Land of Hope & Dreams | The Hidden Side of New York
Photographer Chris Bethell shows us a different perspective on the Big Apple
Photo: Chris Bethell
In this latest serialisation of British photographer Chris Bethell’s road trip through the United States, Bethell turns his lens towards New York – the city of bright lights and big dreams. New York offers a unique challenge to anyone hoping to understand America, as Bethell discovered, being both the relentless capital of the modern world, and as American as cherry pie.
Patrolling the boardwalks and boulevards of the five boroughs, Bethell sought to capture the side of New York most tourists wouldn’t think to photograph: the lesser-known, the unseen. This of course is quite the challenge in the most catalogued city on earth.
This is just one part of a series of images that Bethell took during his epic six-week journey across the States, as he travelled through the land of his mother and grandfather to better understand his own roots.
“Taking different photos of New York is of course quite the challenge – this is the most catalogued city on earth”
Bekky was the anchor that grounded me along this journey. All too often I would become overwhelmed by the prospect of what I had set out to achieve – to understand my identity in relation to the USA, and to get to know the Grandfather I never met. Leaving Boston, I worried that I hadn’t achieved this.
Bekky helped me accept that this was okay and to move on. Turning the camera on her also helped in moments where I became inundated with thoughts and things to photograph. In this photo, we are on our way to Coney Island for the first time; the place where I first properly saw the America that existed in my childhood dreams.
This is a view from the Steeplechase Pier. I spent a few hours walking up and down its wooden deck, photographing the myriad of people that surrounded it. This photo is far removed from any vision I had of New York as I was growing up.
I took a lot of photographs of the American flag. I was drawn to them at first because of the bold colours and the cliché of how ubiquitous they are, but soon became more interested in how people wear it as an identity.
The St George’s flag of England has come to represent conservatism, and has became a symbol of the far-right. And although the American flag symbolises the same for America – its history of militarism and strong, patriotic identity – for the American people, it also represents the American Dream, and the hope that everything will be okay in the end.
I found this man amongst the numerous other sleepy men sat about on the pier. I interrupted his game of Sudoku to ask if I could take a portrait of him because I liked his hat.
I like this photo because to me it feels like a still out of an LA-based action movie. This couple are an ill-fitted crime fighting duo, springing to action from the emergency vehicle in the top right of the frame. In reality though, they were probably just meeting a friend.
What’s on the phone? Unfortunately I’ll never know – but maybe like the girl in the frame, I just shouldn’t care. Something about this photo makes me mourn for all of my teenage years not spent on the other side of the Atlantic.
Away from the masses on the beach, this woman drags herself and her possessions towards the city. Alone against the sand, save a few seagulls, there’s a sadness to the way in which she holds herself.
‘Rehab with a view’. Looking back, this is one of the first photos I took that represented the America that I came to understand from meeting actual Americans. Everywhere I went, I saw the commercialisation of healthcare, and subsequently the idea that profit always comes before people.
This is a view of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge. New York had always loomed large in my relationship to the States – probably due to its proliferation through all of the films and books that influenced me as a child. But in my head, I had always imagined my Grandfather to have lived through its streets and bars.
The only real story of my Grandfather having been there though is from my Grandmother – she told me that he once drove her there from Boston just to get a cup of coffee.
I can’t remember much about the man in this image. I took this quickly from the hip as he passed me and Bekky on the Brooklyn Bridge. His expression seems sorrowful – reflecting the words on his t-shirt.
The archetypal NYPD cop. This image is interesting to me as on his left he leans into his vehicle with a disarming smile, illuminated by the sun. But on the right of his body, cast into shadow, his hand rests on his gun.
Like every kid, everywhere, I imagine – I was obsessed with breakdancing. I would try to imitate the moves I saw on the television in my Mum’s living room without much success. Watching this group of breakdancers tumble around the concrete with utmost grace brought some of those memories back to me.
I try my best not to photograph people who are homeless or begging. It usually serves to do nothing other than dehumanise them – to make them the ‘other’ from the people viewing the photograph. But I remember photographing this woman before I realised she was begging.
There was something about the light on her face at the time which drew me to take a photo. And after reviewing the image, her stoic expression lifts her up from the usual photography of the downtrodden. She appears human, she appears as herself.
This again is an image that came to represent the America I saw. A shady man sitting behind technology, and the reflections of his surrounding structures, commands all the power in this photograph.
I’m confident that he is staring right at the viewer but it’s impossible to be sure because of the sunglasses hiding his gaze. Outside of the car, we see a representation of the everyday American people.
This picture makes me laugh. Something about the combination of the policeman sucking his lips, and the man on the taxi sign next to the words ‘Because Pizza’.
Tourists being tourists. There was a bigger queue of people lining up to pose with the bull’s balls than its front.
I want to know what this kid said to Gregory Morgan (the musician pictured) as he stopped his performance for him. His expression, to me, reads of surprised respect.
This was taken on the edge of Central Park – a place where many rickshaw riders congregated to take a break. I caught these two chatting while they rested.
New York, again like Boston, had been a city that I’d always imagined to be cold. Snow, long jackets and visible breath played into my romantic notion of the city more so than the sweltering heat we experienced. This dribbling dog is quite the metaphor for the physical state I was in at the time.
The metropolitan flux was alive in New York more so than in any other city I have ever seen.So many people with so many lives walking amongst each other – perhaps never to be seen again.
Wanderers above the Sea of Fog. There’s not much in this world that I find funnier than men reenacting this famous pose. These two are quite an extreme case of it – spreading their legs as wide and high as possible, probably to assert some form of authority or masculinity. I also love the man to the left; his eyes closed, head high – soaking in their excellence.
I took this picture because I liked how the light slightly disappeared with every woman as it moved rightwards. The first woman’s back is bright and golden in the sun, the next is broken up by trees and branches above, and the next falls into dull shadow. Also, I wonder where Harry is and how he’s doing.
This image is a nod to William Eggleston’s famous photo of a tricycle in Memphis. His picture is taken from the floor – from the perspective of a baby or small child. My image is taken from my adult height, representing the perspective I had in first seeing the States.
Another picture of Bekky – this time in the expansive Central Park. This was taken before eating one of the best steaks of my life at a restaurant overlooking one of the park’s lakes.
I should really keep better track of where I took some of my pictures, but at the time it wasn’t about documenting exact places or the people frequenting them. It was about capturing an essence that could go some way to telling my Grandfather’s story. The light in this picture represented the hope I had for the rest of the journey.
When I still lived at my Mum’s house, I had a huge, monochrome canvas of Times Square that hung above my bed. The picture showed the flurry of life moving through one of the world’s most famous locations, and I had always dreamed of being one of the faces drifting through my picture. I’m almost sure that I recognise the man in this rickshaw from my canvas.
I don’t want to give away the context of this picture because that ruins the magic of the people’s expressions. Instead, I read it as a film still from a superhero movie – one of the cutaways to the people on the street gazing skywards to their hero.
Elmo is a citizen of the United States of America. This picture captures a street performer walking home at the end of his shift.