The Parade of Life on the Streets of New York

With wit and compassion, Melissa O’Shaughnessy’s street photographs show perfect strangers in the urban wild.

Melissa O'Shaughnessy, Vesey Street, 2018

Photographs are always present tense. The best photographers understand this fact so deeply that its effect resonates through their photographs long after that present moment has become the past. What is this opening in the flow of time, that so entrances photographers that they develop an insatiable hunger for it? And has this idea of the momentary always been so?

Certainly, the photographers and cameras of the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries dealt with their present moment in longer fractions of time, taking in the whole of life at an easy pace. It was a pace that was more like life itself: lived in promenade tempo on wide boulevards, where horses clopped along and people sauntered and took pleasure in looking at each other. One could say that distraction, back then, was looking at other people—what they wore, who they were, what they brought to the parade of life on the streets.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, 42nd Street, 2019

That is not the tempo of the twenty-first century. Today, time is often measured in thousandths of a second, and the present is whittled down to an individual’s fleeting gasp of recognition: that moment—out at the edges of our vision—that the photographer might barely understand, yet intuitively recognizes as having meaning, or at the very least, the possibility of being of interest.

Our pace really began picking up somewhere around the debut of the smartphone. Not that life wasn’t already going faster before that, but the personal distraction endowed by this digital device changed the way we all live and changed our sense of time, as well as the public’s sense of its movement en masse. And this is where a photographer like Melissa O’Shaughnessy enters the frame.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Fifth Avenue, 2018

Just as the young Jacques Henri Lartigue was fascinated by the new motorcars, airplanes, cyclists, fashionable people, and chance itself—as measured by his camera, his revelations show us, today, his immediate present and our past—so O’Shaughnessy takes us along on her daily rounds looking at contemporary life in New York City. What she selects is hers alone, yet the consistency of her attraction to certain moments of time and the people caught in them, and her curious and quirky rendering of these moments, present us with a time capsule of the now. We see her present tense, her reading of meaning, her judgment of what might be of importance to readers of history a hundred years from now—just as we see Lartigue’s works today—when the present tense is truly the past.

Who is this innocent-seeming yet ninja-like sprite, darting, feinting, melding, and slip-sliding her way through the crowds in her favorite city? You’ll find her almost daily on Fifth Avenue, between 42nd and 57th Streets; in the Financial District or Chinatown; or anywhere else impulse sends her. O’Shaughnessy is not a native New Yorker, although by now, she deserves an honorary sash for bravery and determination among its crowds. It is as if she’s learned the secret slang of New York’s streets, and accomplished it by throwing her Midwestern self—body and mind—into the mix to come up with a vocabulary all her own.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Broadway, 2018
Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Seventh Avenue, 2017

Her photographs segue between honest, clear observation, and layered, nuanced, and fragmented combinations that make the viewer scan the frame for the hook that pulls us in, only to realize that there are several hooks pulling in different directions, and that these hooks lead us to inevitable discoveries in the sequence of subjects and threads that tie her ideas, and this book, together in unexpected ways.

Witness O’Shaughnessy’s awareness of weather in the many photographs in which sudden gusts of wind blow through the canyons and corners of the city’s streets— sending men’s coats flying and updrafting women’s carefully coiffed hair, swirling it around their faces and tossing it up and out like a donkey’s ears. Her awareness of this caprice overturns the careful efforts people make to go through their daily lives looking just so, and I wonder if there isn’t some impish pleasure she takes in watching all that effort blown away. After all, her reflex toward this messing up is always an unhesitating, “Yes!” But beyond that single, nominal gesture of the flying hair or windblown coat, she develops a more intricate and layered way of looking as she sees the play of human activity going on around it: the intersection of businessmen and tourists, shoppers and grand dames; the creaking elderly; the miserable children, all jockeying for a bit of turf on the glittering sidewalks of New York City, whose locales and subjects Minneapolis-born O’Shaughnessy might never have imagined would become her obsession.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Times Square, 2014

Obsession or hunger—whatever we call it—is the driving energy behind street photography. It is pure adrenaline. Exotic. Lavishly generous. A magic lantern of possibilities. This passion to be out there seeing is what opens the mind to new subjects in what would appear to be a fairly consistent parade of people doing the same to-and-fro-ing day after day in the urban wild.

Look carefully at the variety that O’Shaughnessy has invented for herself. This—the inventing of subject—is the part of street photography that most people don’t understand. All these subjects are out there for the taking, but no one sees them the same way. The people, the light, the buildings, stoppings, crossings, shopping, gazing, lurking, canoodling, arguing, crying, and laughing, for sure; all this goes on around us every single day, but how to make something out of it? That is the street photographer’s quest.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Washington Street, 2015

Street photographers, at their best, invent their ideas of the street and what it means to them on any given day. Observe the works of Lartigue, Helen Levitt, Roy DeCarava, Rebecca Lepkoff, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand, to name just a few, and you’ll see their particular identities in every frame they make, because they understood that the way you move your frame across the chaos of the street reveals deeper meanings. Life goes on in 360 degrees, up, down, and sideways, but it is what you choose to put in the frame, the connections that you see between all the unrelated and unknowing passersby, that becomes your invention, your instantaneous understanding of the present tense you live in. All great photographs are acts of consciousness and timing, like a combination of poetry and dance, and while some are gratefully taken as a gift, most are made by the artist in moments of incandescent revelation.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Fifth Avenue, 2018

O’Shaughnessy has almost infallible good fortune (and great timing) in seeing twins, and twin-like combinations happen in front of her again and again. It could be redheads, or dogs wearing booties, or young girls in tutus passing by a pair of women in matching Levi’s jackets, seen as twins only by the shout of branding. The invention of subject happens right there. Through O’Shaughnessy’s eyes, we witness women of all ages and shapes, as abundantly female as the goddess Artemis of Ephesus, or as proud as a figurehead on an ancient sailing vessel; some as lithe as sprinters, others painted, furred, glossed, mysterious, impenetrable, fearsome, dreamy. We witness her keen attention to families and their dynamics. There are exhausted children soured by too much shopping, and families frozen in confusion, wonder, pain, frustration, sometimes even joy. They appear as small solar systems about to fly apart, but pulled close by their own special gravity. Also woven into her cast of characters are the lonely, the lost, the soulful, the broken, and the proud. O’Shaughnessy has fallen for them all—perfect strangers. And they, blind to her stealth, continue to live on in her work, just for us, even after they themselves have moved on and disappeared from sight.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Mott Street, 2018

Now, at the time of this writing, cities everywhere have been emptied of street life. This present moment is a historic marker of our time. Everything will now be seen as before or after the coronavirus pandemic. O’Shaughnessy’s work has quickly, brutally, been torn from our ongoing present and will forever serve as one of the lasting impressions of what life looked like just before the fear of the unseen microbe took away our uninhibited freedom of movement.

For a street shooter, paying attention to chance unfolding in front of you is the only frame of mind to be in. Otherwise, we might miss the instantaneous and elevated state of joy that comes from being a modern-day flaneur in the city. And what do we, as observers of this work, gain from it? I would say that we are reminded over and over of how powerful a fleeting impression can be, and how much there is to learn about life as we enter and expand what is on offer to us here, through the quicksilver tenderness, compassion, and wit of Melissa O’Shaughnessy.

This essay was originally published in Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) under the title “Being Present.”