Jeff Smallwood Photography
New York City on 10 Miles a Day - Day 1
Jul 5, 2012


Reconstruction One World Trade Center

Taken from the 9/11 Memorial grounds

One subject I've been trying to push myself on this year is street and urban photography. I've always thoroughly enjoyed the sunrise and landscape subjects and the natural environment is still my favorite subject. But I think shooting in the city is so much different. Most of the subjects are either in motion or constantly changing, the scenes are usually busier, and I find myself having to make decisions much faster. It's a great training ground to sharpen your skills.

I can plan a sunrise shoot at a particular spot, scout it ahead of time, show up early and usually be the only one there. In those kinds of situations I'm usually only racing against the light. The city throws a number of different elements into the mix which can result in some surprising outcomes.


Whether you like the city or not (I really enjoy it) or if you aren't used to it, pushing your photographic skills into the heart of an urban environment will definitely help you grow.


My wife and I recently completed a 3½ day trip to Manhattan and New York City. We made a conscious effort to walk as much of the city as we could during our visit. Sure, we had plans to see shows and visit some sights, but when we could, we decided getting to each place on foot was the best way to take it all in. From the time we arrived in Manhattan, over the next 84 hours we averaged almost 10 miles a day on foot.


Waiting for the train to arrive

Arriving to catch the train around 4:30am, I was immediately challenged with something different: a virtually abandoned, outdoor train station in the dark. Not many people there as early as we were, and the station office itself was closed (didn't open until 5am). The awnings were all lit up and stretched away from the station with the tracks disappearing into the darkness. No color and strong contrasts made me think in black and white.


My "paparazzi" shot from the Mall in Central Park

We arrived in the city around 8:30am, departed Penn Station and saw Geraldo Rivera not 30 seconds after being on the street. A quick cab ride to the Hudson Hotel and we felt like we'd already experienced a full day even though we just got there. After checking in we decided to walk through Central Park. We love that park and I'm still amazed at how much of a gem it is in the middle of a huge city. Every city would be so lucky to have a place like it. I got to play paparazzi for a little bit with my wife while we walked toward Bethesda Fountain (she put up with me quite well!). Bethesda Fountain is what many people know from the opening of the television show "Friends". Terrace Drive crosses through Central Park at the same spot and there's a bridge right next to the fountain that you walk under. The section beneath the bridge is almost reminiscent of a cathedral with its columns and brightly colored tile patterns.


Under the bridge near Bethesda Fountain

High dynamic range image from 3 exposures

Beneath the bridge at Bethesda Fountain

The light of the day was in full effect and created very strong contrasts. We lucked out and found a moment when not a single person was walking under the bridge so I put the camera on the tile floor and rattled off a bunch of bracketed shots. The above image I processed as an HDR (3 shots) to try and bring out the rich colors and light. The shot at right is from the opposite direction and I let the contrasts and patterns dictate the moment here and decided to go with black and white.


Central Park is a great place to shoot. Apart from the natural beauty that's been maintained in the heart of the city, there are a lot of unique things to see. Even the smallest details sometimes just jump out if you look for them.



Park bench perspectives

Details in the old carvings on the back

of the park benches

Statue with a mask someone has place on him.

Where else are you going to see this?

Awesome tree roots growing over huge rocks, with the

latest skyscrapers under construction in the background.


One of our many self portraits on the trip.

Another thing my wife and I like to do when we're out is take self-portraits. We find a nice spot, hold the camera at arms length and snap a shot or two. We usually use the 2-sec timer...makes it easier to get situated after you press the shutter release. When you do this over and over, it's interesting how many times complete strangers will come up and ask if we'd like them to take our photo. We offer to do that for groups all the time when we see them struggling with trying to balance a camera on an arm rest or trash can. It feels good to capture a photo for someone that they might not have captured otherwise. However, when we're specifically trying to take self portraits it presents a slightly awkward moment when we explain that, although we appreciate the offer to help, we're trying to take the photo on our own. :)


Outside the famous Radio City Music Hall

M&M colors in the factory store, Times Square

After the park we took a wandering walk through the city by Radio City Music Hall and then over to Times Square. We had a show the next day at Radio City so we wanted to get our bearings before we had to arrive the next day. We took in the experience of Times Square including the required visit to the M&M store. As we started to walk north toward our hotel we came across a charming man in Native American dress. Not the typical thing I'd come across at home in the country, but I was compelled to take a photo anyway.



The chief of what tribe, I do not know



Slightly long exposure of speeding cars

down the wet streets after the rain stopped.

The threat of rain was starting to move in and it sprinkled a while at one point while we shopped. We didn't care all that much and actually took our time to take in the scenes, block after block of huge buildings under the gray cloud cover. We started the day in full sun and it was amazing to see the transformation of the city once the rain moved in. The shadows and reflections almost jump out and grab you, something that was missing entirely when the sun was out.


Reflections of the city in the glass under threatening skies.

HDR from 3 exposures

Patterns, patterns, and more patterns, another 3 exposure HDR

Our last location for the day was the 9/11 Memorial. We'd signed up for tickets ahead of time and began our travels to the financial district. We ended up taking what was my first trip on the NY Subway to get there. A little intimidating to find the right train and stop, but once we figured out the plan it was easy. Not to mention we asked two people for assistance to ensure we were going the right way and people were incredibly helpful.


On our way to the memorial entrance we passed Engine Company 10. They were just loading up to answer a call as we walked by and I snapped a shot after the first engine had left and the second engine was gearing up. Around the corner on their building is a large memorial dedicated to the fallen firefighters.

Engine Company 10, loading up for a call.

Memorial to firefighters around the corner from the fire station entrance.

The 9/11 Memorial grounds are impressive, amazing, and humbling. If you're in New York and have the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend it. Next to the memorial is the continued construction of the new World Trade Center buildings. When we were there the main building, One World Trade Center, had steel construction up to the 104th floor with glass reaching to the 79th floor.

Where the south tower originally stood. The memorial museum is the building on the opposite side

but it isn't open to the public yet.


The tree in this shot survived the collapse of the towers. It was beneath the

debris and when it had been cleared away, all that remained was a small stump.

Arborists nursed it to health and it began to sprout new branches.

One World Trade Center rises behind it.


Reconstructing One World Trade Center

9/11 Memorial in the foreground

We spent some time on the grounds and when we were almost done a thunderstorm appeared to be rolling in. We weren't that surprised as the clouds for the previous hour had been quite dramatic and we honestly didn't expect the rain to hold off as long as it did. We wanted some place to go to avoid the downpour so we high-tailed it over to O'Hara's bar which is right around the corner from Engine Company 10 and right next to the memorial grounds.


Reconstruction of the World Trade Center, HDR in black and white


Long Exposure of the 9/11 Memorial water with the construction behind.

This is just before the clouds got really dark and a storm rolled in.


We thoroughly enjoyed the time in the bar and restaurant. We ate dinner, had a few drinks, and felt compelled to stay and enjoy our time there. We struck up a conversation with the owner Pete, and when we asked him how long they were closed after 9/11 his answer was 9 months...then he surprised us with a question. "Do you want to see the photos?" With my wife and I both being photo enthusiasts, that question was answered with a resounding "Yes".


Pete then reached behind the bar and presented a large album full of photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, and letters they'd saved. It turns out the bar had been spared from total destruction because another building used to sit in front of it, between the original World Trade Center towers and the bar. That other building shielded the bar's brick building from a large amount of debris, although from the photos we saw the bar still took a major hit. They had photos from 9/11 itself, photos from the roof as they attempted to assess damage and begin repairs. The letters they kept were tough to read, the photos were unique and powerful, but the album is well worth looking at if you find yourself visiting the same establishment. Just ask Pete if you can take a look.

The view of the World Trade Center construction from right outside O'Hara's Bar.

After the night was well upon us, we decided the best way to get back to the hotel was by taxi. Pete was nice enough to walk us outside and direct us up the block toward City Hall. From there he explained it would be easy to catch a cab and get back up the road. And we did just that, our legs a little tired from walking the city as much as we did the first day. We went to bed with our minds fully fixed on what adventures would await us the next morning.

A pint of Ireland's finest at O'Hara's bar in the financial district,

right next to the 9/11 Memorial and the new World Trade Center

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