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“Humans of New York”

July 28, 2014

At last, I read another book cover-to-cover in one night. I know, plenty of people do this. I can remember doing it only once, many years ago: It was “The Boys From Brazil” by Ira Levin.

I can’t say why it kept me going. I’m sure it was a combination of storytelling and my endurance that day.

This time, the book was “Humans of New York” by Brandon Stanton. It’s a collection of photographs. Oh, I can feel your deflation right now, after anticipating there might be a real page-turner worth reading ‘til dawn.

But, this really is a page-turner. It’s a remarkable collection of portraits of people on the streets of New York City, most with short quotes or photographer comments. The people are central, but the settings are not to be ignored. I’m sure some are intentional and others only noticed later, upon review before posting.

Which is part of what’s interesting: The book is a distillation from the photographer’s “Tumblr” blog, where all these photos (among thousands) were first posted.

It’s a good story: Brandon Stanton was a bond trader in Chicago and got his first camera in January 2010. He used it on weekends, shooting almost indiscriminately. Most of the photos were awful, but he was hooked.

In July 2010, he lost his job and immediately decided to become a photographer. Then, awkward conversations with his parents, who saw bond trading as prestigious, photography as a “thinly veiled attempt to avoid employment.”

You can read a few more pages of the story in the book. Basically, he learns his craft through love and attention. In NYC at the end of a several-city picture-taking tour, he finds he most wants to take pictures of people.

Eventually, he begins posting on the Tumblr social media site, and his popularity really soars when he starts adding quotes and commentary to the photos.

Everybody wants to “go viral.” But you have to have something, and Stanton is a fine photographer and interested in people. The 400 color photos in the book are each wonderful and collectively even more so.

Does the book collectively “say” anything? Does it “reveal” something unique about New York City? Necessarily yes, since these are all details of actual New Yorkers. One might find a similar range of personal manner in many large cities, but it does seem that NYC will be different from Singapore or Beijing or Moscow or Houston.

Talking with E in the cafe, we touched upon this topic from a different angle. The effects of “globalization” can be seen in many ways. Even in the world of music, the details of the once regional “schools” of music are homogenizing. For example, there was a time when the horns in a French orchestra sounded distinctly different from an American.

It’s true now that everything is everywhere. The potential for synergy is multiplied. There may be an exponential increase in possibilities; there’s also a sad risk of homogenization, especially in a corporatized, commodified world.

But blending is the human way, despite the strong countervailing urge to imagine ourselves different. And blending is good for the gene pool. We get new kinds of uniqueness.

Blending is the eventual immigrant experience. The Italian immigrants to Salida and Colorado a century ago faced discrimination; now their names make up lists of honored families.

Which conveniently brings up this last call: Please RSVP by Wednesday morning. The library will host Dr. Frank Gallo from Italy next Monday at the Salida Community Center, where he will give a talk and slide show about his ongoing work, “The Lago-Salida Connection.” Reception at 6 p.m., slide show at 7 p.m.


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