Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York project has received a lot of praise and some criticism. Cultural tourism? Slumming? Respectful record? Most likely it’s a combination of the two. What’s true, however, is that Stanton seems to have a knack for capturing someone’s essential spark.
This is the first book of HONY images, and it’s a wonderful example of portraiture. It does tend a little towards the garish and the colourful, which in a place like NY might seem to be shooting fish in a barrel. For my money, the portraits shot by chance on the subway, showing commuters in their bubbles of quiet, are among the most successful. But the book is never uninteresting, and puts me in mind of the Time-Life ‘Great Cities’ series – it’s trite but ‘every picture tells a story’ is what fuels this project.
Interestingly, few of the portraits in the book come across as guarded. There’s some with bravado, sure – two young dudes shot on some waste ground, all contained energy – but it seems the photos are mostly dead-on, full of engagement. It’s heartening, a sort of link in what is often portrayed as an unfeeling, combative city.
The one star deduction is for the book’s production rather than for its subject matter. It’s a hefty book, and it reminded me the positive parts of looking at physical reproductions of images. But it’s hamstrung by a weird layout – some of the juxtaposition and cropping is strange, and the captions – sometimes as integral to the portrait as the image – are mostly reduced to throwaway lines. This keeps with the image of the pithy New Yorker most of us non-natives have, but it removes a little of the individual sparkle which the longer narrative offers.
That quibble aside, this is a great book. New York is ever-changing, flexing with gentrification and decay, but these images preserve wonderful moments. If the cropping and write-ups are addressed in future HONY works, this could become one of the great records.