Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Humans of New York

With the quarter picking up again, my schedule endeavors to overload me with to-do lists, and kill me with jog-walks between buildings on campus; however, instead of making me wish I had the ability to teleport - well, okay, maybe I do that, too - I instead find myself ruminating on the realities of the people I pass along the way to class. I'm thinking this book is to blame...  

You know what Humans of New York is. Even if you don't know it by name, it's hard to ignore the multitude of pictures you see while scrolling through your Facebook timeline, full of portrait-style confessionals, happy snapshots full of families and friend groups, or maybe even depictions of action and innovation perfectly encapsulated in one single instant that just happened to be captured on film.

The man holding the power of those images, is Brandon Stanton, and those images are the culmination of many years of pursuing excellent photography, and, in particular, the people of New York City. If a picture is worth a thousand word, this epic saga of street-side snapshots from the city that never sleeps speaks volumes on human creativity, compassion, and the lengths we go through to say, "Hello."

However, I'm not going to get caught up in how amazing the photography itself is; you can observe that just as readily, and my talents don't primarily lie in evaluating the image, either (we'll leave that to the Art Historians). Instead, I would argue the book is more than just a simple coffee table tome that might impress the neighbors.

I argue this touting the concept of how HONY speaks to the concept of web-to-reality virality, or how people get famous on the internet, and where they go from there.

Stanton - as he describes in the book's introduction - got started as a photographer traveling through cities, and publishing his work on Facebook. In fact, that's where I find most of his photos now: they're a pretty big deal among the women of my sorority, and I can't scroll through the news feed of the popular social network without seeing one. (Which is why many of the most notable pictures within the book might be ones you've seen before.)

But what is it about the content that Stanton produces that proves so appealing to virality? My hypothesis: snapshot content - easy to digest - published alongside humorous and insightful  messages from the photo's inhabitants, which appeals to the consumer, to construct their own story behind the image. The photos are easily sharable - just one *click*, no caption necessary - and easy to identify with, for people from all backgrounds and walks of life, but especially those who buy into the mystique of the country's biggest bustling metropolis.

So why a book? Why not just leave it on the web? My answer: it popularizes the world of the individual, which, collected with other simultaneous worlds, builds a more comprehensive understanding of exactly what kind of humans are populating New York. It's like a census of sentiment. No person or peoples is exempt from classification among the pictures housed within Stanton's collection: ragtag crews of kids from the Heights, contrasted against the sleek and chic of Fashion Week and Wall Street. Homeless people, artists, and homeless artists. No one is above or below in importance of the project.

Still, lets not get too introspective on what this project really is comprised of: the pictures themselves.

In terms of what they give you, individually, sometimes there is frustratingly less information presented than you'd like. That's why its important to glean as much context as you can from the photograph. Sometimes, that can be a bit of a headache.

This search for greater understanding lead to a strange confluence of the concepts of web and physical reading: I had to keep myself from wondering what the comments would say, a mental kind of "scroll down" effect. In fact, towards  the beginning of the book, I debated actually looking up the photos online, to see what other observers had noted and deemed worthy of their interaction.

(But then you really just have to think about what it would be like to encounter these people on the street: Lord knows you wouldn't be getting much more than what you're getting here, if that; or more disappointing yet, would you have even noticed them?)

Addtionally, you're inundated by colors, framing, and faces; you can't sort through the entirety of the book all in one go. There's no sitting down to read HONY; then again, that's not what its for. What it really is there for, is to provoke some kind of contemplation on the realities of the lives of those who walk the same streets you do.

Final Verdict: I feel that Humans of New York is an important project, not just for demonstrating the applications of human connection, but how that contact extends throughout formats, including both web and print.

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