As a street photographer, Hayes travels through New York in search of interesting subjects—young couples, striking figures on smoke breaks, wise old faces. In How New York Breaks Your Heart, it is the people of New York who take center stage. Here, Hayes discusses his process, his relationship to New York City, and more.
Culture Trip (CT): When most people think of New York, they’re of thinking of the skyscrapers and Broadway and Times Square and all the lights. What makes you focus on portraits as a way to define the city?
Bill Hayes (BH): New York is about the people here: encounters with strangers, riding the subway, taking taxi cabs, walking. And I’ve always been drawn to portrait photography, long before I picked up a camera. But it was moving here that really made me pursue it seriously. I just wanted to capture the incredible diversity of the city. And to bring my own craft as it were.
In New York, we live our lives in public, whether in transportation or sitting on the stoop having a talk or lovers arguing on a park bench. I immediately had the impulse to explore the city through my camera. And from the very beginning, I realized I wanted pictures of people. When I spot a person or photograph in my mind, I approach the person and ask.
CT: How does that compare, asking that question in New York compared to some of the other cities you’ve lived in or visited?
BH: It surprises me that it’s easier. New Yorkers seem to be more open. Sometimes people mistake me for a tourist and there are so many tourists in New York, that makes New Yorkers feel a little more open to it.
By contrast, I have photographed in London, Rome, parts of Europe, Iceland, and it’s very different. Street life is different but also attitudes about being photographed. In London, I think there is a little bit more wariness about surveillance and they are just a different culture. They are a little bit more reticent.
It can be a good creative challenge that in a way it makes me not take for granted the picture taking I do in New York City where it is relatively easy.
CT: That makes sense. So you also do a fair amount of writing and How New York Breaks Your Heart has very minimal text. Were there any photos you were tempted to include a larger story with, or was that hard to not supplement with text?
BH: I’ve published four books and this photography book grew out of my last book, the memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me (2017) in which I did have photographs and writing vignettes.
When it came to putting together a book of photography, I actually tried different approaches to get a way to “land the plane.” And I did try, at first, telling more about the stories behind the pictures, encounters, the conversations we had. But it came to feel like the text was fighting with photos. And I kind of wanted the photos to speak for themselves, for the photos to tell their own stories and that was one of my criteria for including the pictures in the book. At that point, I went way back and I just wanted to give enough of an introduction, just a gentle push into my world.
CT: Can you speak more about what you mean by your world?
BH: I think it captures my own experience of New York, which started when I moved here nine years ago. I had lost someone, fell in love, then I lost him. A handful of pictures in the book are from that very first summer in 2009 and they go right up until I finished the book just about a year ago.
My concept was like a going on a dreamy walk through Manhattan. With that regard, it is definitely a romantic walk.
CT: It is a very evocative book and theoretically there’s so little to work with when you only have photos.
BH: It is something I really put a lot of attention to. I was working with my long-time editor, Nancy Miller, who worked on all my books. Here is someone who normally works through manuscripts. And she was also nudging me, “I think less is more. Let the pictures tell the stories, but give the reader enough to get into it and then gently bring them out of the book and bring it to a close.”
CT: How recent was the most recent photo? How close were you cutting it with “oh this photo needs to be included in the collection?”
BH: It’s hard because we were going until the very last minute. There is one of a young man, toward the end of the book, in black and white, with a standing bass that looks like a cello about to board a bus. That was one of the very last. You know, sometimes you just know, in the moment “Oh I got it.” I wasn’t expecting it because I was just walking home from the doctor’s appointment and I came upon this crowd of kids and I asked this kid [if I could take his photo] and he just held this gaze as I took those pictures.
CT: How many photos of a single person do you take?
BH: It depends. Sometimes just one or two. If I fall into a conversation with someone, I might take five or six and chat a little bit and take another six or seven. I might come home with 20 pictures of the same person.
Yesterday, I walked down 14th Street and I saw this Asian man in a cook’s hat having a cigarette break. So I really quick took two photos of him. I ended up at Union Square Park, saw this really striking young man having a cigarette. I took maybe eight pictures of him. I tried to get enough coverage to give myself choices for later. At this point, I’ve done so much that I’m a little bit better as a self-editor as I’m working. In the early days, I just took pictures of everyone I saw. And now, I’m more discriminating. You know, I have so many pictures, of cooks taking cigarette breaks, do I need another one? Or so many pictures on park benches that it needs to be really striking.
CT: Unless you’re aiming for a park bench collection…
BH: Yes, I could do a whole book on park benches. I would love to do that. That was one of the hard things with this book because I have had thousands of pictures and in my first cut, I put them into categories. So I’d have a category of park benches, a category of lovers, category of young people. I just forced myself to decide. For whatever reason, what [photo] is the best of this category.
CT: I bet there’s something about New Yorkers and park benches that is worth exploring.
BH: That is really true… I love that about New York. You know, people don’t use parks in the same way in San Francisco. And there aren’t so many of them. And there aren’t the same reasons to be in parks. You know here in New York, we have tiny apartments that get really hot; sometimes you need to escape to a park to cool off. Or to have time to yourself oddly enough, find time for yourself in a public space. Parks are so integral to life in New York. All kinds of little parks.
CT: All this talk about time spent in public is making me reflect on something I heard once about how New Yorkers are invested in “the creation of self…”
BH: I get that. People come here for a certain purpose. Wither fame or wealth or to reinvent themselves. And I think there is a lot of freedom in that. That and other cities, but New Yorkers, in particular, are very into and open to that reinvention. Whatever your age.