Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Humans of New York: Stories

This is a relatively recent book from the Humans of New York guy Brandon Stanton, I see that it's been out for a bit more than a year. I've always been vaguely dismissive of the HONY thing, but never really looked at it. I came across a copy of this book at a friend's house, and spent some time looking through it. It was interesting enough to get it from the library and take a few hours with it.

It is, of course, a bunch of "street portraits" shot in New York City by Brandon Stanton. The wrinkle with this volume is that he includes more text, some kind of "story" usually snippets of what he extracted while interviewing the subject. Sometimes a line, sometimes a few paragraphs, occasionally just an observation from the photographer.

The pictures are HONY pictures, which means they're in focus, colorful, often of interesting looking people, and completely unremarkable. What sells this thing isn't the photos, it's the project, the sheer number of pictures.

Brandon has done something interesting with this book. The stories are sequenced in the way one might sequence photographs. One story tells of a man's cancer, the next of a mother's death by cancer, the next of a single mother, and so on. The stories flow, one connected to the next.

So that's interesting. It makes the book coherent and fun to pick up and flip through a few pages. The writing is quite good.

The writing, it's quite good. Which would be OK except that these are supposed to be quotes. Well, it's obvious that Brandon edits for clarity, and indeed edits to a more or less common voice. His interviews with homeless subjects are the big tell, they're coherent. Homeless people are not coherent. You try sleeping outside for a week, you won't be coherent either.

The second problem is that the thing is insanely repetitive. Every 20 pages there's a Gay Story, a Cancer Story, a Meet-Cute Story, a Homeless Story, a Drug Addiction Story, a Breakup Story, and then some cute kid overdressed and shot from the kid's level captioned "Today in microfashion..."

This all adds up to a picture of New York City that's drawn straight from television. This is a media-friendly, carefully edited and presented, remarkably boring, version of New York City. It's the version of New York City that media consumers all over the globe know altogether too well, and suspect already of being false or at least incomplete.

HONY has many of the elements of a typology. He's showing us different instances of the same subject, over and over, presented in much the same way again and again. The difference is that a typology takes an apparently dull subject, and makes it interesting through repetition, demanding that the viewer examine the subjects more closely and find the differences, the similarities.

Brandon, on the other hand, manages to take an interesting class of subject (people, the most interesting subject) and render it incredibly dull with his process.

I loved the book when I flipped through it at my friend's house. Liked it when I started reading it. I was a little disappointed by the time i reached then end. Now after mulling it over and looking through it a handful more times, I actively and thoroughly dislike it.

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