite number of darker ones, in intersections of light and shadow that define sharpness and focus. It seems proper, then, for the camera’s subject matter to define things through the comparison of opposites.
Of course, you needn’t live in Gotham to see such contrasts or to arrange them for maximum commentary effect in your images. The messages are everywhere, since it’s our essential diversity which makes photographs worth taking in the first place. As long as there is a palpable difference between this thing and that thing, compelling pictures will result. Everywhere, in every town, it’s always dress rehearsal, always opening night.