On Seeing New York

A Photo Essay by W. Scott Olsen

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New York City, November 17, 2015
Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5

Tuesday morning, late November, I am sitting at a table in a café called Penelope in midtown Manhattan. There is a three-egg omelet on the plate in front of me filled with brie, bacon, and onion. There are potatoes with red and green peppers, two slices of sourdough bread. Good, strong coffee in the mug.

Breakfast at Penelope, by W. Scott Olsen.

I have been here before. In fact, I have been here many times before. There are places in the city I know fairly well, and this is one of them, so I have invited friends—we’re all in the city this day to attend the same event—and we talk and laugh with the comfort of local, personal history.

I have been here a lot. But, in truth, I am just a tourist in New York City. I haven’t been here nearly enough to learn anything other than a surface, a direction to look, a desire to pay attention.

What my friends do not know is that I am on a mission and they are part of it. I am going to take a walk today and this café is step one. I already know the basic route. After breakfast I am going to cross the street and visit The Old Print Shop where I will once again fall in love with some old map, some old very large map that I wish were hanging in my home or office, not only for the art, the beauty of the cartography, but the deep sense of history such maps provoke, the deep sense of connectedness and responsibility. I will be astounded by the price of a small, but original, landscape woodcut, and then embarrassed by my own ignorance in conversation with an erudite staff. When I leave, I will turn north, head in the general direction of the icons: Grand Central Station; New York Public Library; Bryant Park; Times Square.

I have most of the day to wander, just looking, though I know I won’t go very far. This evening I have that event to attend—a reception and then a performance. Afterwards, dinner with colleagues and family. Yet I have this goal as well.

I want to photograph a feeling.

Manhattan is a tall city. Walking midtown is ravine walking, canyon walking, shuffling or hurrying around massif and cliff-face. Empire State. MetLife: always the Pan-Am building to me. Chrysler. Crevasses open and people climb in or out: the A-train uptown, the B-train to Brooklyn. It’s easy to feel surrounded.

The Joys of Walking, by W. Scott Olsen.

But that is not how it feels. At least not for me. Perhaps because it is so tight, the feeling of Manhattan for me is wide—a feeling for the edges.

Wide angle. It’s common knowledge that when one sense is diminished the other senses try to fill that void. Nature abhors a vacuum. So when the walls get close, we turn our heads a bit more. We create a larger picture. In a canyon, the walls are not a barrier. They are landscape. They are detail and history. Stand at a corner with a wide-angle lens and you can see down both streets. Ignore the usual rule which says to put the subject on a 1/3 line in the frame. Center the subject, the guy selling hot dogs, and let the distortions near the end of the frame become a part of the truth of that moment.

A lens is a personality, a voice, a way of definition.

I have an 8mm wide-angle lens attached to my camera. This is the widest lens possible that is not a fisheye. It covers 121 degrees of view. (By comparison, a “normal” 35mm lens has roughly a 37 degree field of view.) It is, simply put, how I see this city. Yes, the edges get weird. They’re bended, elongated, out of proportion. That is one truth about my New York City.

I am going for a walk today, camera in hand. I imagine I’ll bring the camera along this evening as well. The air is warm and the sky is clear. There is no agenda other than to wander and discover those sights that somehow seem larger than the elements that compose them. As many of the elements as possible. My friends at the breakfast table, the food on our plates, the servers in the background, the mirror behind the bar, the line of people waiting to be seated, the romantic couple by the window, the business meeting next to them. It is an experiment. One day. One lens. Just the story of one day’s travel, as widely seen. There are windows behind the guys fixing a train station window, the woman walking by them all. There is the inside as well as the outside of the taxi cab. There are buildings behind street signs. There are ceilings to steal and capture breath. There is the unintended metaphor, the absurd, the unfilled table. There is loneliness. There is an evening café in the Village. There is geometry and beauty, too. Perhaps it is only cliché. But I am on a simple quest. All I want is to say yes, this is what it looks like, today, to me.


On Seeing New York | A Gallery by W. Scott Olsen

All photographs are copyright W. Scott Olsen; images may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:


W. Scott Olsen’s new book is A Moment with Strangers (North Dakota State University Press 2016). He teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota where he also edits the literary journal Ascent.
Read more nonfiction by W. Scott Olsen appearing in Terrain.org: “Chasing Clouds” and “River Flying in Winter: The Sheyenne River”.

Header image, view of the Empire State Building from street level, by W. Scott Olsen.

Where streets meet in Lavapiés

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.