New York City has so many iconic landmarks, buildings and scenes that it may seem like an impossible task to fit everything into a single book. But that’s what photographer Chris Bliss did when he began assembling Iconic New York (teNeus). A story about Chris Bliss appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of DOWNTOWN Magazine. The rest of the interview can be read below.
DOWNTOWN Magazine: How did you first get started in photography?
Chris Bliss: While I was a music student, I used it as a hobby as a break from hours of practicing.
DTM: I read that you began your career as a concert pianist. How did you shift from focusing on that to photography?
CB: After working as a musician/teacher for many years, I found myself embroiled in a constant struggle to make a living with less and less time to enjoy the art itself. Though I still think that music is the greatest of all arts, I always found it frustrating that there was no tangible end, and very little reward for, my endless hours of practicing. Even though I enjoyed the excitement and satisfaction of performing publicly, I still felt that I had nothing to show for it at the end. During this time, my interest in photography continued to grow and I also became aware that there were many avenues of photography that could be artistically satisfying and, at the same time, had a much higher potential for making a living than did music. I gradually started doing more photography and less music.
DTM: What has drawn you to photographing NYC for over 30 years?
CB: After I moved to California, I would still often go back to New York to visit friends and family, and realized how much I missed the excitement and culture of being in NYC. I started photographing my favorite places in NY and making black-and-white prints for my own personal enjoyment. I started showing my work to various galleries and publishers, and they apparently liked what they saw. I felt compelled to capture as much of NYC as I could (in pictures) each time I visited New York.
DTM: What does it mean to you for something to be “Iconic New York”? Along the same lines, how do you go about selecting a subject for a photo?
CB: Something that is instantly recognizable as being found only in NY. I do this in a couple of different ways, with the first challenge being that most of the obvious buildings and landmarks that have already been photographed a million times. The task there is obviously trying to find some new, unique perspective. The second approach comes from walking the streets and stumbling upon something that I think will make a strong image. This could be something abstract, like shadows or the way the light rakes down a street, or something simple, like people walking across the street.
DTM: What kind of process do you use to select your vantage point? Millions of people have taken pictures of the Empire State Building, so what do you try to do to get the best or most interesting image?
CB: I look for the strongest combination of shape, shadow, light and mood.
DTM: Having photographed NYC for so long, what kinds of changes have you noticed in the city and its architecture? What changes have you seen specifically in Lower Manhattan?
CB: The biggest change that I have seen is the general gentrification of Manhattan. This has become visible especially in the Times Square area and in lower Manhattan. There used to be areas that I would avoid walking through alone, especially at night, but now I would walk almost anywhere without giving it a second thought. By the same token, many of the previously most interesting areas of NY, for photography, have lost much of their character. This is most evident in Times Square, which is now much safer than it was, but has also been turned into a huge international tourist attraction that feels more like walking through an amusement park or shopping mall than walking though the center of the world’s greatest city.
Lower Manhattan has really gone through a huge metamorphosis over the last 20 years. The meat-packing district no longer packs meat, almost all industry has left the city, the twin towers obviously are gone, South Street Seaport has been turned into a shopping mall, Fulton Fish Market is gone. On the other hand, exciting additions like Frank Gehry’s Beekman Tower and many other interesting buildings have sprouted up all over Manhattan, creating a fascinating mix of old and new architecture.
DTM: What type of camera(s) and equipment do you usually use for these photographs? Do you use digital or film cameras? How do you decide between using color or black and white?
CB: Most of the time, I shoot with a Canon digital camera. I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for the past five years. The question of deciding between color or black and white for any particular photo is one for which I can’t really give a concrete answer –I’d have to say that I just use an instinctual feel for what format would work best for each subject. For example, to me, the Brooklyn Bridge almost always looks more iconic in Black and White than in color. Color just seems to detract from the design and graphic lines of the bridge.
DTM: You seem to have a mix of street level shots, shots taken from roofs and shot presumably taken from helicopters. Do you prefer any one of these over the others? How do you decide from which vantage point you’ll take a certain picture?
CB: I’m always looking for a new vantage point that most people would not have considered before.
DTM: I’m sure you get this a lot, but is there any certain photograph you have taken that really sticks out in your mind? Along the same lines, is there any certain place or building that you really enjoy photographing? Are there any buildings in lower Manhattan that you particularly enjoy photographing?
CB: I took a picture from the Chrysler Building back in the mid-1990s, with the Chrysler-building eagle in the foreground and the rest of Manhattan in the distance. This I’ve always considered one of the most iconic and timeless views of NY. I love taking pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s such a beautiful structure and has had such historical importance for the life of the city. I never seem to get tired of taking pictures either of the bridge or from it.
DTM: Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you’d like to add?
CB: I’ve spent time walking the streets and photographing many cities in the US and Europe. However, no place really compares to New York for excitement. When I’m in New York, I always feel like I’m in the center of the world. This is the message I aim to convey in my book.
—Compiled by Matt Essert