Dominique James, Photographer

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Midnight in Manhattan

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Midnight in Manhattan

Midnight in Manhattan (Photographs by Dominique James)

Geographically speaking, the Empire State Building is not the center of New York City. That distinction belongs to a little-known pastoral patch of grass in the lower portion of Central Park called Sheep Meadow.

But the art deco-designed Empire State Building, a 103-story skyscraper occupying a considerable city block that intersects Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street, with a full height of 1,454 feet—once the tallest building in the world—might as well be, the center of New York City.

As far as anyone in Manhattan is concerned, the Empire State Building is unquestionably the heart of New York City.

For most New Yorkers (and visitors alike), the Empire State Building is the one true compass on which to navigate the city without a map. From street level, those who are a little lost and wanting to geo-locate might simply look up to see where the Empire State Building is; and then, from high up the Observation Deck, on a clear day, one can visually map out the sprawling lay of the land for thousands of miles, not just the boroughs but across other states.

Movies such as An Affair To Remember, Love Affair, and Sleepless in Seattle, among many others, have established the Empire State Building as a major cultural icon.

And above all else, the Empire State Building is an office building.

Of its many notable tenants, Filipinos might find one to be of particular interest. The Filipino Reporter, a weekly newspaper founded on July 2, 1999 by Filipino newsman Luigi Andrei Eusebio, catering primarily to the Filipino-American community in New York City (the only ethnic newspaper that holds the distinction of being a regular member of the New York Press Club), has its office at the Empire State Building.

A compass, a cultural icon, an office, the heart of the city—very few buildings can claim to be all that, and more.

Yes, there is indeed so much more, so let’s add one bit: the Empire State Building is a veritable magnet to photographers.

Countless shutterbugs have been to the top of the Empire State Building to take pictures of the spectacular 360-degree view. Because of the ubiquity of the pictures taken from its perch, even those who have never been up the building, or in NYC for that matter, can have some imagined sense of what it might feel like to be up there. (Although of course, as with anything else, nothing really comes close to the experience of actually being there to see and experience it for one’s self.)

The Observatory Deck of the Empire State Building is open to the public from 8 AM to 2 PM. In 2008 alone, over 110 million people went up to marvel at the grand view all around down below—many of them with camera, of course.

I was one of them.

According to NASA, Manhattan’s bright city lights at night, bounded by New Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens, is visible from outer space. It glows a collective, bright amber.

Because of this bit of curiosity, instead of the usual and far more common daytime images of Manhattan’s sprawl, I decided I wanted to go up there (again) after dark to take pictures of the city down below, bathed in millions and millions of electrical pinpoints collectively battling darkness with valor. Armed with a compact camera, up I went on a chilly spring evening, determined to snap at whatever there is to see of the city at night.

Of course, I wasn’t disappointed. From that clear evening, close to midnight, I was able to take many, many pictures all around, and from it, a set of black-and-white landscape photos that has more in kinship with abstract paintings than realistic photographs.

Lacking the many telling details visible in daylight, and with no colors, one can only glean hints of the familiar shapes of the buildings and of the streets silhouetted in countless glimmering, shimmering lights. You are keenly aware of the city’s palpable existence down below, even if most of it is shrouded in darkness.

The black-and-white, abstract-looking pictures, stark in minimal shades of gray, informed only by specific arrangements of lights to suggest forms and structures, with most everything hidden in shadows, turned out to be a fascinating representation of New York City at night—a seeming state of incompleteness. Naturally and quite automatically, viewers cannot help but imaginatively fill in and map out the blanks of familiar nooks and crannies. Even if the individual frames of pictures were to be stitched to form one grand panorama of Manhattan in the dark, it would still appear incomplete, and one would still strive to imagine the personal, familiar blanks.

But there is another interesting way of looking at the incompleteness of each picture from this black-and-white photo set—for me, and for many others who have lived and called New York City home for quite some time, the experience of the place is somehow encapsulated in each of those largely incomplete photos—in the low-lying buildings, in the bustling city streets, in the city corners, in the patches of parks, in the soaring skyscrapers, and in the pinpoints of light everywhere, which, while appearing to be expansive, is actually well-contained and constrained in each of the finite frames. If there’s anything true about New York, it is a city unto each and every one’s own.

Pulling back a little, if we are to impose some sort of organizational structure to this set of photographs, we can divide them into two subsets.

The first obvious subset will have to be the almost vain attempt at photo-realism, where every image is a stark, clear-eyed impression of the sprawling urban landscape from a bird’s eye view. These are pictures that, although they are, almost aren’t.

The second, and perhaps less obvious subset, would have to be the painterly depiction of the views. These pictures, consciously taken with longer than usual exposure times, even deliberately moving the handheld camera in certain patterns or directions of motion while the digital sensor is being exposed, produced artful blurs that are somewhat impressionistic.

But despite the distinctiveness of the photographic approaches, styles and techniques, all the images, individually and as a set (or a subset), aims to invoke yet another facet of what New York City is all about—or whatever it might be—to the hopeful transients and transplants attempting to dig in and latch on to its granite foundation, to the wandering, wide-eyed tourists gawking at everything with undisguised awe, wonder, and curiosity, and to the jaded New Yorkers themselves who long ago have been blinded to everything around them.

For me personally, during the almost 4 years that I lived in New York City, and from out of the countless photographs I’ve taken of everything I’ve seen there, this set of black-and-white nightscapes is nothing but an open embrace of the ravishing, glittering bejeweled city that I’ve fallen madly in love with, which to this very day, I happen to be still madly in love with.

So, New York City, I love you … still.

Come and take a look at my set of “Midnight in Manhattan” black-and-white photographs at http://bit.ly/1nokw5c.

Also, if you haven’t already, please sign up (and do invite others to sign up as well) to my brief monthly photography email newsletter at http://eepurl.com/QBGCv. Thanks!

[Note: All photos from the official http://www.dominiquejames.com photography website are now directly available for download and print order for personal, editorial, and commercial use. Thanks!]

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