Christopher Bliss Talks About Photographing Iconic New York

Christopher Bliss has been photographing New York for decades, but little did he know when he was putting together his latest book, Iconic New York, that the city was about to undergo another major change. While many of the photos in his book show locations filled with people – Grand Central Station, Times Square, Bethesda Fountain – these sites are now nearly empty because of the pandemic. Yet, as Bliss notes, the city came back after 9/11 and will again. And, rest assured, he will be there, crowd or no crowd, to document what’s happening. 

We caught up with Chris recently to ask him about photographing the greatest city in the world. His book, Iconic New York, with both black and white and color photos, can be purchased on Amazon or on teNeues. 

Christopher Bliss

The photos included in your book span the period from 1989 to 2019. What stands out to you as the most noticeable changes in the city during that time? 

The skyline of the city has changed so much, especially in the last ten years, and so many huge skyscrapers have been built, that much of the city is almost unrecognizable. Along with this growth however, is the fact that the whole city has become much safer, and almost every neighborhood more accessible. Gentrification, like it or not, is the reason. In romanticizing the past days of New York, one often forgets that much of the city was unsafe, and off-limits, especially at night. Areas that used to be avoided are now desirable and upscale.

Times Square, 2018

In the midst of the pandemic, with so many businesses closing, traffic decreasing and more people staying inside, do you feel that your photos have documented a New York City that will look much different when the danger of the virus subsides? 

Unfortunately, I find it hard to believe that we will be going back to “normal” anytime soon, unless a vaccine is developed that is 100% effective and eliminates the virus completely. Even then, there will always be a kernel of fear in the back of people’s minds. When most people look at the photo of Times Square (p.118,119), with thousands of people packed shoulder-to-shoulder, the first thing that comes to mind is “no social distancing, no masks, a super spreading event”! The notion of a virus, disease, or a lurking contagion was a foreign concept and did not even exist as a possibility in the minds of most people. On the other hand, humans (New Yorkers in particular) are incredibly resilient. The recovery after 9-11 happened much faster than anyone expected……..I’m hoping that this will be the case now. But, even after a “recovery,” I think that the short-term effects of the lock-down and economic downturn will be profound…so many local shops, businesses, restaurants etc, may not survive. Many neighborhoods may again be transformed. What the city will look like, say, two years from now, is anyone’s guess.

Grand Central Terminal, 2018

Contrast and compare the challenge of capturing New York City as opposed to so many other cities you have photographed.

Photographically speaking, the only other major city that I can compare to New York is Paris, where I also have spent much time photographing. There are many challenges in photographing any large city, some are obvious; crowds of people, traffic, construction, scaffolding on buildings etc. Some are not so obvious, such as high security where photography is not allowed, vantage points that used to be accessible that no longer are. 

Now that everyone has a phone camera and there are literally millions upon millions of images of a world destination like New York, the biggest challenge is finding a way to capture a building or a scene in a new and unique way. I usually have a mental vision of how a particular scene should look, and then often will need to re-visit that place multiple times, (sometimes for years!) waiting for the perfect lighting or weather, placement of people for composition in a particular scene, or waiting for no traffic, or sometimes lots of traffic. Most of the images in Iconic New York have been created this way. The image of Grand Central Terminal on p. 102-103 is a perfect example. I have taken pictures in this great space for probably 25 years. The lighting inside is normally quite flat and underwhelming. One morning I was in the terminal during rush hour and for the first time ever, sunlight was streaming through the windows and creating a wonderful lighting effect and long shadows of all the people! A large building across the street had just been demolished and had allowed sunlight to shine in for the first time in about 80 years! I got the shot and immediately knew that it would be something special. This situation only lasted about one month until construction of the newest NYC skyscraper, One Vanderbilt, began its ascent and once again, blocked the sun. Very rarely have I created a memorable image after just one visit to a location. Also, perhaps because I spent so much of my career shooting on film, I have a more “purist” approach to photography and try to not rely on photo shop and digital manipulation to create images.

You photographs focus on the landscapes and structures in New York rather than on people. Why did you make that choice?

The title of the book is Iconic New York. I wanted the book to be about the Iconic visual aspects of New York, the things that people usually imagine when they think of New York City. Of course, the people of New York are what actually make the city great, but visually it is the physical city itself, the architecture, the neighborhoods, the rivers and bridges, and the immensity of it all that stand out in my mind. There are people in most of my photographs, but they represent the inhabitants, not necessarily the photographic focus, of this great metropolis.

Can you explain the technological approach for photographing panoramic vistas of the city. 

Many of the panoramic photos of the city are taken from a helicopter. Over the years, I have done quite a bit of aerial photography over the city. Here, there are many technical challenges that require careful preparation before a flight. The entire flight plan must be prepared in advance, and the photographer must know exactly what kind of camera angles and compositions he wants to achieve, and communicate this to the pilot. There is usually no more than an hour flight time over the city, so preparation is key. I always require that the door is removed so I’m not hindered by trying to shoot out of a window. There is lots of wind buffeting and vibration so I usually shoot at a high shutter speed to avoid blur, and shoot with 2 cameras. Being one or two thousand feet above the city with nothing between you and the asphalt but a thin seatbelt can be unnerving, but is always exhilarating and I always have come away with some great shots.

Did you ever feel you were placing yourself in danger just to take a photo? 

Shooting from a helicopter sounds dangerous but is probably not as dangerous as the many other times I’ve almost been hit by traffic when shooting while standing in the street. (p114-115).

Central Park, 2017

In all the photos in the book, do you have a favorite? Why? 

I have many favorites, but the one that stands out in my mind is the picture of Central Park in the rain (p.158-159). I’ve wandered through this part of the park, above Bethesda Terrace, about a thousand times. It is always filled with people everywhere, and is one of the most touristy places in the city. I walked there one April morning during an intense rainstorm and there were absolutely no people anywhere. It was amazing. The trees were just beginning to turn green, and it was just a magical moment.  Here, one can really appreciate Central Park’s grand design and beautiful stonework by Fredrick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. In this photo it is easy to see why Central Park is sometimes called “the greatest work of art in America.”

Do you still shoot with a film camera? Or is your preference now for digital? 

There are many images in the book that were shot on film.  All images taken before 2005 were shot on film. But I have been photographing exclusively with a digital camera since about 2010. For a few years before that I shot with a combination of the two, so I used both depending on the application. The advances in digital technology after 2010 really made film obsolete. Yes, images shot on film can have a slightly different look than digital, but with all the hassles involved with film processing etc, for me it’s no longer worth the trouble. 

What project are you working on now? 

The current situation with the pandemic has really put a damper on travel, at least for the moment, so several of the projects that I had planned involving travel photography are temporarily on hold. My long-term goal is to continue to photograph the evolution of New York City and hopefully produce another book in a few years. One can only imagine what kind of changes will have taken place by then.

Top photo: Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, 2019

Photos courtesy of teNeues

Iconic New York
Christopher Bliss

Purchase on Amazon or on teNeues