Street Photographers Are Irresistibly Drawn To Midtown’s ‘Golden Corridor’
The mythical land of New York City almost looms larger than the real place, courtesy of more than a century of depictions in images, movies, and literature. Not to mention street photography. Some of the greatest purveyors of the craft, like Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander, made their work walking the “golden corridor” of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, occasionally in tandem (Winogrand & Meyerowitz spent five years shooting on Fifth Avenue together). Like flies to honey, photographers have long been drawn irresistibly to this stretch below 59th Street.
“Fifth Avenue was the most exciting, and it had the most light,” Joel Meyerowitz says in Bystander: A History of Street Photography. He goes on:
I think Madison was too dark, Park was too wide, Third still had the El in the early sixties, or they were beginning to tear it down anyway, Third was creepy. Sixth Avenue didn’t have much on it. We certainly made some circuits around there, but really Fifth Avenue had the pulse of life, the most vigor, the most beautiful women, the heaviest business action. The mix was best on Fifth. I mean, you got it all, from high fashion to messengers. It just was everything. Pushcarts, pretzel vendors, and limousines. It had the contradictions of life in a big city, and that kind of counterpoint was the stuff of commentary. That’s what you could mock, that’s what you could wait for, because it was more exciting to see those combinations there.
The combined work of these photographers built a fascinating glimpse into the city, its denizens, and the structures that contained it all. The photographs had flow, form, and fascinating frozen moments that seemed to have their visuals and volume turned up, like everything else in this frenetic realm. The looks on people’s faces told you this was a hurried and harried place, but also happy, and definitely unique. The city had a magnetism, and here it seemed distilled into a million captured moments.
For a kid growing up in a rustbelt town, an aspiring photographer devouring every book of photography in sight, stumbling upon these color photos of 1960s NYC streets was eye-opening. It was like finally seeing the hidden picture that had been obscured by the nonsensical pattern of all the glitzy and cheesy commercial takes on the city. I’d scrutinize the downtown area in my hometown of Cleveland, as I regularly passed from a bus to the Rapid, looking for slivers that might remind me of the gleaming towers and grey valleys of Fifth Avenue, which by then I thought of as almost familiar.
The authenticity inherent in street photography also lends credibility to the images, imparting the sense that they are “real” enough to inform an understanding of the place itself. These images were some of the first street photographs in color, which by that very fact aligned them with how we actually see the world. This elevated these images from a rote sort of historical documentation to something that seemed like it could be fully experienced, actually visited (even if I was several decades late). I couldn’t wait to meet the characters that populated these scenes, and possibly, eventually, become one myself.
“The world was in color. It was just so obvious to me. I had no idea people were snobbish about color. To me, black and white just seemed back there, historical,” Meyerowitz told The Observer in an interview.
Obviously, the tradition of street photography has continued in NYC, with newer artists like Bruce Gilden reframing it through his more confrontational approach in the late seventies and eighties. Photographer Martin Parr referred to Fifth Avenue as “your main parade” when discussing shooting with Gilden. Bill Cunningham (RIP) also favored Fifth Avenue for his studious examination of fashion “On the Street.”
Today’s crop of street shooters seems to be firmly led by Daniel Arnold, whose recent solo exhibition in Chinatown included examining the question of what these sort of photos would be like if they were also videos. Lee Friedlander is still out there too, walking and shooting the streets of Manhattan, in his eighties.
For me, Fifth Avenue is a reminder that the city I fell for as a kid has irrevocably changed. I thought I would find a nonstop parade of suits and updos and pets on leashes popping out from a backdrop of smooth stone and glass. I do still see a parade, but one of endless mannequins and garish logos. In my 19 years here, I have found my Fifth Avenue, and it’s not far: it’s actually just one block west. Sixth Avenue isn’t the same, to be sure, but the multiformity and energy and balletic crowds just seem more visible to me there.
New York City will change, and change again, and the thing you are looking for will never stay what it was. But it is a massive place, with countless momentary masterpieces both familiar and unexpected. So, just as the photographers who inspired my ideas about this city did to create that work: keep looking.
If you feel like traveling even further down the rabbit hole of the golden era of NYC street photography, Michael Engler’s documentary “Contemporary Photography in the USA” from 1982 does a great job of taking you there.