iconic photos of midtown manhattan, from the 70s to today

Harvey Stein has documented the same 20-block radius since 1974.

by Emily Manning
11 November 2015, 4:40pm

New York subcultures are always linked to micro-neighborhoods. Think punks at Saint Marks Place, beatniks in Greenwich Village, and now, cyber (or health, or maybe just regular) goths in Bushwick. But you'd be hard pressed to think of a tribe whose village is Midtown. Shaded by skyscrapers, the commercial hub is mostly shared by suits and slow tourists who meet each other only when shuffling through stuffed sidewalks. This anxious, anonymous herd has captivated photographer Harvey Stein for over four decades.

Next week, Stein will release Briefly Seen: New York Street Life, the final volume in his trilogy capturing the Empire City's enclaves. The series' first two volumes compiled Stein's decade-spanning work in Coney Island and Harlem -- portrait-style images that chronicle each area's eccentric communities and vibrant energy. Briefly Seen, however, is a collection of truly candid, frenzied imagery shot smack dab in the middle of Midtown's most densely packed mobs.

Stein has photographed the same haunts from 6th Ave to 60th Street with the same Leica from 1974 - 2014, but he doesn't date his images. The only visual clues viewers have to a photograph's historical moment are subtle: the thickness of glasses frames, the width of lapels, the model of cell phones -- or their absence. We caught up with Stein to find out more about capturing New York's unique pulse and pace.

How did you begin shooting in Midtown?
I actually worked on Madison Ave and 57th St for about four years before I decided to chuck it all and become a photographer. I would go out every lunch hour in the summer, leave my suit coat and tie in the office, hide my camera under my arm, go walk around and photograph. When the hour was up, I'd sneak back to work -- kind of like Clark Kent. It felt like I had a split personality, like I was living a dual life. I was loving what I wasn't doing enough of and not liking what I was doing too much of! I left that ad agency long ago, but have photographed the area ever since.

How have you seen the neighborhood change over time?
Times Square has changed amazingly. It used to be full of drug addicts and sex shops. During the day in the 70s or 80s, people would walk from the Port Authority to their office in Midtown, but they'd do so very quickly and with their heads down. You wouldn't go in at night at all. Around the mid-90s, that started to change, but I really wasn't that interested in photographing that transition. From 42nd to 57th Street between 3rd and 7th Avenue, things have stayed is pretty much the same. There are modern, ecologically efficient buildings now, but by and large, I haven't seen a lot of change in Midtown. In a way, that gives stability to my photographs.

You've also shot long-term portrait projects in Coney Island and Harlem. These Midtown images are different in their rapid, candid nature. Can you describe your methodology while walking?
In this book, I'm photographing the ways people push through to get to where they want to be. That's what I'm interested in: public behavior, public spaces and how people navigate those spaces. I'm looking for maybe one face in the crowd: one swimming against the current, bucking the herd, going in one direction when everyone else is going the other.

When shooting in other areas, I like to engage with people before photographing them. That isn't the case in this work, but that's what candid photography is -- people being photographed quickly without their knowledge or even their permission. I don't prefer it, but I like switching from one way of shooting to another.

What keeps you coming back to capture these neighborhoods?
I teach at the International Center of Photography and I tell my students to find a rich vein in the city, explore it, and keep going back. Most of my projects take a long time, and that's largely because I'm getting my ideas from the photographs I'm taking. I know what I want, but I'm open to experimentation. I enjoy these images of crowds and people really knocking each other out, so I'm going to go out and try to find more spaces where I can get shots like that. I'm shooting a lot, seeing what I'm getting, editing, rejecting, and shooting again.

For me, the people make the photographs different. Streets and buildings help create the atmosphere, but it's the people who populate these areas that keep me fascinated and focused. Even when I'm shooting in Mexico, Argentina, or India, I tend to go back to the same places. I feel comfortable there, I know the area a bit, I've made a friend or two, I can bring a photo back to them, they introduce me to new things I don't know about, and I explore new places and expand my horizons from there. My books range over 40 years, 27 years, 12 years. I'm in no rush and I think it serves me well.

Briefly Seen: New York Street Life will launch at the Rizzoli Bookstore on November 16 with a book signing and conversation between Stein and Marilyn Kushner, the curator of photographs at the New York Historical Society. More information here


Text Emily Manning
Photography © Harvey Stein

briefly seen
harvey stein
briefly seen new york street life