Over the last seven years, Melissa O’Shaughnessy has photographed daily on the streets of New York. Woven into her cast of characters are the lonely, the soulful, and the proud.
Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs revels in the compelling looks and mannerisms of the improbable figures roaming the Big Apple. As street photographer Melissa O’Shaughnessy noted, before the disturbance of Covid-19, “Manhattan could be a very generous place on a busy afternoon, full of moments that remind you that truth really is stranger than fiction.”
The ensemble of 91 images, published by Aperture, was taken over six years. They “segue between honest, clear observation, and layered, nuanced, and fragmented combinations that make the viewer scan the frame for the hook,” wrote photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who was O’Shaughnessy’s mentor, in the introduction. O’Shaughnessy’s images have not only the hook but all these substrata, and what the viewer first gravitates to can pivot, with other parts of her populated microcosms waiting to be deconstructed.
“The connections that you see between all the unrelated and unknowing passersby, that becomes your invention,” Meyerowitz remarks of the photographer’s power; it is “your instantaneous understanding of the present tense you live in.” He praises the photographer for aptly capturing “the tempo of the twenty-first century” (which, he reckons, “began picking up somewhere around the debut of the smartphone”). Nowhere is that tempo more heightened than in O’Shaughnessy’s chosen hunting ground: Manhattan’s busiest neighborhoods, from the human glut swarming Fifth Avenue to those wending through the Financial District to the crowds thronging Chinatown.
Meyerowitz goes on to describe the images as “a combination of poetry and dance”—a kind of peculiar harmony, through which all these frozen moments in the bustling street create a kind of set piece. (The work is a little like a Bill Cunningham portrait — who also fluttered around midtown — although his work was more about individual peacocking.)
The effect with O’Shaughnessy’s work is something theatrical, but with too much feral energy and unexpected convergences to be choreographed, even as the images yield a kind of polyphony, or at least a surprising intelligibility about urban mixing. “You have no control, really, other than where you place yourself, or what you’re interested in placing a box around,” O’Shaughnessy admitted about managing the chaos of Manhattan’s pedestrians. Her advantage is her discretion amongst those she notices: “I’m… a petite older woman, so people don’t really get that suspicious.”
O’Shaughnessy is not a native New Yorker, and indeed she seems to comb through the crowds with a slightly not-from-here awe (O’Shaughnessy is a Minneapolis-born Midwesterner). Which is not to say she doesn't masterfully nail down the New York vibe, but that—like many of us—she seems to marvel at and bask in the city’s sheer strangeness, its ineffable magnetism. Perhaps that awe feels so fervently intact because O’Shaughnessy came to photography later than most, in her 40s and 50s, prompted by her son’s desire to build a darkroom (his interest quickly waned, hers only climbed). O’Shaughnessy’s work is not cynical; if anything, there’s even, one might say, a certain giddiness. That radiates out of the images and reaches the viewer.
O’Shaughnessy is especially attentive to certain visual cues. A prevalent one is doubling—of gesture, of styling—which O’Shaughnessy spots amidst the bedlam. Sometimes they’re deliberate doubles, like siblings with the same hairstyles, sporting matching accessories, or two little boys dressed in the same manner. Sometimes, it’s a behaviorally mirrored moment, like a mother and daughter cocking their heads at the same angle before the $2-5 carts of books at The Strand, or two skater teens perfectly twinning the postures two men in suits, like a Freaky Friday alternative universe punchline.
The alignments can be even simpler, based on color palette: the balance of three pale pink dresses in slightly different shades, of women in a wedding party crouching over a car, or three Sikh men whose dastārs resonate with the color scheme of subway signage. In fact, signage itself can communicate more than the simply informational. In one image, “& Other Stories” (a retail chain), “One Way” (a city street sign), “He Died So That We May Live” (a t-shirt commemorating Jesus) create a micro-narrative about religion, direction, and storytelling, condensed within the parameters of a single frame.
But ultimately O’Shaughnessy doesn't rely on words: her visual vocabulary is what speaks the loudest. She discerns and examines variegated body language: take the three Orthodox Jewish men standing in a marbled doorway, their individual gestures highlighting their distinctiveness despite the uniformity of their solemn black vestments. O’Shaughnessy also identified the way the city provides visual games, like a piece of draped red fabric obfuscating the face of restaurant worker seen below street level, or a clear plastic curtain creating a muddled texture over three people exiting a Chinese grocer, or the way the back of a jacket, imprinted with the face of a sharp-toothed beast, seems like a dangerous creature in plain sight as pedestrians walk, unawares, towards it. Even the caprice of the weather creates décoiffé effects, as if hair and hems zig and zag move just as unpredictably as the beings they’re attached to.
Whatever bewitched orchestration leads to these perfectly delineated moments, the people in the photos rarely ever seem to ever be looking at the same thing. Not while they’re taking selfies together; not while grouped together waiting at the crosswalk. The gaze is as erratic as the street itself — always individual, a kind of autonomy and solitude even amongst dense crowds.
Some of the subjects are magnetic figures whose presence and style is a kind of metropolitan showstopper: including the figure featured on the front cover, snapped on Fifth Avenue in 2018. She’s a stylish Asian woman with bleach-blonde hair, sporting a teddy bearish coat with an oversized collar, and a rainbow manicure. The architectural details of the street and other passers-by recede relative to her, though there’s nothing showoff-y about her presence: she’s clutching her smartphone, a bottled beverage, her earbuds, and her handbag — the prototypical urban survival kit. But her gaze is contemplative and intense. That sense of pause is quite moving. In as much of a rush as we all are navigating the streets, we carry our vulnerability and uncertainty with us. And sometimes, for a mere moment, it shows.
By Sarah Moroz
Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. She writes about photography, art, and various other cultural topics.
Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs
Published by Aperture