Welcome to In Focus, a feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City's past and present.
Brooklyn-based photographer and ex-painter Paul McDonough is a New Hampshire native, but he's lived in New York for the past 40 years. He teaches at the Pratt Institute and considers the street his studio. "There are no pictures out there," he says, "only events that could lead to possible pictures." Humble McDonough considers himself "just another tourist," albeit one whose work is in the MoMA's collections. Below, he speaks candidly about his career, technique, and chronicling a changing city. Plus, he shares a selection of 20 favorites—offering insight into how many of the compositions came together.
[Two Men on Stand Pipes Watching Parade, 1975.]
In the moment, what motivates you to take a picture?
It's always something visual. Before it can be identified, let alone verbally accessed, you have your camera ready, and you're in position for when something happensor not. Mainly it's a ritual of preparedness that you are primed for.
[Couple Kissing on Street Corner, 1973.]
Do you find today's New York less photogenic than it was in the 60s and 70s?
Photogenic isn't the word. Maybe photo-receptive is a better word. Styles change but the light and the energy don't, except for the seasons. It's mainly fashion that shifts, and alters the way life in the streets appears.
[Women in Fur Coats, 1974.]
How does shooting in NYC compare to shooting elsewhere in America? Would you say that the density of people makes the largest difference?
Yes, that question answers itself. Depending on where you are in Manhattan, there is the expectation that at every street corner there may be a configuration of people, light, traffic signs, etc.
[Girl and Woman Touching Horse, 1973.]
Are you more nostalgic for certain periods of New York? Do you think you would have enjoyed shooting it, for instance, in, say, the 1920s?
I can't say. I don't know what that period felt like because I did not live through it. You're probably most attuned to your own generation's visual character. Awareness of the present is the key element.
[Two Women in White Shorts, 1973.]
What do you think your photos say about the city? Do they speak more to individual moments, or to the time period?
The energy of the city is the main attraction. The changing styles are visible all the time and they are a constant source of inspiration.
[Three Musicians, 1978.]
You've said before that you don't like the phrase "street photography." Is there a phrase you'd prefer people use?
Any words that don't narrow it to one location. The only distinction the phrase has is that it separates you from a studio photographer. But then again, when I'm out there, I think of the street as my studio.
[Woman in Steam, NYC, 1969.]
What kind of camera do you use? Why have you stuck with film?
My film shooting these days is mostly in the studio, with a camera that uses 4 x 5 inch sheet film. There I use a tripod. But, outside, I use my iPhone, which has gotten so much better. And since everyone has this tool, it makes me as a photographer all the more invisible. I should add that I consider the act of photographing as note-taking rather than picture-making.
[Couple and Pilgrim Statue, 1973.]
Do you find you are less impulsive when using film?
The film camera is always ready. These days when I use my iPhone camera, it's a slower process, a few more steps. You have to turn it on, wait a few seconds before it focuses, and it shuts off by itself when you don't want it to. With my film camera, all I have to do is have my finger poised over the shutter release.
[Couple, Central Park Cafe, 1973.]
What's the best picture you haven't taken?
There are no pictures out there, only events that could lead to possible pictures. The photographs are the final outcome of the whole process of shooting, then developing the film, printing out proofs, editing, and finally deciding what to enlarge and keep.
[Small Person with Bookbag, NYC, 1968.]
[Pregnant Woman Crossing 85th Street, NYC, 1969 (left) and The Roman Room at the Met, 1973 (right).]
Do you prefer shooting alone? Do you find your subjects are less intimidated, or that you are less distracted?
Alone is best, but I've learned to work with the company of friends. If I need to, I can break away from conversation and then return to it when I've done my work. It requires more tolerance from the company I'm with than it does any adjustment on my part. It's really just a kind of rhythm you get into; walking, talking, and turning around to see what's behind you. You're not alone, really.
[Priest with Dark Glasses, NYC, 1970.]
Do you find people are less willing to have their photograph taken today? Did you ever talk with your subjects before or after?
I rarely talk with them. My engagement is primarily visual. I'm just another tourist. I see things taking place that they may be unaware of. It's so ephemeral that if I took time to engage and explain what I am doing, it will be lost. I couldn't even explain it to myself. The eye works quicker than the mind.
[Central Park Pond - Kids in Tree, 1973.]
[Kids with Cat, NYC, 1969.]
Tell me about the picture Kids with Cat, 1969? Was that at some kind of show?
Just the show that always took place around the Bethesda Fountain in those daysand still does. The kids in that particular photograph were (I think) high on something and in their own world. The cat seemed none too happy. The city then was a kind of theater that was just waiting for you to react to it with a camera.
[Central Park, Couple with Baby in Newspaper, 1973.]
And the one with the baby wrapped up in newspaper? Do you know why it was wrapped up in newspaper?
This was another scene in Central Park; the couple was waiting in line for free tickets for something, a play or a concert, and it had just started to rain so they wrapped their baby up in paper to keep it from getting wet. In this instance I even asked if I could photograph them. This was rare for me.
[Hare Krishna and Blind Man, 1973.]
How about "Hare Krishna and Blind Man"I don't understand why the Hare Krishna would be showing the blind man something if he knew he was blind.
Neither do I. But I was happy to be a witness to it. People forget that some people don't use their eyes the ways the sighted do. It's a reflex for the sighted, and people are governed by reflexes that might make them forget the actual situation they are in.
[Street Corner, East Side, Man with Shopping Bag, 1973.]
[Central Park, Boy on Band Shell, 1973.]