“It is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the [Central] Park, to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood.”

– The New York Times, 1866

Our Brooklyn neighborhood, within the larger Sunset Park, has recently been monikered as Greenwood Heights for its proximity to the historic 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery, filled with wealthy dead people and alive visitors enjoying the opulent grounds and views from the highest point in Brooklyn, once the location of the Battle of Brooklyn. My kid loves the Koi pond there, particularly chasing a big white fish named Ghost, while I watch Asian families burn offerings to their deceased loved ones, on large grill-like surfaces.

The Heights moniker is an obvious boon for local real estate agents, as multiple large apartment buildings sprout in every direction. Which is vital, since the city desperately needs housing. But you always worry about the power and wealth of a city like New York to overwhelm a neighborhood and kick out long-lasting communities, often with people who bring their tastes and aesthetics with them. It’s an old tale, with the twist of ruthless speed that comes with television and social media.

On 4th Avenue, a block from where I live, is a Speedway gas station. Adjacent and across from the gas station are a public school that my son attends, a local police station focusing on police vehicle maintenance, and a Best Western hotel built to take advantage of the city paying hotels to house the houseless (about $5,000 a month for a room). Recently, the hotel was converted to house migrants shipped en masse to New York from the governors of Texas and Florida, in a bid to overwhelm the city for political gain. These are better conditions than most get, and we drop off what we can.

Gas, police, migrants, children – it’s a topical corner.

I walk by this gas station three or four times daily, often with a camera around my neck. And it’s still around at the time of this writing. A gas station two blocks away is nearly finished transitioning to apartments, making this one even more valuable and vital to the city. But it’s probably not as valuable as another high-rise.

Cooped up during the height of the pandemic, I began to notice the gas station with more curiosity, and its bustling nature.

The Speedway is a third space, a term that refers to a space beyond home and work where people congregate. What first comes to mind for an ideal third space is drinking espresso in one of those majestic Italian town squares, letting the mind and eyes wander.

But like the gas station, these spaces can take many untraditional forms. In New York, people like to wait on lines. I watch these lines with fascination, often asking what they’re for. They’ve grown and grown in the modern city, for Cronuts, limited-edition sneaker drops, restaurants and shows, and anything hot on social media.

My favorite line is outside Wah Fung No. 1, a tiny storefront on Chrystie Street in Chinatown selling the most incredible roast pork and duck combo with cabbage over rice, and a full ladle over top of light sweet sauce. Three meals for under $10.

The line outside is as exquisite as the food, which is how I found the place. I walk past maybe three times a week and it is always exactly 30 minutes long, every time. It is maybe the most diverse spot in the world. Sometimes on line you eavesdrop until you can’t hide it anymore and you jump into the conversation. The smell of sauce wafts out as you get closer. You can see steam, lots of steam. Everyone feels good on this line.

It’s a valid feeling to look upon waiting on lines with contempt. Don’t get me talking about the old Cronut lines (are those still happening? They’re probably still happening, right?). Who are these people who have the time and interest to wait for so long for fashion? Don’t you know the world is burning?

But it’s no different than stopping for an espresso. What’s really the difference between drinking coffee with a friend and waiting on line for sneakers, with other sneakerheads? At least they’re getting some cardio. These lines are just a third space, where people can hang around with the like-minded, be influenced, and have some fun.

Why am I so interested in these lines? Well, since you asked, photography helped me uncover an infactuation with the idea of community. If you want to get analytical (you probably don’t), it’s because I grew up with two psychiatrist parents; one bipolar and one on the spectrum of something. I have a shoebox of photos of my mother as a child praying, in front of the television, in front of the Christmas tree. My grandmother even captured a set of portraits of the nuns on local basketball courts.

And then in college, my mother denounced religion. Grandparents and cousins no longer lived in the same building, they lived downtown or in New Jersey, and then to Tampa. There were no rituals beyond tearing open presents on Christmas Eve. I grew up with the unrealized loss of a culture and community that had pulled apart.

My neighborhood was filled with second or third-generation white-collar professionals brought all together from different places, and I am the successful completion of the immigrant/doctor/artist pipeline. What’s also fascinating is that I couldn’t tell you any of this about myself until recently, without some years of therapy and my father passing. But you could still see this fixation in my work.

I spent five-and-a-half years interviewing and photographing residents each week in the Lower East Side neighborhood where my grandparents and mother grew up. Connecting with my family history felt like a rewarding thing to do while I struggled to make a living. I shared the stories with a local blog that grew a fun following and webs of comments, bringing together stories of a community of alternatives, creatives, and immigrants. This while developers swarmed the buildings, harassing anyone with a rent they deemed too cheap. Jared Kushner led the charge.

My first long-term project, Luxe City, focused more deeply on this breakdown of community in New York as it hyper-transitions into a luxury good; a playground to be consumed. Informed by much of the neighborhood conversations and collective feelings on the change, the project focused on the lack of connection, anxiety, and loneliness that was occurring. It was also a way for me to deal with this cultureless feeling that was like a pit in my stomach.

And when the fixation on the gas station began, I didn’t realize it initially, but it was the opposite of Luxe City. Personally, I had gotten married, had a kid, had some career stability (some being the key word), and moved out of Manhattan to work on building my own community. I naturally just stopped taking good photos for the Luxe City project. I didn’t notice these things in the same way anymore. Those feelings weren’t as forefront in my mind, and this affected my photography.

The Speedway is a magnificent communal space. It might be hard to appreciate at first with all the noise and dust, and feeling like you might be hit by a car at any point. I’m not a fan of cars. But if you can get past all that, clear your head and just watch, it’s an experience. The sun on your back or the glow of lights in a pouring rain, the cacophony of sounds that your brain typically tunes out, the slight burn from dust in your eyes, and the smell of oil.

This is where you see people, both the regulars who pop in and the drivers going to and from. Things happen; people are drawn here. Instead of espresso, maybe it’s a Prime or a lottery ticket. Stone barriers put in place to protect from cars entering at the wrong angle act like tables outside of a cafe.

I now wave to some of the regulars walking by. The camera feels like a key to the city and a way to ingratiate myself to where I live. It brought me to twelve-million dollar apartments and old East Village squats, seeing places, meeting people, and hearing thoughts I would not be privy to otherwise. A pretty camera is like a warm smile. And both together can feel unstoppable at times.

Photography helps me overcome shyness and social anxiety. I no longer feel fear stopping to talk to people, and even seek it out fairly often when I feel need for stimulation. But even so, talking to strangers and asking for portraits while they pump gas is a daunting idea. Each time took some personal prodding. Some days I just couldn’t do it and went home, while on others, I was able to push through.

Over a year and a half focusing on this gas station, and only two people ever said they didn’t feel up to it. Maybe the pandemic helped everyone more easily understand what was happening, even if I didn’t quite understand it myself. But either way, it was a fascinating experience when someone in their pajamas would smile and enthusiastically say, ‘Sure!’

Who knows if anyone else will enjoy this as I do, and it might sit on my website with the occasional view and a few mock copies in the world until it ages and a real stock of it is taken. Some work is for thousands and some is meant for just two people.

And all of this ended up not even being the point of the project. It never is, is it? Things in life and photography never seem to go as planned anyway, especially for the best or worst of it.

While photographing the gas station, I grew a friendship with a houseless man from Brooklyn, whose name for himself is Mango Salsa, which certainly describes his personality. He is vibrant, often self-reflective, fun. When I met him feeding the birds, he was living in the Best Western hotel before eventually being kicked out on the streets as they transitioned to housing migrants. He then moved to another hotel, and another. He sat on the concrete dividers, feeding the flock of neighborhood pigeons and painting. He cares deeply about the pigeons. I don’t know if he started it, or if I just started noticing it after, but numerous people come each day to feed the pigeons.

As I got to know him, I began to buy his paintings, take his portraits, and I would make mock copies of the book for him. He eventually started painting his favorite photos from the project and scenes from the gas station as well, and I began to add in his photos and his work so that they took up the last third of the project, with his permission and enthusiasm. Although he came from a much, much tougher life than I did, there were many massively difficult moments during those years for both of us to navigate.

What started as a project about searching for community, ended as this unique connection, two artists from opposite ends of the societal spectrum, both drawn to community and these random rocks outside of this random gas station.

Hello, my name is James and I’m a photographer, I guess. I like to be thought of as a documentarian as well. I shoot everything but weddings and straddle many lines, as is necessary these days. I’m a workshop and history guide, a writer, and a teacher. I’ve been a working photographer for nearly 20 years.

This book is where I try to recollect things I’ve learned, to simmer with them. It’s primarily about the what and the why, and less of the how, despite the title. What we photograph and why we photograph, who we are, where we are, and what we feel. And I look forward to getting to know you in this book.

It took me time to realize how important a photograph of the concrete block where Mango sat was. It was one of the last photographs I took for the project. This unplanned seat, perfect to watch the world go by, or to watch the people who sit there. I waited for a sunny day and timed it late in the day to create a long shadow, like a sundial. Okay, maybe this book will explore some of the how.

This rock is a place where you can watch time go by, just like the lines. And all it takes is one photograph of a concrete slab to be a metaphor for an entire book.

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