Celebrity Sun

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Manhattanhenge 17

In Manhattan we get our share of celebrities. Some live here year-round. Many zoom by in a blaze of flashbulbs and applause.

And some show up reliably every day, unapplauded, but make a celebrity entrance a few minutes out of the year. That’s what happens at Manhattanhenge. Twice a year, roughly three weeks before and after the summer solstice, the setting sun lines up precisely with the east-west streets of Manhattan’s street grid.

It’s  a well-known phenomenon, and has become more so with each passing year. Photographers gather at major intersections, awaiting that perfect moment when the sun touches the horizon, framed precisely between buildings on either side. For a moment or two, the sun is a celebrity.

I’ve heard about it, and Vlad has taken pictures of it many times. But this year was the first time I’d actually experienced it.

We decided to view Manhattanhenge from one of the more common locations: 34th Street and Park Avenue. That intersection is slightly elevated, so the view West to the Hudson River is nearly unimpeded.

We arrived about an hour early, but the crowds were already beginning to gather on both sides of the median. Nearly everyone (except me) had a camera. Most were point-and-shoots or phones, but many had serious cameras with long lenses. Quite a few intrepid folks carried tripods.

Manhattanhenge 1

I quickly learned the rhythm of us paparazzi. When traffic flowed east-west, we stayed quietly on our patches of sidewalk, watching the cars zoom by.

But when the light changed, and traffic flowed north-south, we’d run out into the middle of 34th Street and take a few quick shots.  Then the traffic light would change again, and we’d scamper back to the sidewalk ahead of the blaring horns.

The only problem: It looked like the sun might be obscured by a low-lying cloud bank. We couldn’t be sure we would see it when it was time for sunset.

Sunset was about 8:25 PM. By 8:00 the cloud was still there. Tension grew. Would the sun come out from behind the clouds this year? Vlad had been doubtful all afternoon; we’d made tentative plans to try to see Manhattanhenge tomorrow, if the sun failed to make the scheduled experience today.

The crowds grew bigger, large enough to begin to partially block the street, even when the light was against us. Traffic began to build up, and horns blared nearly nonstop. At one point, a police van drew up, lights flashing, and we thought we might be about to be ordered to clear the street. But, perhaps recognizing that it would be a hopeless task, the officers merely chatted with some of the crowd, and drove on.

Then a promising reflection began to glow off the high windows at the end of 34th Street. “It’s here.. it’s coming…” we said excitedly to each other.

This time, when the light changed, we didn’t surge back to our places. We blocked traffic.  A few cars were caught in the intersection, the drivers glaring at us in puzzlement.

More light. A brighter glow. The lights changed again, the crowds surged once more… and suddenly… “Here it is! The sun has arrived!!!”

The sun broke out, caught delicately between the buildings on either side. We applauded, whistled, and cheered.

Manhattanhenge 16

And we all ran once more into the intersection, flowing around the stopped traffic.  This time, a bus was trapped among the cars. The driver shook his head wearily, but passengers eagerly crowded to the front, snapping photos with their cell phones. The rest of us crouched, ran, stretched to take the best shots of the perfectly orange sun, perfectly framed between gray buildings. And we cheered and cheered; I was so excited I was jumping up and down.

Celebrity sun had arrived!

(Click on any photo to start slideshow)

The individual photos are here. Photos of Manhattanhenge in other years are here and here.

59 responses to “Celebrity Sun

  1. So fantastic! Only in NY–I love it!

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  2. Can’t blame the crowd, only twice a year! They should just block the street :) Amazing shots!!! Thank you for sharing the wonderful series!

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hah. :-) Block the streets? Not even the Sun–Sol Invictus–commands THAT kind of authority.

      Anyway, it was more fun doing it ourselves. We tried to be respectful of the traffic, but at the exact right moment it was pretty much jammed up…..

      And you’re welcome. Thanks for reading, and posting!

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  3. Wow, that is really not to be missed!

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      My sentiments exactly. And I’ve lived in NY for almost 20 years, and this was the first time I’d seen it… Thanks for reading and posting!

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  4. I love the photos of the people as much as the sunset! Your description had me right there Johna. Well written and much enjoyed.

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  5. That was amazing! I need to see it someday… :)

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  6. Thanks for sharing that Johna! That is so cool and I cannot believe the huge crowd of paparazzi!

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      You are most welcome, thanks for reading and posting! Apparently the crowd grows larger each year, as the word spreads…

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  7. vastlycurious.com

    Beautiful as ever, third year I have basked in your glory you toooooooooo

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  8. Nice moment, cool manhattan

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  9. travelmystories

    Wao! First time I hear about this. Amazing!! :)

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  10. The excitement of the moment was wonderfully expressed in your photos. Thank you for sharing!

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  11. Gosh how amazing. I love that nature has captured the hearts of these city dwellers, and they surge with emotion to see it appear. Just like the excitement at the stonehenges all across the UK….

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  12. Wünsche <3 einen guten Start in die neue Woche ;-)

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  13. Wonderful stilling of nature among human nature.

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  14. I too love it that we still see the beauty in our natural occurrences…Beautiful sun that lights our world…Great post!

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks! I originally wanted to call it “Sol Invictus” (which happens to be a really good album from the 1980s, as well) but Vlad didn’t think that *quite* captured the feel. But something about the concept of the unconquered sun really captured my imagination.. thanks for reading and posting!

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  15. What a beautiful shot. And what an experience to get it! I love the fact that it was nature that caused this crowd of people willing to wait patiently to get a photo of the sunset.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Colline! And yes, that’s exactly it—all this fuss over… a natural event!! (Though I think the transgressive thrill of being able to stop traffic was a part of it, as well..)

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  16. Wonderful photos! They deserve wider publication!

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  17. I was hoping that you would share photos and stories when I saw this in the news! Great photos!!
    The lady facing the “wrong” way… Everyone else featured the sun as the star. I wonder if she’s featuring those who waited with their cameras? I’m so curious. Was there a great refection angle?

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      She was taking a picture of the moon behind us, which was perfectly full and also perfectly caught in the gap between two buildings… as Vlad said, “Moonhenge!”

      I would imagine that’s probably a pretty rare occurrence. Manhattanhenge is 4 days per year, what are the odds that one of those days will be a full moon?

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  18. Great coverage and super photos to share this event with all of us. Really a terrific documentation of the occurrence. Nice.

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  19. This deserves a song to go with a wonderful story event :-) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6j4TGqVl5g

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  20. Wow!!!! Great pictures! Remind me to really should visit NY around this time! Thanks for sharing!

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  21. Fabulous!! Reminds me of a modern day Stonehenge!

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Some future archeologists will solemnly decide that’s the reason for the precise angle of the east-west Manhattan grid….

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  22. Catherine Gibson

    Your description of the energy and excitement around Manhattanhenge is infectious! I could picture the flowing of the crowds between the street and sidewalk, as the traffic lights changed.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Oh, Catherine, it was awesome! As we scampered up to the safety of the sidewalk, one middle-aged guy looked at me and said, “Isn’t this fun? We get to stop traffic?”

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  23. So exciting! Such special event should not be missed! Beautiful shots and thanks for sharing!

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  24. Pingback: City Sunset Silhouettes | Wind Against Current

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