The Faces of a City: Part 1

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Clay portrait sculptor, Time Square, Sept 2014

Several weeks ago I wrote about my trip to Boston, and my discovery afterward that all my pictures lacked people in them. This lead to a determination that on my next trip I would be sure to include humans in the cityscape—so as not to rob the city of its soul in my memory.

This weekend, I got my chance.

I visited World Maker Faire at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York. Naturally this venue lent itself to capture the faces of people. (After all, you couldn’t hardly walk a foot without tripping over somebody because the place was crowded with Makers!) But as it turned out, it was the shots I captured outside of maker faire that are among my favorites.

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This might be among my favorite shots of all time. Snapped after Maker Faire on the 111th Street train platform, it offers so many possibilities for the imagination. Who are this couple? Where are they taking the train? How did they meet each other? What are their family backgrounds?

In many ways, this photo is quintessential of Chinatown (or as I was reminded by one precise Taiwanese woman, “Asiatown”). The trains between the Corona Park neighborhood and downtown Flushing were packed with New Yorkers of Asian descent, many with fascinating stories, no doubt, of how they or their families first came to the borough of Queens.

I didn’t get up the gumption to ask anyone their story on the train . . . but I did ask Andrew, my waiter at a delicious Taiwanese noodle shop where I enjoyed lunch.

Andrew had recently come to the U.S. from Qingdao (yes, the home of China’s Tsingtao beer brand), where he had been employed as a shoe exporter. “I’m working here in my family’s restaurant temporarily,” he explained, “but soon I’ll be going back into business.”

When Andrew asked what I did for a living, I had a bit of trouble explaining the exhibit industry . . . until I tried the word “convention.” His face instantly lit up.

“Convention!” he cried. “Oh yes, like World Shoe Convention in Las Vegas!”

Yes, indeed. That type of convention. Also, I had to admit to him that I didn’t think my company had ever designed an exhibit for WSC in particular.

Still—Andrew’s smile and positivity were a great encouragement to me on a day when everything back at the office was going haywire, and I was stuck a couple thousand miles away. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

Oh, and by the way, the noodles were positively amazing. Which brings us to our last face of New York. Not surprisingly, this story also involves food. After all, what more natural catalyst could there be for human conversation?

Meet Ali: pretzel-maker extraordinaire. Plying his trade on the streets around Times Square, he likes to make a habit of guessing where his customers are from. For me, he guessed Italy.

It’s the first time I’ve ever been mistaken for an Italian; although, given my family’s multinational pedigree, there might be a little in there somewhere. Surprised, I blinked and stuttered for a moment, then told him my background was actually mostly German.

Having learned that I was from a little further north, Ali immediately switched into German language. This time, he was way ahead of me!

I told him he’d fit right in in Milwaukee: a pretzel-maker with a very delicious product who happens to speak good German.

We’ll see if he takes my advice to set up a branch at corner of Wisconsin & Water.

Looking back over my trip to New York, I realize that my iPhone 4S, on-the-fly photography will never rival anything that shows up in the “Humans of New York” project. (Although now,  I’m thinking I might go take a photography class so I can improve.)  But taking these photographs, and more importantly stopping to speak to the people in them, transfomed my time in New York from mere observation to a real experience.

New York City has a soul, and a small piece of it lives on in my photos.

Chicago and Portland are up next. Watch out, world!

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What about you? Have you ever had a memorable encounter that included  photograph? Please share your story and the photo below. Or, read Part 1 “A City Without Faces”

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