I received the assignment for this project just before leaving for Thanksgiving break, and I immediately knew I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. Throughout the semester I have shot my assignments on campus, and the prospect of completing an assignment in an entirely different location seemed thrilling. Knowing that I would be in New York City during this project, my goal was to somehow capture the culture of the city through a series of photographs.
I had some vague ideas of how I could fulfill this goal, but I did not have a concrete plan. One of my original concepts was to capture contrasting images: either the contrast between city and suburbs or rich and poor. Another idea revolved around the concept of traditions, taking advantage of the holiday cheer spreading throughout the city. However, I felt these plans were slightly too vague to execute as they were. I felt I needed something more precise, and decided to keep exploring my options. For inspiration, I began shooting anything that interested me or caught my attention – people, buildings, landscapes – hoping I would stumble across something.
Since watching the film Helvetica in class earlier this semester, I have been fascinated by typography, specifically the font Helvetica. My friends have endured countless occasions in which I will interrupt a conversation with an interjection of “HELVETICA!” It has become like a game, now that I am consciously aware of the repetition, and I cannot help but notice it. As I wandered the city, Helvetica seemed to be everywhere. After pointing it out several times, I realized that it would be a perfect topic of observation: not only is it a subject which interests me, but it is an original lens through which to view New York.
Helvetica can be used to convey a variety of moods and messages, something which I discovered when watching the film and further explored while shooting. It is a particularly eye-catching typeface, and is convenient and easy to read. Depending on the way it is used, Helvetica can appear modern or classic, simple or quirky. The diverse messages are evident in the variety of uses I observed throughout Manhattan.
I spent my day in the city on a sort of scavenger hunt, which made my trip all the more intriguing. Though I have been to New York City many times, I have never visited the city with this sort of objective, and I enjoyed the new lens through which I was observing the city.
However, I did face several difficulties along the way. Given the nature of New York City, I found that the resulting shots were quite different from the ones I had framed in the viewfinder. Because New York is such a fast-paced city, shooting could be overwhelming at times, and I never knew exactly what my results would be. I struggled to keep up with my family, whom I was spending the day with, because every time I paused I would get lost in a sea of New Yorkers, power-walking to wherever they needed to be. I tried not interrupt the flow of pedestrian traffic, but found this to be quite difficult for similar reasons.
All while shooting, I could not help but feel that I was missing out on dozens of shots, because so many things were happening simultaneously.
I used a digital Nikon SLR to shoot my project, which allowed me to control my aperture and exposure times. I prefer to shoot with my camera set to Manual mode, so that I have full control over the depth of field and movement within the frame. I was lucky to be shooting on a day with ample sunlight so that, even when I wanted a very narrow depth of field, I could still have a short enough exposure that movement would not be blurred.
After returning to campus, I used Adobe Photoshop to edit the images. I did not manipulate the content of the images at all, instead using the program to restore the images to the way I remembered them looking. By adjusting the contrast and saturation of the image, as well as using the burning and dodging tools, I was able to emphasize the Helvetica within the images, helping to draw the eye to the intended subject of the photograph.
I am pleased with my results: I feel that the images capture the overwhelming bustle I felt while shooting this project. Many of the images have at least one element which alludes to the never-ending movement of New York City, whether in the form of people or transportation. I like the way the movement and dirtiness of the city contrast with the clean simplicity of Helvetica itself.
I also found merchandise featuring Helvetica, which added diversity to the collection. This represents the consumerism for which Manhattan has become famous, and I was especially surprised by the context in which I found some of this merchandise. My favorite instance of use through merchandise, which I have chosen to include in this collection, is the book entitled Graphic Design, which I discovered resting atop a display of flasks in Urban Outfitters. I had previously associated Helvetica with a more conservative image, but as with the rest of the shots in this collection, this one revealed yet another original take on the universal typeface.
Because I was shooting in such a busy city, I was reluctant to bring multiple lenses with me while shooting. I left my long lens at home, which is something I regret. Should I do a similar shoot in the future, I will definitely carry the extra equipment so I will be able to shoot things that are farther away.
Unfortunately, I only spent half a day in the city, so my variety of lighting and location was limited, another issue I will address next time I do a similar project. I would have liked to have shot many more photographs, but time did not allow me to be quite as thorough as I would have preferred. Overall, I am still quite pleased with the series of photographs I have produced. I hope that this photography collection will have a similar effect on my audience that the video Helvetica had on me, and that they will find themselves constantly exclaiming “HELVETICA!”
After my day in New York City I headed North into the suburbs. I assumed my work was complete, but I continued to notice and shoot Helvetica photographs throughout the rest of my trip, finding typeface in board games, street signs, business cards. Perhaps I will continue this project as I continue my travels; I look forward to seeing the way different cities use the same typeface, the simple Helvetica.