By Johna Till Johnson
What makes photography interesting is the eye invested with feelings. That was the advice I’d gotten on finding my own photographic style. Strive not for esthetic perfection, but for conveying the emotions and narrative of the moment.
Tall order for someone still figuring out how to keep the camera steady enough to focus!
I was game for the challenge, though I suspected it would be an upwards struggle. One problem presented itself when I ventured out on a recent weekend: the world outside didn’t seem to match my feelings. It was a grey day in midwinter, but I was feeling… buoyant.
How—and where—would I find something that would convey my mood?
I took several shots outdoors before I stumbled across the perfect subject: the brand-new 72nd street subway station. Readers of the blog already know that I love subways. And I’m particularly in love with the 72nd Street station, with its high, gleaming arches, still-pristine walls, and glittering, realistic, slightly larger-than-life mosaic portraits.
Yes, I decided, the subway station would be perfect. Especially since I was taking the subway anyway to run my errands.
I had just about finished up a series of photos when I noticed someone else doing the same thing: A young man in a puffy black jacket carrying a serious camera—with a long, impressive lens—was across the way, apparently preparing for a close-up of one of the mosaic portraits.
He had long hair and a distracted, somewhat hostile, expression. When he caught me looking at him, his eyes narrowed a bit, in that classic New York scowl. I could almost hear him thinking, “Whaddaya looking at?”
I leaned over the railing towards him. “We’re doing the same thing—only you’re a real photographer!” The scowl disappeared and his face lit up with an almost bashful smile. “I’m trying!” he said.
I smiled back and turned to leave.
Then it hit me: That was my shot. I turned around and steadied myself, hoping he wasn’t looking at me. No danger of that: he was leaning backwards against the railing, carefully studying his subject. Carefully, quickly, I took the picture, then stepped back to frame it again.
It wasn’t until I’d taken a couple different shots that I noticed something I hadn’t previously seen: the word Excelsior in raised lettering on a concrete bar above the staircase. It’s Latin for “ever upward”, and it’s the New York State motto. I hadn’t even known it was there until I examined my photo.
Whoever elected to put it over a staircase obviously had a sense of humor. But I was delighted to discover something new in my favorite subway station—and struck by the appropriateness of the message.
Ever upward, indeed!