“It is indeed a different nature that speaks to the camera than that which speaks to the eye . . .” 
- Walter Benjamin, from A Short History of Photography, 1931


The word pedestrian means one who travels on foot. But it also means unimaginative or commonplace. In the 18th century, when the word first gained common usage in English, walking may have been an unimaginative choice compared to riding in a carriage or on a horse. But not today. Walking now carries new meaning and suggests the walker has made an imaginative choice to contribute to a healthier environment.

In 2009 I started watching and photographing pedestrians in New York City for a project that has continued for over ten years. In these photographs I have tried to push the image toward abstraction without it losing entirely the specific reality of the moment in which it was made. 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 City. My goal here is to show something that becomes visual only by being photographed.

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.

I imagine these people to be playing a role, like characters in a play or dancers on a stage. Yet they are not my collaborators. They do not know they have been photographed. The act of photographing them as I have done de-emphasizes their particularity and increases their significance as a type, a player, a character – much like a dancer in a Twyla Tharp dance gives up her particular identity in order to express something imagined by the choreographer. And just as it is in dance, gesture is extremely important in conveying something common to us all in the human experience. 

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. It was that book that set me thinking and questioning what I was seeing on the crowed sidewalks of New York.

Gregory Spaid

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