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Sonderbooks Book Review of

Humans of New York

by Brandon Stanton


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Humans of New York

by Brandon Stanton

Review posted February 15, 2014.
St. Martin's Press, New York, 2013.
Starred Review

This book is completely fascinating and delightful. I sat down to just glance through it -- and ended up reading the whole thing.

Brandon Stanton explains the process that got him started writing the blog, Humans of New York. He lost his job as a bond trader, and I like his explanation of why he turned to photography:

I lost my trading job that July and immediately decided I wanted to be a photographer. I had enjoyed my time as a trader. The job was challenging and stimulating. And I'd obsessed over markets in the same way that I'd later obsess over photography. But the end goal of trading was always money. Two years of my life were spent obsessing over money, and in the end I had nothing to show for it. I wanted to spend the next phase of my life doing work that I valued as much as the reward. Photography seemed like an obvious choice. Like I said, it felt like a treasure hunt. And that seemed like a pretty good way to spend my time.

He began taking photos in Chicago and Pittsburgh. His plan was to do a photo tour through several major American cities. Here's how things developed:

I repeated the process in Philadelphia. I spent my days combing the streets for interesting photographs, and each night I deposited the photos in a Facebook album. I named this album "Bricks and Flags." My photos remained similar to those I'd taken in Chicago and Pittsburgh, but with one notable exception. I was starting to take more and more pictures of people. I'd begun to move beyond candid shots, and was actually stopping strangers on the street. The resulting portraits seemed to be the most compelling of my photographs, so I focused more energy on seeking them out.

I arrived in New York in early August. I planned to spend a week in the city before hopping on a plane for the West Coast, but I ended up staying for the rest of the summer. I remember the moment my bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel and I saw the city for the first time. The sidewalks were covered with people. The buildings were impressive, but what struck me most were the people. There were tons of them. And they all seemed to be in a hurry. That night, I created a photo album for my New York photos. I called it "Humans of New York."

This book is full of those photos, from three years of work on the streets of New York. They are wonderful and amazing. Some just say where they were taken, but at least half have captions from what the person said. These add so much. And the people! Flamboyant, quiet, old, young, the eye of Brandon Stanton's camera shows you that people are beautiful.

A few of the captions that made me smile:

"I look like God. Don't I?"

(This picture is of an old man in a wheelchair whose face looks exactly like the face of God as painted on the Sistine Chapel.)

I love the one of a man with three dogs on leashes smiling at a boy on a leash, which is held by his father. The caption reads, "I saw them walking on two opposite ends of the plaza, and started praying that they'd end up in the same place."

Another one is a side view of two boys with Mohawks. One boy is taller, and has a bigger Mohawk. The caption says, "One day you will grow to be like me."

But the one that made me laugh out loud and show my son was a picture of a man facing away from the camera with a giant costume head of Elmo slung over his shoulder in a net bag, with more parts of the costume coming out the top. The caption says, "Something horrible has happened to Elmo."

Those are some of the funny and clever ones. The majority, though are simply beautiful. Beautiful, striking, and fundamentally human.

This book takes less than an hour to read, but you will think about it for much, much longer.