new york, part i
I pack at 2am after finishing an essay. It feels odd to have a suitcase instead of a backpack, to set off without suncream and mosquito nets. This is a very different adventure, but some things stay the same: my camera bag is stuffed with Linden and instax film and extra rolls of 35mm.
At 7am we board a bus, and at Heathrow Virgin open extra check-in desks especially for us. How exciting airports are when you are travelling with people you know, when the long wait in front of the departure screens is shared and the view of the tarmac untainted with quiet fear of the unknown or too-known. How strange to imagine I will be back here in just five days, instead of five weeks or more. I kiss the tips of my fingers and press them to the cold metal panelling - a superstitious good luck ritual - and board a plane bound for New York City.
We arrive at JFK as the sun is setting. I smile at the guy at the immigration desk in the hope of getting a stamp for my passport, and get spoken to in a New Yoik accent for the first time. As we step out of the terminal the sun rains down warmly, blinds me for a second in a bright, enthusiastic welcome. The bus journey down the highway is loud and raucous as people call out the things they can see: yellow taxis, school buses, houses made of wood, delis and diners, enormous SUVs. The sun sinks, lights spark, and as we take a route over the Kennedy Bridge the Manhattan skyline appears like a movie set lit up across the water. The others take pictures, but it already feels too unreal to me. This city has only a weak pull of reality; it has been turned into too many images already, and their fictions are easy to lose yourself in. I leave my cameras in my bag as we pass through Harlem and arrive at our hostel on the Upper West Side, trying to fathom where I really am.
The hostel is enormous and cramped, and the room I share with seven other girls reminds me of a place in my head. I set up camp on the top bunk of a bed by the window, to look out at the view we have from this fourth floor across the block at a playground where children bounce basketballs by streetlight. Laura and I have pizza from a place across the road where everything is at once familiar and unknown. We pay in dollars and sit under decorations left from a baby shower, and listen to music playing from an old juke box in the corner while the commentator on TV talks about the baseball game in Spanish. I've fallen down a rabbit hole, where things are similar enough to be mistaken for the known while small details betray my real distance from home.
Awake for breakfast at what feels like 2am. We catch the metro downtown on the 1 train; a great metal can which shakes and screams through the bowels of Manhattan. I snap a moment between three of us and an elderly man who helped with the map-reading. (This kind of spontaneous hospitality followed us all over the city, a sort of cultural eagerness to share and trust and express openly with strangers. London is so wrapped in its own head - not so much distrustful as embarrassed to portray emotion less the one it loves turns away. New York knows it is the darling metropolis, despite its bi-polar tendencies. Its bus drivers will coo over your accent in the morning and berate you with the sincerity of one personally offended for inserting your ticket the wrong way round in the afternoon.)
A ferry takes us to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and under the Brooklyn Bridge. (What to write here, that hasn't been written before? I'm suffering a kind of anxiety of influence, attempting to make new one of the most reproduced and represented sights in the world.) Perhaps the whole point of the Statue of Liberty, though, is to be simultaneously renowned and unknown. Despite the biting wind the passengers on our boat dash onto the deck as we draw nearer, eager for their first glimpse of America's symbol of freedom. In the footsteps of how many others do we follow in this experience? I imagine sharing the moment with another English girl, my age, my height, feeling the sway of the waves beneath her boots and seeing the same great star-crowned woman for the first time - each of us, a hundred years apart. She was built to be forever new: the first sight of an undiscovered world.
"Undiscovered", only by colonials, of course. But truly undiscovered by the weary passengers aboard the ships coming to port in this harbour. And in that way I share something of America's history, on this clear, crisp, February morning in the year 2013.
Sykping Dad before I left for Heathrow, we talked about how the city might have changed since he spent time here, growing up. New York isn't new but it's new to me. I am making my own version of the city already, shaped by the movies I've watched and music I've listened to and stories I've read; now I'm adding those to the experience of walking through the streets myself. I can feel the city taking shape for me through these translations, and I suppose it's a different language to the one my father speaks. As we leave the water and button our coats against the cold, Laura and I head uptown. Although the sidewalks and the street names are the same now as they were when Dad walked them, I know there are some chasms in my construction of this place which he can fill through memory but I can't fill at all. We head to the 9/11 Memorial.
I have some pictures, but they don't belong here. It's a space which I think has been too-much photographed, both before and after and during, and although the waterfalls and the gardens are beautiful the exterior of the place is, for everybody, secondary to the interior monologue visible on each visitor's face. (I walked around the edge of each empty space and looked at what was not there. The stark display of loss creates a need for contact, a human impulse to touch whatever remains, so I took off my glove and ran my hand over the engravings as I walked, felt my fingers shudder out the names. Laura and I sat on the stone benches and she thought about how, of all the memorials we've seen at home and on school trips to the continent, this is the only one whose creation we have witnessed ourselves. I thought about the children in their buggies with their parents, and how they had not been witnesses: a nine-eleven generation growing up in a world still in the shadow of two falling towers. Foreign policy, Islamophobia, Orwellian surveillance, and the legacy of illegal wars on terror.
A little girl in a hijab played with her brother on the bench next to ours. A photography project formed, quickly and quietly, in my head, and although I prepped it a little with the memorial staff I didn't go back the next day to shoot. Somewhere like this, you photograph in a way which brings something new to the dialogue, or you don't photograph at all. There are too many picture of this place, and I don't want to add mine before I know they are meaningful. Perhaps when I'm here again, when I've had time to balance emotion with intellect, to be sure of my aim and secure in my own legitimacy to portray the story, I'll go back with my camera.)
We walk some more. We could take the subway, hop on the A line up to Times Square - but the city lives above ground, the train is for commuters tired of the lights, and I came here to step around the heart of it. Getting from A to B is less important than finding my feet (or at least, in four days, begin to have a small idea of how to find my feet.) Also: finding space to pause and reflect is not easy in New York City. I recognise that already. Dad has given me a journal, but my time is precious in a city where time is already precious and I'm not sure when I will be able to put pen to paper. Instead, then, I should find snatches of breath while I'm still on the go. Walking the town gives me a window to start piecing together my thoughts and storing them in a safe place inside my head for later, when I'll come home and write a film diary entry and try out post-reflection. This is a new way of making sense of my journeys, and it is closer to how I make my film photographs. Moments pass, are captured as best they can be, and rediscovered back home where they must be reconstructed in light of everything that has been experienced between the conception and the birth.
So we walk some more, and when we are hungry we stop on the corner of West 29th and 7th and have sandwiches in a small Pret. (I remember reading an article on the NYTimes about this new 'quirky, British' chain opening on Broadway...) The sandwich selection is entirely different to the choice I have on my lunch break back home. From a window table we eat and people-watch and discuss plans. A group of elderly men huddle around the tables next to us, and I enjoy listening to them discuss current affairs over their cwaffee in that accent which still makes me smile to hear aloud. One guy chides a girl for claiming our table before we've fully left: "These girls're from England, don't give 'em the wrong idea about us New Yorkers!" I try to assure him that so far we've had nothing but pleasantness from those who rent out the city full-time.
And one has eaten, and one walks. A few blocks, and then the lights of Times Square.
We're headed elsewhere (isn't everybody here?) but we pause because it's difficult to walk when you're head is craned back. In Manhattan it's easy to forget, when you're caught up in the immediate, that so much of the city's in the sky. I think about my friends who had their artwork displayed here last year.
Times Square stands like a neon metaphor for those parts of American culture which we simultaneously criticise and embrace. Consumerist, immediate, disposable. Adverts flash onto screens and disappear in seconds like a barrage of imperatives. Need this, want this, have this. And American culture is so much more visual than back home. Really, Times Square is always just a gigantic gallery. How do we define art from advert? Both use images, both require something from us in response. (I wanted a picture of these pictures, but I didn't quite manage it.)
But while the pictures in Times Square assault you as you move past them, the art where we are going requests patience and a conversation. We leave the square, skip past the cars stuck in traffic/down on 53rd Street, and step into MoMA. They have Munch's The Scream, which is unexpected and exciting, and some pieces by Georges Braque which I remember reproducing for a high school art homework. There are headliners by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, but my favourites are the great Picassos (much larger in real life) and understated Van Goghs. There's one in particular I can tick off my all-time To-See List.
I always find photography exhibitions a bit odd. The MoMA has one at the moment, so I take a turn around the rooms and come away without really knowing why I was looking at what I was looking at. It's probably because I am not an art student, and so artless, unenhanced in seeing with a critical eye (hah!) - but also, sometimes it feels as though the great curators of the international art world don't really have a handle on where photography's space is yet, either. Should it go up in galleries? Photography doesn't work like painting and sculpture: there is no original. The excitement I felt at seeing Munch's Scream didn't come from the painting itself, but from the experience of seeing it - that very canvas he worked on. The camera exists to reproduce, endlessly, all it creates - and so disrupts our notions of worth as linked to availability or uniqueness. Seeing the Diane Arbus prints in the photography exhibition was, in contrast, not really any different to seeing them on my computer screen back home.
(I'm playing devil's advocate: of course photography should be exhibited, of course prints are different to computer screen. But even so, seeing the exhibition at MoMA after walking through Times Square made me want to come home and re-read Walter Benjamin.)
"Photography cannot record abstract ideas. :- Encyclopaedia Britannica"
from 'Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography)' by Mel Bochner (more here.)
Laura and I have been expensively distracted. One of the things on our To Do list for this week was to get to a show on Broadway, and although we both agreed it was unlikely we have somehow ended up with two tickets to see 'Wicked' this evening. The show starts at eight, so we hole up in a Starbucks and sit down to our coffee while everyone else grabs theirs to go. At the front of the queue I remember that here the baristas ask your name to scrawl on your coffee cup, but I haven't really felt like myself all day. This city doesn't require courageousness in the same way Tanzania did; I don't have to consciously turn myself into someone braver than I am. But the shoes I'm walking in aren't entirely mine, either. They belong to someone I am becoming, and she orders a chai latte with a smile.
part ii soon