Gregory Spaid

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Sidewalk Ballet


East Side, West Side, all around the town
The tots sang "ring-around-rosie," "London Bridge is falling down"
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York

-- from the 1894 song “The Sidewalks of New York”

               by James W. Blake and Charles B. Lawlor


When I relocated to Manhattan, from a very small town in Ohio, I was immediately drawn to the teeming vitality of the street.  Every day New York City sidewalks are alive with the movement of people engaged in an aggressive yet intricate choreography.  If you watch closely, as I have, you may see this daily hustle and bustle become something artful – a sort of dance.

The subjects in these photographs are not collaborators.  They do not know they have been photographed.  And these are not portraits.  Instead, I imagine these people to be playing a role.  The act of photographing them as I have tends to diminish their particularity and increase their significance as a type, a player – much like a dancer in a Tywla Tharp dance gives up her particular identity in order to express something more imaginative and universal.  In fact, the act of watching people on the street is an act of imagination.  We do not know the particulars of the lives of the strangers we see there, yet we assign them roles in our imagination.  We indulge our fantasies, which is part of the great seduction of street life.

In these photographs I have tried to push the image toward abstraction without it losing the specific reality of the moment in which it was made. I have tried to merge the abstract and the concrete, the poetic and the literal.  And these images are not staged fictions.  Their vitality depends on the spontaneous unfolding of events below me as I photograph from various perches above the sidewalks of New York. 

I am indebted to the writer Jane Jacobs who beautifully described the vitality of street life and coined the phrase “the sidewalk ballet” in her groundbreaking 1961 book on urban life, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Her book was one of the first I read after I moved to New York City and her insights shape the way I view the City and informed the photographs I made there.

Gregory Spaid

March 2011

Link to Sidewalk Ballet