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Scaling Buildings & Clinging to Film: How One Street Photographer Captures New York

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Welcome to In Focus, a new feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City's past and present.

Cheney Orr's photographic pursuits have taken him to to Afghanistan, Nepal, Rwanda, and Ukraine, but the 24-year-old photographer feels most comfortable on the streets of New York City. "New York is many things to me," says Cheney. "When shooting, it becomes my playground." Arizona born and Brooklyn-bred, he moved from Tucson to Crown Heights when he was 11, and has been constantly shooting the city since high school. Cheney, who still shoots with film, never leaves home without his camera, and his photos often feature his friends and the characters that make the city's streets come alive. He says there's "no particular message" in his photos, but "they are simply an attempt to savor and preserve everything that passes me by."

What motivates you to take a picture?


Everyday, everywhere I go, I see photographs. It's just a matter of lifting the camera and releasing the shutter. My best photos are the ones I saw but did not take. So, I guess that is what most motivates me to to take a picture, the fact that I will otherwise face the torment of the moments I missed.

How is shooting in NYC different than other places?


For me, shooting in NYC is more comfortable than anywhere else. I know the city, the neighborhoods, the streets, the people. It feels natural.

What do you think your photos say about the city?


I have no particular message in mind with my images from the street. They are simply an attempt to savor and preserve everything that passes me by.

In what neighborhoods do you shoot?


I shoot mainly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The photos shown here range from Chinatown to Harlem and from Coney Island to Bushwick.

How would you sum up what you've shot?


This city is what you make it. New York is many things to me, when shooting it becomes my playground. Looking back on my photos, this is what I see.

What's the best picture you haven't taken?


Oh God, there's a lot. One I was talking about the other day was when this biker club had a street party on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights by this biker bar. I was walking by it last year, and there was this rough biker dude with black dreads leaning on his bike, all in black, super badass, licking a vanilla Mister Softee. I was like, 'this is a great picture,' but I didn't have my camera. That one I remember pretty vividly. I know there's more, and they come back to me randomly; I'll just think of them.

Have a favorite photo, or photo-taking-experience?


I don't think I have one favorite photo of my own, or of anyone's, really. But as for a favorite experience, my recent photo-taking experience in Ukraine, going around and talking to random people, approaching them on the street, and actually taking the time to sit and talk with them to find out their story—it's not something I usually do. I guess it was a format and method that I don't usually use. Besides that, a lot of the time photography is an excuse for me to do things—to climb a building—I'm like, "it's okay because I'm a photographer." Or going to J'ouvert. It's an excuse to go and experience, and that's kind of awesome. For me, it's not that I don't get to experience things because I'm behind the camera, it's that the camera gives me an excuse to go out of my comfort zone.

You shoot with a Leica M6, which is a film camera. Do you feel like you miss out on a lot of good shots by shooting film, rather than digital?


I don't think so. I think the times when I miss out is when there's heavy action, like Occupy Wall Street when it's fucking intense and there's a lot of really quick movement, that is maybe when I miss out. But on the street or any other kind of stuff I do with friends—lifestyle photography, I guess you'd call it—that, no, because I have enough time. And I'm quick with the film. It's a pain in the ass to be manually focusing your camera when people are running all around you in that kind of situation. That's the only time I feel like I miss a shot with my manual camera. I guess if I had an autofocus film camera. There's not much to it, it's a lot simpler than the digitals where you have all these buttons and settings. My camera, it's got three things: focus, aperture, shutter speed.

Are there moments when you don't take the shot, you just appreciate the moment?


Usually if I don't take the shot, I don't know. It's usually not because I think, "this is just so beautiful I need to live in this moment," it's usually more like I [wuss] out and don't want to deal with that person and their reaction. It's not usually some "emotions are so beautiful shit," it's like I'm too scared of this person, but I try to overcome that most of the time.

Tell me about the shot of the Jesus-like character at the Fulton street stop.


That was just a one off shot I took. I was on the train headed somewhere in Brooklyn with a buddy of mine. People really like that picture. I like it, too. There's not so much to tell. I saw the guy there, and I told him my buddy, "look at this guy, I'm gonna take a picture."

And the one of the cops and the naked man on Bedford Avenue?


That's from J'ouvert. He pretended to be this devil character, and basically he embodies everything viceful, like sexual sins. I don't have the exact backstory. A photographer I know of, during this last J'ouvert in Brooklyn, did a photo essay on that character in the festival. That's just one of the guys who embodied that character. A lot of them cover themselves in tar, so thats what he's pouring on himself.

How about the one of the kid tagging with the skyline in the background. It's probably my favorite of your shots.


(Ed. note: this is the lead photo) Just a buddy painting on a rooftop in Williamsburg. It's sunset, the evening. There's not too much to the story, it is what it is. I try to bring my camera with me wherever I go all the time, no matter what I'm doing. The kind of shit that I do or have done with friends tends to be photogenic. It wasn't planned out or anything.

Why do you think street photography is important?


In a city undergoing such rapid change as New York, I think it is important to capture the constantly shifting landscape and people. Street photography over the decades provides a raw historical document unlike any other.

Who are your biggest inspirations and influences, photography or otherwise?


My mom.

Interview has been condensed and edited.
· Cheney Orr [official]