Tag Archives: New York City

Window Box

By Johna Till Johnson

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Window box on the Upper East Side, Spring 2017

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Ah yes, “Dull roots with spring rain”!

Every spring, it’s the same surprise. We spend the winter yearning for sunshine and warmth. Yet when spring arrives, it’s usually wrapped in a cloak of dark clouds and cold rain.

It’s become a cliché: “April showers bring May flowers”—even though in New York, the flowers usually bloom in April (until they’re washed away by rain), and May is the month of green leaves.

But every now and then, even in the dank days of mid-April, a burst of sunshine appears. In this case, a window box, seen on the way home from the gym, with a riotous profusion of plants and flowers. A promise of brightness to come!

The Easter Bunny

By Johna Till Johnson

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The Easter Bunny appears in the wine store!

Friday night I saw something I haven’t seen since I was five or six years old: The Easter Bunny! Who, apparently, buys wine for Easter dinner just like the rest of us.

Actually, I didn’t quite see the Easter Bunny back then, either. So technically this was my first actual sighting.

We were living in Naples, Italy, at the time. I’d awakened early Easter morning, excitedly anticipating the basket and associated goodies, only to find… nothing.

Nada. Zilch. The Easter bunny, apparently, hadn’t arrived.

Maybe he just hadn’t arrived yet, my parents suggested optimistically. Maybe he’d show up later on. There was still time! So, like the good Catholic family that we were, we headed off to Easter Mass.

Upon our return, I pushed through our creaky garden gate. My father was holding my hand. “Look!” he shouted suddenly. “It’s the Easter bunny! I saw his fluffy white tail!” And the two of us dashed off around the house in mad pursuit. I didn’t see anything, but I wasn’t as tall as my dad. And maybe, if we ran fast enough, I’d actually see the Easter bunny!

You know how this story ends: when we came in the front door, panting and puffing, we discovered a giant, green-and-yellow Easter basket on the kitchen table. We hadn’t succeeded in seeing him, but evidently the Easter bunny had arrived.

Even as young as I was, I put the pieces together pretty quickly. I never found out what happened to delay the Easter basket, or at what point my parents hatched the scheme.

And I don’t remember why I figured it out. Maybe it was the fact that my father, who hadn’t the slightest bit of whimsy, didn’t pull off his acting job quite credibly. All I know is that was the end of my believing in the Easter bunny.

Until now.

Happy Easter!

By Johna Till Johnson

Amaryllis blooms

Yes, I know it’s just good Friday. But the new amaryllis (gift from a friend) decided to bloom today. And for some reason, every year Good Friday is sunny and warm, and Easter Sunday is cold and gray.

So I’ll take my cue from the amaryllis and wish everyone a happy Easter, even if it’s early.

Here’s to resurrection and life!

And—if Easter isn’t your thing, or even if it is—here’s to bunnies and robins and flowers and springtime and the promise of summer ahead.

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By Johna Till Johnson

This is why I love NYC…

Excelsior

By Johna Till Johnson

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72nd St Subway Station-Q Line

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!

Pipes at Grand Central Station

By Johna Till Johnson

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Pipes at Grand Central Station

Friday morning, midwinter.

O-dark-hundred, as they say in the military: early in the pre-dawn darkness. I’m at Grand Central Station, traveling north for a business event.

I pass by the track where my train is supposed to arrive in 20 minutes. The track is dark, deserted, with no sign indicating an imminent arrival. Plus the track is filled with what looks like junk. In some places there’s barely a walkway for the passengers. Could there be some mistake?

Buying my ticket I ask the booth agent: “Is this really the correct track?” He checks the monitor, nods. So I take my ticket down to the track. Still no sign, but there are now a few guys driving carts up and down, past the piles of junk.

I walk towards the end of the track, my mind and eye trying to make sense of what I’m seeing. Banks of carts. Wire containers. And is that an old office chair standing by itself? Where did it come from, and what is it doing here?

I pass by a brick building with a sign:  Grand Central Station Mailroom. A mailroom, improbably located on a train track?  Who knew?

The building is lit indoors, but empty. The sign on the door says it opens at 7 AM, but it’s not yet seven.  I peer inside. Tables, printers, bins for sorting.

I keep going, towards the darkness of the tunnel at the far end of the track.  The piles of junk thin out, replaced by banks of cables and pipes, soaring into the cavernous darkness overhead.

There’s a conductor at the far end, standing by himself. He’s a young man, trim, with a tired look on his face. I approach him, wonder in my eyes, excitement in my voice. “This is amazing! Is it always like this?”

“Like what?” he asks.

“All this… ” I gesture to the clutter, the pipes, the darkness.

He laughs. “Every day!”

“There’s so much to look at!”

“Yeah… I guess there is…” His voice takes on a wistful tone. “You don’t really notice it when you see it every day.”

I nod, understanding what he means. Then my attention is captured by a perfect arch of pipes, rising into the overhead darkness.

I reach into my backpack for the camera.

“Photography helps people to see”-Berenice Abbott

By Johna Till Johnson

Photographs by Berenice Abbott

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Pike and Henry Street by Berenice Abbott, 1936

It was one of those Facebook memes that occasionally goes around. “Let’s fill Facebook with art! Like if you want to participate, and I’ll give you an artist to post on your Facebook page.”

The poster, David, is a longtime friend with wide-ranging artistic interests and great taste, so I signed up. Besides, we can all use a little art in the dark days of February, right?

David assigned me Berenice Abbott. I’d never heard of her—though even a photography newbie like me immediately recognized some of her iconic NYC photographs. I spent a delighted evening reviewing her life and work and reading her brief Wikipedia biography. If you haven’t heard of her, I encourage you to do so, too–she was one of the great 20th-century artists of the “realist” school. Her quote about photography helping people to see resonates very strongly with me right now, as I work to develop my eye.

A delightful discovery: She developed several cutting-edge techniques for scientific photography, and in fact illustrated a 1958 high school physics textbook (an article about which appeared in Forbes Magazine recently).

Enjoy!

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Penn Station Interior, Manhattan by Berenice Abbott 1936

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Blossom Restaurant by Berenice Abbott, 1935