About “Perfect Strangers”, a street photography book by Melissa O’Shaughnessy

Melissa O’Shaughnessy is no stranger to the street photography community, she is a member of UP Photographers, is featured in the street photography bible “Bystander: A History of Street Photography” with two wonderful photos, and most recently in the anthology “Women Street Photographers” edited by Gulnara Samoilova and published by Prestel. It was about time she published her first monograph, which Aperture thankfully took on in 2020 with “Perfect Strangers – New York City Street Photographs”.

In recent years it has become increasingly important to me that photo books also contain interesting texts that sort the artist’s work, and so thankfully Joel Meyerowitz wrote the foreword for „Perfect Strangers“. „O’Shaughnessy takes us along on her daily rounds looking at contemporary life in New York City. What she selects is hers alone, yet the consistency of her attraction to certain moments of time and the people caught in them, and her curious and quirky rendering of these moments, present us with a time capsule of the now,” writes Meyerowitz. And further: “We see her present tense, her reading of meaning, her judgment of what might be of importance to readers of history a hundred years from now—just as we see Lartigue’s works today—when the present tense is truly the past. ” Meyerowitz is right about that.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, 42nd Street, 2018, from Perfect Strangers: New
York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa O’Shaughnessy

“Perfect Strangers” excels in breaking through a limited number of visual ideas. This gives the book a pleasant coherence. There are, for example, several examples of „image symmetry“, „couples“ that determine the image: two girls in ballet dresses, two redheads, the suit man standing back to back with himself. Another genre of street photography that O’Shaughnessy exercises I want to call the „hidden object“. Winogrand was perhaps one of the pioneers of this genre, later Richard Bram: pictures in which there is a lot going on, in which the gaze has to wander, on several levels, from front to back, from back to front – and there is so much hidden and so much to discover. I would call the next group of pictures “frames” or “windows”: the young woman with flowing hair in a mirror, the woman in the jewelry shop window, the man in the yellow revolving door. Images that work with the gestures and facial expressions of those depicted: the Orthodox Jews conversing, the children scratching their hands eating apples, showing people. There are the images that work with writing within the image – „Birthday Boy“, „Fuck Fur“, „Biggest Loser“, „Stay True“ for example.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Seventh Avenue, 2017, from Perfect Strangers:
New York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa

All pictures in the book were taken during the day, many of them are in the sun. They are radiant, mostly depicting a very friendly, lively New York (presumptions that the book title could be borrowed from Deep Purple’s „Perfect Strangers“ are misleading, we don’t see any rough pavement here). Connections to darker times are only hinted at in a few images: „Terror returns to NYC“ can be read at some point in a New York Post lying around on the floor. Otherwise, I tend to discover joie de vivre, „Seeking human kindness“ is written with smileys on a box in the picture, maybe something like a motto of the photographer on her forays through New York. Somehow you think you can read a certain carefree lightness of the time of origin in the pictures and in the photographic handwriting – the pictures were taken between 2014 and 2019; in a time before the crisis years of the Corona period on the one hand – and on the other hand more than a decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Fifth Avenue, 2018, from Perfect Strangers:
New York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa O’Shaughnessy

It’s up to me to pick my favorite picture from the book. I hesitate between some of the hidden object pictures and the cover photo, but then decide on one of the pictures that works particularly well with the facial expressions of the protagonist: 42nd Street, 2017 it’s titled. A young woman with flowing hair, wearing a dark summer dress, holding her mobile phone and listening to music or a podcast. In the shaded background, the sunlit glass windows from opposite are reflected on a house wall. And the young woman seems to have just stepped out of the shade into the sun. She frowns very conspicuously and now I’m torn between whether she’s frowning because the sun is suddenly blinding her or whether what she’s hearing on the cell phone is making her frown.

By the way: As I write this book review, parts of the world of photographers and artists are in an uproar about whether artificial intelligence should, or shouldn’t be allowed to produce photographs, art, images. I think that’s largely based on a misunderstanding of how art and photography works. At the beginning there are artists, with their biographies, experiences, adventures, thoughts, philosophies, worries, problems, hopes, their preoccupation with art, with nature, with life, with the future, with the past. And so on. And these artists create works of art that are closely related to these biographical aspects. The work of art then stands in a chain between the artist and the recipient. Artificial intelligence does not have such a biography. It has no relation to the world. And that’s exactly what characterizes Melissa O’Shaughnessy’s series – and those of many other photographers and artists – to get the bow back to street photography: their connection to life, their processing of the world, in this particular case the connection of Melissa O’Shaughnessy to life in New York, to street life, to her encounters, to her observations on the street. Every single picture – and especially the masterly assembled sequence of pictures in the book – tells a little story, a little anecdote, a little scene from the life of New Yorkers, about the present or about the time in which they were created.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Broadway, 2016, from Perfect Strangers: New
York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa O’Shaughnessy

If you are interested in O’Shaughnessy’s pictures, you have to hurry, Aperture has already indicated on its website that the book could be sold out. Or one hopes for a second edition.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy
Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs
With an introduction by Joel Meyerowitz
Publisher: Aperture
Format: Hardback
Number of pages: 144
Number of images: 91
Publication date: 2020-10-27
Measurements: 11.5 x 9.75 x 0.8 inches
ISBN: 9781597114752

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to ask Melissa O’Shaughnessy a few questions about her work and her wonderful book:

A visual zine:  I think the quality of a street photography series often has to do something with some autobiographical, some personal, some individual aspects we discover in the work of a photographer. How much “Melissa O’Shaughnessy” is in your Perfect Strangers series?

Melissa O’Shaughnessy: I believe there is no small degree of autobiography to be found in every photographer’s photographs. Because street photography is entirely reliant on chance, the personal and autobiographical stamp can be more difficult to discern. But look closely enough and I hope you’ll find “me” in my pictures. Above all I hope my interest in—and love of—New York City and its people comes through clearly. Editing my work for the book was also an important exercise in honing what (I hope) comes through as my personal voice.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, 42nd Street, 2019, from Perfect Strangers: New
York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa O’Shaughnessy

A visual zine: The last time I was in New York was 2014, and I always had the impression that this could have been somehow a lucky, carefree time for New York: crime rates were low, 9/11 was more than a decade ago, it was pre-Trump and pre-Covid. I had the impression that everywhere in New York people were dancing, in the parks, at the Hudson River Piers etc. Do you agree with that observation – as I somehow see this in your photos too. And what do you think your photos are telling about the city and about the time you made the photos?

Melissa O’Shaughnessy: The city has most certainly changed since I made the work in “Perfect Strangers” (taken in a 6-year span from 2014 to 2019). Not only does it feel less care-free (though NYC has never really felt like a “care-free” city to me), the mix of people feels different as well. There certainly are fewer commuters, whose rush to and from the trains leant a wonderful energy to mid-town and Lower Manhattan on weekday mornings and afternoons. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but until recently people on the street did seem more tense and wary in the past couple of years. In the past few months I’ve felt like the city is finally getting some of its pre-pandemic mojo back. 

A visual zine: Could you tell me something about the conditions, about the routines you had while producing your street photographs? Did you usually go out into the streets with the aim to take photos, or did you include it into your daily routines?

Melissa O’Shaughnessy: I am only able to get out to shoot a couple days a week. But when I do go out, I tend to spend the entire day photographing. I typically will start the day in Lower Manhattan and work my way north, a good strategy for keeping the sun at my back. I’ll go out in any weather, since my many personal and professional commitments often dictate what days I can get out to photograph. It is not unusual for me to walk 10-15 miles a day when I’m out shooting and I rarely tire until the light is gone—I find street photography extremely energizing.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Sixth Avenue, 2016, from Perfect Strangers:
New York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa O’Shaughnessy

A visual zine: For me it is interesting that I didn’t find one night photo neither in the book nor on your website. What’s the reason for that? And could I possibly expect to see some night photos from you in future? Because maybe I’d love to see some.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy: You’re right, I rarely shoot at night. The simple answer is that I’m a very early riser—and after the aforementioned 10-15 miles of daytime walking I’m just too tired to go back out after the sun goes down!

A visual zine: Are you working on other genres than street photography? Maybe any other documentary series?

Melissa O’Shaughnessy: I’ve always shot landscapes and nature, my family, architecture…anything and everything really. I’ve just not shown any of that work to date; but it’s probably time for an archive dive, now that you mention it.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Fifth Avenue, 2017, from Perfect Strangers:
New York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa O’Shaughnessy

A visual zine: To what extent was the book and the series developed in terms of editing, when you approached Aperture? And: I’ve seen that Aperture marked the book as “out of stock” already: Do we expect to have a second edition of it?

Melissa O’Shaughnessy: Aperture actually approached me about doing the book; unbeknownst to them at the time I actually had a book dummy in the works, so the timing was fortuitous. “Perfect Strangers” is quite a different book than my initial edit in the dummy, in no small part due to my fantastic editors there. 

On the one hand I’m delighted that the book has sold out, but on the other hand am not sure if there is enough demand for a second printing. I think copies can still be found from third-party sellers for a not unreasonable mark up, and Aperture still has a few signed copies available on their website.

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Fifth Avenue, 2019, from Perfect Strangers:
New York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa O’Shaughnessy

A visual zine: And one additional question, as my seven years old son came home from school, while I was going through your book. He was very interested in it, and he said that he liked mostly the girl running in the shadows (page 10) – and all the photos with dogs, especially that from page 90. And he asked me to ask you, if you remember where you were coming from and where you were going to, when you took that photo?

Melissa O’Shaughnessy: I love that your son responded to that photo of the running girl—she looks like she could be about 7-years-old herself! It was taken in the late afternoon at the General Motors building on 5th Avenue and 58th Street. I had planted myself there because I found the raking shadows and afternoon light beautiful, and then that young girl came sprinting into the frame—I’m glad I caught her and her youthful exuberance.

The photo of the dog on page 91 was taken just steps outside of my apartment in Union Square, proof positive that many (happy) accidents happen close to home. 

A visual zine: Thanks a lot, Melissa!

Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Vesey Street, 2015, from Perfect Strangers:
New York City Street Photographs (Aperture, 2020) © Melissa O’Shaughnessy

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