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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Cheshire Cat Blog > 2010
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21 October 2010

The Empire State Building, Manhattan, New York by David John at The Cheshire Cat Blog

Empire State Building, Manhattan, New York

photo collage: © David John
Once upon a time
in New York

Manhattan, an overcast day 30 years ago. The 1980s are about to bring changes unimaginable for New Yorkers. There's a lot of talk going around about a sluggish economy, and worldly-wise taxi drivers will tell you about the need for more inflation. The term "Reaganomics" has not yet been coined, but Americans will soon find out what that means.

The Berlin Wall is still standing and Soviet-style Communism remains the number 1 political bogey-man. Number 2 is Ayatullah Khomeini's Iran, particularly after Iranian revolutionary guards storm the American embassy in Tehran and hold 52 people hostage for 444 days. Billboard posters, newspaper and TV ads demand to know "Have you thought about the hostages today?" Another billboard ad campaign shows a shirt and the slogan "What a changing America is changing into", which makes one pause for thought. Americans are pretty mad at the Iranians and the situation brings awareness of the vulnerability of their fellow citizens working abroad. But for many, the rest of the world's problems still seem as far away as another planet.

Walter Cronkite is still presenting the Evening News on CBS, and nobody has yet heard of the Falkland Islands, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, Chernobyl, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or sub-prime mortgages.

The world is likewise blissfully ignorant of the names Bill Gates, Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, Hewlett Packard and Yahoo. Relatively few of us have ever used a computer and a mouse remains no more than a small furry rodent. CDs have yet to go on sale and the state-of-the-art popular media devices are the VCR video cassette recorder and the walkman portable cassette player. The Global Positioning System has just been launched, but as with the notion of a portable telephone, it still sounds to most of us like science fiction, or perhaps a fairy story.

About this image

The photography bug caught me at an early age, and during the 1970s I had begun experimenting (in a very unscientific way) with photo collages and panoramas using a variety of cameras, including a cheap Polaroid and an ancient Zeiss Ikon (thanks to Chris Gibbs). However, when travelling I deliberately chose not to take a camera in order to avoid the temptation of spending more time photographing the places I visited than looking at and experiencing them. It is often a curse of the photographer to be mentally framing everything he or she sees as a potential photograph.

I still believe this was a good decision, especially when I see tourists who seem to be continuously snapping with their digital cameras and mobile phones as they rush from sight to sight without even stopping to see anything. On the other hand, I sometimes regret not having a photographic reminder of people I have known and places as they once were. And vice versa.

In New York the temptation just got too much for me and I could resist it no longer. With a borrowed Kodak Instamatic (a cheapo plastic camera with a tiny negative film, fixed lens and no control over focus or exposure) and without the aid of safety net or tripod I tried to capture something of the wonder of this vertical city. Apart from the fact that direct sunlight often does not penetrate to street level, skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building pose a particular problem for photographers as they are far too big to fit into one photo. A series of snaps joined as a panorama was the only way to get it all in. This all seems obvious now in the age of digital photography and photo-stitching software, but back then it was far from common.


Avenue of the Americas, Manhattan, New York by David John at The Cheshire Cat Blog

Empire State Building on West 34th
Street, from Herald Square at the
intersection of 6th Avenue (Avenue
of the Americas) and Broadway.

photo: © David John

The resulting small-format photos, printed by a budget commercial printer, were pretty murky. But undaunted I stuck the panoramas together. The photo collage here is one of them. I guess one day I should scan and stitch the negatives digitally, but for me this original rough-and-ready collage captures the somewhat chaotic and run-down atmosphere of New York in the early 1980s more accurately than a digitally enhanced image.

Somehow, to me these photos and others I took around this time seem to show a world as long-gone as the images from a 100 years ago, with horse-drawn streetcars, women with bonnets and parasols, and men in moleskin breeches smoking meerschaum pipes.

David John, October 2010
Article and photos copyright © David John

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