Welcome to Ways of Seeing, a series in which two artists sit down to discuss the nuances of their work, trade industry secrets, and fill each other in on their latest projects. The only catch? One of them is on staff at W magazine. In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with Melissa O’Shaughnessy, whose New York City street photographs are collected in her new book, Perfect Strangers.
What was the catalyst behind publishing your first book with Aperture?
I almost fell off my chair when Aperture offered to do a book with me. I was so excited and the team was really amazing. I had fun making the pictures and just as much fun making the book, which doesn’t always happen. When you work with Aperture, you’re really part of their family suddenly, and there are just some incredibly talented people there. My work is very positive, and it’s a joyous look at New York before the pandemic, so the process of making it really mirrored that joy.
It’s an interesting time to release this book—the subject matter has a whole new meaning within the context of this past year. You shot all of this before 2020, and none of your subjects are wearing masks. They’re all huddled together on the streets of New York, preoccupied with whatever they’re doing that day, not caring about how close they’re standing to someone else.
The pandemic, of course, was completely unplanned. Street photography is interesting because people don’t always become interested in it until it has the patina of age. So you look back at Helen Levitt’s work, or Garry Winogrand’s, or Joel [Meyerowitz]’s, and sometimes you’re fascinated by how different things were. We were putting this book together long before the pandemic hit, and we really didn’t know that the pandemic would place this book in time faster than time would have naturally done that.
How did you get into street photography?
I came to it pretty late. I didn’t really start until I was in my fifties. It’s never too late, I guess [laughs]. I didn’t start being a serious photographer, though, until I was in my forties. My high school-age son was taking a photography class, and he came home one day and was like, “Mom, we have to build a darkroom.” Knowing him as well as I did, I knew that even if we built our own darkroom at home, he’d eventually lose interest, so I realized I better learn what it’s all about otherwise we’re stuck with an unused darkoom. So I took some night classes in black and white photography, and I was correct: by the time we built the darkroom, my son wasn’t so interested in it anymore. I spent a couple years shooting landscapes and things—stuff that wasn’t that interesting. Eventually, though, I moved to the city because both of my older children lived here, and I knew the minute we got here that the street was what I was interested in. Then I started taking a workshop with Joel Meyerowitz, and he was talking about how street photography is really the purest form of photography. He explained that painters can paint a landscape, or a portrait, and sculptors can sculpt a portrait too, but what the camera allows us to do on the street can’t be replicated by any other medium. It’s because the camera allows us to capture that half a second of real time and life. Street photographers become obsessed because it’s very difficult to do well.
Do you feel as if you have any control over what happens on the street?
You have no control, really, other than where you place yourself, or what you’re interested in placing a box around. It’s incredibly satisfying when things do come together, though. I was very shy when I started, but I love this city, and I love going for long walks, so the camera came with me. Little by little, I got less shy, and it’s like working out a muscle—you eventually get better at it. I know some people who you explain street photography to, and they look at you like you’ve got two heads! They’re like, “You mean, you go out and you take pictures of strangers all day on the streets? How weird!”
It’s a bit like you’re spying on people, I guess, like you’re in Rear Window or something.
It lives a bit at the crossroads of portraiture and documentary, and it’s real life. Things happen sometimes, and you realize truth really is stranger than fiction. There are things that happen on the streets of New York that you just can’t make up.
Do you ever have someone come up to you after you take a picture? Has anyone ever gotten upset with you?
Not really. I’ve had a few people get angry. If they do, I just delete the picture. I think your body language is really important. I dress in all black and wear a scarf around my neck when I go out to take pictures. I really do look like a tourist. I’m also a petite older woman, so people don’t really get that suspicious. But again, I’m not out to make anyone look bad, and I think that’s really obvious from the book—the pictures are a celebration of New York and its people. Again, though, I’m a really fast shooter, so I don’t think most of my subjects even realize they’ve been photographed. Also, a compliment goes a long way, so if someone asks why you’ve taken their picture, I’ll be honest and explain I just loved the way they look, or I was drawn to their scarf, or whatever it was. There are a few subjects who saw me take their picture in the book. You’ll notice this one of an older woman in red ear muffs. She’s looking right at me and we’re having a little dialogue. You understand from her expression that she knows she has a look, and that she thinks it’s amusing. I’ll see some male street photographers with their cameras wrapped around their wrist, and it sort of looks a bit predatory. I think people can sense the difference.
How do you think people react differently to a woman taking their picture on the street versus a man?
When I started out, I thought I was at such a disadvantage being a woman—considering the streets have been pounded by men, and the genre of street photography was very male-dominated.
I think in the photo industry at large, as in all industries unfortunately, women are frustratingly at a disadvantage.
At the beginning I thought, here I am: smaller, more petite, I’m not this dominating male photographer aggressively pounding the streets—not that all male street photographers are hyper-aggressive. But I thought I was at a disadvantage for sure. When I started shooting more, I realized I was at an advantage on the street. People don’t ascribe a creepy vibe to an older woman taking their picture, as they might to a man. I think there are a lot of men who do it well, but they need to cultivate the same open presence, and have a smile on their face. As a woman, for example, I could take a picture of a child on the street, but I don’t know any male street photographers who would do that. After I got over my shyness, I realized that being a woman was definitely working as an advantage for me in regards to street photography.
The first image in your book is of an older woman, who appears to be the paragon of New York streets. She’s so proud and dressed in an eccentric way. This is the sort of picture that makes you miss the old New York City before Covid-19. The second image is of someone much younger, a child, who is jumping through this sort of anonymous concrete architecture. The combined effect of these images, for me, is one that characterizes New York as a home for all ages, young and old. What was your intention behind opening the book that way?
The book really is my love letter to New York City. I’m not a Native New Yorker, I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My father was a New Yorker, but I didn’t move here until I was in my 30s. Those two photographs were my way of opening the book and announcing myself. I wanted to go from the older woman to the younger girl and say, hey, here’s what’s offered in this city. Especially with the older woman—I think she really welcomes you into the book, in a way that I thought sent a lovely message. The very last picture is also an older woman, sort of with her back to the camera. I made this very conscious effort to open the book with these incredibly strong, character-filled older women. They’re almost carrying the world on their shoulders.
What is your relationship to the idea of the anonymous? We can infer a lot about these subjects by how they present themselves, but we don’t actually know who they are.
First of all, the title of the book is very much an answer to that question—these subjects are “Perfect Strangers.” These people are total strangers, but they’re also perfect. It’s a variety of the types of people you can see in New York City, and in the variety of their humanity, I see perfection. There are a lot of young women in this book holding their phones, and they’re deep within themselves, and sometimes that’s how you survive in this city. You stay deep inside yourself. I have a deep affection for people in all of their variety, and my relationship with that is presented in the book: look at how connected we all are… look at how funny the human race is… look at how stressed people can be! I hope viewers, in the aggregate, come away with an affection for these people.
As someone who has been photographing the streets for a while, how has the popularity of smartphones changed your work ? Were phones occupying your frame 10 years ago as much as they are now?
The earliest photograph in the book was taken in 2014, so just in the six years since taking that photograph, it’s astounding to see how people became more and more invested in their phones. Not everyone had a smartphone in 2014—
I didn’t have one until 2013!
Instagram and things like that weren’t as popular back then, so people weren’t as addicted to them. Now, we can’t even get around without our phones—we use them to navigate the city. But I also think it’s a sign of the times. You can’t complain about it too much because it’s sort of like a street photographer from the 1960s saying they’re tired of top hats and trench coats. Pictures of people fully absorbed into their phones generally aren’t as interesting, but I didn’t exclude those pictures from the book because it’s a documentation of this time, and the reality is that people are locked into phones. I did try to only include ones where people are looking away from them, though.
Do you think not having phones is what makes the children stand out more than adults in this book?
Exactly. One of the reasons why I like to photograph children is that they’re so present. Street photographers will always tell you that it’s children who notice you first. I have this one picture that isn’t in the book, but it’s of a crowded street corner and nobody is making eye-contact with me except these two children holding their dad’s hand. That picture always reminds me to try and be as present and aware as a child. Children aren’t full of all these memories and obligations and concerns. They’re fully free and open.
My favorite picture in the book is the one of the mother and daughter at The Strand bookstore. They’re standing together, and their posture is mirrored. Can you tell me a bit more about that one?
The Strand is my favorite bookstore, I live two blocks from it. I was headed home from lunch, and it was a wet, gray day. I was upset because I hadn’t gotten any good pictures that day, and I always hover at that corner, and I saw both of them postured in that same way. I have two daughters, and my mother is still alive, and I’m really interested in the mother-daughter relationship. I’m interested in the way that we age, and how our mannerisms are inherited. There’s this tenderness in the picture that’s shared between them. They’re so connected, but they’re also so lost in their shared interest of whatever’s on the bookshelf. I’m waiting for people to flip through this book and realize they were photographed for it—I’m waiting for the strangers to reach out! My nephew was flipping through the book and he was able to identify this one man just based on his tattoos. The man’s face isn’t even in the photograph, but my nephew knew he had seen him before.
All accolades aside, what are you most proud of in your journey as an artist?
That’s a great question. What I am proudest of is that I’ve been able to work really hard at something I love. It has never felt like work. The pride comes from the development of my skill and craft, and I’m proud that I think I have a little different take on the streets of New York. I hope that my affection and delight of this city comes through me and is present in this work. I hope my authorship is palpable in the work. As an artist, if I’ve achieved that, then I’m getting closer to what the goal is. I’m working in the streets of chance, but if my voice starts to come through this body of anonymous people, that’s something. I’m most proud of my affection for people, and my authorship.