New York-based photographer Melissa O’Shaughnessy’s street photography has already been featured in numerous exhibitions and books including the re-publication of Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz’s Bystander: A History of Street Photography (2017), yet Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs is the first monograph of her work.
“The book is a culmination of seven years of work on the streets of New York City,” O’Shaughnessy tells CR. “Good street photographs are few and far between, so it took me that long to build up a body of work that I was proud of, and thought worthy of a book.”
The photographer says she came late to photography, having started in her early 40s after working at a small financial firm and raising her three children. “I spent my early days learning the craft of black and white film photography, and gradually shifted my focus to colour, and then to life on the streets of New York City and beyond,” explains O’Shaughnessy. “Somewhere along the way I started to consider myself a street photographer, though I certainly don’t limit myself to the genre or the moniker.”
Though she finds it difficult to define her style, O’Shaughnessy says she works in an instinctive way and tries to convey a sense of reality and honesty with her photographs. “I hope my photographs communicate the delight I find in what I see, and in the energy and sometimes quirky behaviour of the people I encounter along the way,” she says.
As is expected, people are the focus of the photographer’s work and a cast of fascinating characters are presented to us in Perfect Strangers. “Denise Wolff (my wonderful editor at Aperture) and I started with a pile of over 300 photographs, and gradually edited them down to the 91 that appear in the book,” O’Shaughnessy says of the editing process. “Over the course of a number of weekly meetings we sequenced the photographs – and there were several iterations of the sequence along the way – to reveal the mood and tenor of the story we hoped to tell of life in New York City at this particular time, and of my particular vision of it.”
O’Shaughnessy believes New York City’s rich streets will always provide inspiration to photographers and she thinks it’s important to note the historical importance of the city in relation to the genre of street photography. “Its streets and avenues have been walked by many of photography’s greats, from Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand to Joel Meyerowitz and Helen Levitt,” she says. “The city has diverse crowds and an irresistible energy, and at certain times of the year the light can be sensational. Add the backdrop of all the glass and architecture and it cooks up into a tasty stew.”
Though O’Shaughnessy has established herself as a street photographer, as with the art world, the photography industry still has a habit of defining artists by their gender first, and as such she’s featured in a handful of exhibitions titled ‘Women Street Photographers’ or something similar. It’s still something O’Shaughnessy wrestles with, though it’s clear female street photographers aren’t so much of a minority now, and she feels it’s important that she and her peers are at least being recognised more generally.
“I think the issue is complex and nuanced. Broadly speaking, I think it’s safe to say that historically – in many if not most aspects of arts and culture and commerce – women have had fewer opportunities than men,” she says. “I also think it is a question of awareness and exposure, and I think female street photographers are happily starting to receive both in greater numbers.”
Reflecting on the way street photography has evolved, O’Shaughnessy says it’s more how her subjects have changed as opposed to any shifts in her technique. “When I first began, cell phones were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are now; it’s difficult to take a photograph these days that doesn’t have many – or most – people in the frame fixated on their small screens,” the photographer notes. “And of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has utterly changed street life in New York – and every other big city for that matter. The crowds are gone, everyone is masked, distanced, and wary. I think it makes the book feel that it’s from a completely different era, even though the work is very recent.”
Looking through O’Shaughnessy’s images does create a longing for a pre-Covid time. However, it’s also a reminder of what will hopefully return, a time where we’ll be able to once again revel in the hustle and bustle and the closeness of people. Though that might be a long way off for now, O’Shaughnessy hopes the book can at least provide that warmth and intrigue. “I want people to delight in our fellow women and men, wherever they may be found,” she says. “People are so beautiful, in all their infinite variety.”
Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs by Melissa O’Shaughnessy and published by Aperture is out now; melissaoshaughnessy.com