Manhattan's Garment District - a Microcosm of "Old" New York

Methadone patients on 8th Ave @ 35th St.

Manhattan's Garment District - a Microcosm of the "Old" New York

On July 19th, 2015, the New York Times published an article profiling the infamous “Zombie McDonald’s” of 490 8th Ave at 35th Street in New York City’s historic Garment District neighborhood.

Its corporate designation, McDonald’s #3078, has 2.5 Yelp stars and has been described by its users, among other colorful analogies as, “a cross between Disneyland and a homeless shelter.” 

“A grimy McDonald’s with a rough clientele” is not a story on its own, but “people openly buying, selling, and consuming drugs and alcohol inside a McDonald’s” is. Chasing this lead, The New York Times reported that within a few blocks of the fast food franchise, there are two outpatient substance abuse programs, a methadone clinic, and a needle exchange. Meanwhile, right out the front door is a pickup/drop-off point for the ubiquitous double-decker tour bus. The restaurant’s bathrooms must remain unlocked and accessible to the steady influx of tourists. This along with McDonald’s “Dollar Menu” and a relatively comfortable place to escape the weather combine to create the “drug addict’s paradise,” described on Yelp.

As a New York City-based photographer concerned with social issues, I often reference The New York Times’ Metro section to identify places that might be of photographic interest. I noticed the seediness of this particular block years before the Times ran the story, but reading it piqued my curiosity enough to go deeper and do some documentation of my own. 

So, camera in hand, I've been hanging out at the so-called “junkie McDonald’s” nursing coffee like the regulars, watching, listening, and stealing shots. In this blog, I'm sharing only a few images and observations but this work is becoming a much larger project. The story of this particular New York neighborhood is in my opinion, one of the more interesting ones and points to much larger problems stemming from growing income inequality in the city.

I used a Leica M9 rangefinder camera, a perfect digital tool for this sort of “fly on the wall” photography. The preferred camera of legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Leitz II, and Robert Capa, Leica became synonymous with the golden age of reportage. Their cameras are built strong enough to literally survive a war and yet are substantially smaller than SLRs. They utilize a fast and accurate focus system that allows a skilled photographer to shoot “blind” when necessary, i.e. not having to look through the viewfinder. Leica brought this tried and true analog technology into the digital realm with their M8, M9, and M rangefinder cameras, combining speed and size with the instantaneous feedback of digital imaging.

I can attest to the Times‘ writer’s observations that the police and McDonald’s management’s efforts to erase the drug scene there appear futile. However what The New York Times article glosses over is that while this McDonald’s is somewhat an anomaly among fast food restaurants, it is consistent with that can be seen in the still gritty axis between Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Perhaps because of the high volume of transient traffic and concentration of homeless shelters, this area has proven somewhat resistant to the rampant gentrification of the West Side. Within this little pocket remains images of poverty that contrast sharply with the picture of today’s wealthy, elitist Manhattan where once notoriously blighted areas have been transformed into playgrounds for millionaires.

The gentleman above declined to be ID'd but he stands at this spot for most of the day just keeping an eye on things. He said the restaurant has gotten a lot worse in the past two or three years though offered he no insights on why that might be. An additional layer of security, an off duty NYC cop is employed here as well though only until the early afternoon. 

The activities on display in this McDonalds are a reminder that New York’s meteoric rise to prosperity has left many behind, harkening back to a time when the city was a far more raw and visceral place, a place where visibly desperate people weren’t concentrated in a few small areas, but a fixture across much of the city.

Sony Alpha A7RII. Yeah!

This s the original R as official images of the Mark 2 haven't been released yet.

Sony Alpha A7RII. Yeah!


This camera might be the most badass little chunk of digital imagemaking technology bestowed on us yet. But you already knew that if you’ve been keeping up with the blogs and early reviews. The response to the A7R Mark II has so far been overwhelmingly positive as there’s a lot to get excited about - more resolution, more sensitivity, improved autofocus, in-camera image stabilization and 4K video @ 100 Mbps. If you’ve already pre-ordered, then you’re counting down the days until early August, especially if you’re like me and unloaded your A7S and A7R a month early because you read the release date wrong. Oops.

On my last big photo trip, I carried both the R and the S and came to fully realize the advantages of mirrorless cameras. In my own use, I found the high resolution, 36.4 Megapixel A7R performs exceptionally well during the day whereas the S, with its enhanced low light capability and Silent Shutter, is best appreciated at night. The "Stealth" Shutter feature in particular became an indispensable asset that allowed me to get shots that would have been impossible without.

In six months of traveling and shooting, I kept thinking these two cameras really should be one. The resolution of the R combined with the sensitivity and stealthiness of the S would in this shooter's opinion, make for pretty much the perfect digital camera.

To my surprise after only one year, the wish has been granted and everything we love about both the R and S has been combined in a brand new body along with a wish list of improvements and slick new features. Thank you, Sony! 


The resolution of the S is skimpy at best. 4K is in my opinion, not enough for stills anymore. Perhaps I've been made greedy by the R’s 7.5K photos that can be radically reframed in post without penalty. The RII packs a whopping 42 Megapixels onto a newly designed back-lit Full Frame sensor that scales down to a mathematically perfect Super 35mm Crop for 4K video mode. No pixel binning so no aliasing or moire and the smart downsampling has the added bonus of minimizing the “jello effect” inherent to most DSLR video. All this in the robust XAVC codec, Slog2 @ 100 Mbps, selectable in NTSC or PAL, and recorded in the camera to SDXC card. Remarkable! 

I'm comfortable shooting the S at 25,600 ISO and the R at 3200 ISO. The R is a noisy camera and in practice, not great for night work. The S on the other hand sees beyond what we see with our own eyes and I was constantly baffled by what I was able to get with it. For example, shooting f/4 @ 1/320 with barely a foot-candle and somehow making pleasing pictures such as this -

This is a "no light" photo. Sony A7S, Leica Summarit 90mm @ f/4, 1/320", 25,600 ISO

Despite a maximum ISO of 102,400 on the RII, no one is expecting it to perform in low light as well as the S. If it comes close, all the better but I'd personally be satisfied to be able to shoot with no penalty at ISO 6400.

The Autofocus on both the R and S is comparatively poor and there have been many times I discovered heartbreaking focus problems in Lightroom long after it's too late. Unacceptably soft shots because the R just couldn’t tell that piece of junk Zeiss FE 35mm where to focus. Sony’s lenses for these bodies are definitely the weakest aspect of the product line so it’s good news that in addition to the new camera's vastly improved 399 AF detection points, using the Metabones adapter, Canon EOS lenses will apparently perform natively. This surprisingly open source attitude towards camera design is uncharacteristic of Sony but it's awesome that they're doing it. And though I detest zooms, it would be quite nice to shoot with an autofocusing Canon 24-70mm L on this small camera. Sony’s Zeiss FE 24-70mm is a laughable lens in comparison. Flat, totally lifeless, and with unpleasantly jagged bokeh. In my opinion, a lens only good for video shooting.

Perhaps this is a better solution.

With that sweet little Leica 28mm.

With that sweet little Leica 28mm.

Another problem with the R and S known to cause imaging grief is the lack of In-Camera Image Stabilization. Some of the Sony lenses have it but if you’re not using them, hand shake is an issue, particularly on longer lens, and one that's boned me many times on my Leica Summarit 90mm. The RII features the same 5-Axis In-Body Stabilization found in the A7II which solves the problem and allows for slower shutter speeds when shooting handheld.

And for good measure, one more big blur-related problem has been solved - the new camera's redesigned shutter reduces the excessive release slap of the R that literally shakes the camera enough to potentially blur the shot. With my own A7R, I often found the issue with exposures slower than 1/125 which presented a serious limitation to how I could shoot. The newly lighter, more dampened shutter puts far less stress on itself so beyond not ruining your photos, it's also now good for as many as 500,000 actuations, more than double the expectation of most current cameras. And of course the best feature of all, the mechanical shutter can be bypassed altogether using the Silent Shutter Mode for those situations when the sound of it could get you in trouble or be a distraction. I personally think a silent, electronic shutter for shooting stills is the coolest thing ever but because these sensors aren't global, they roll and occasionally you'll discover some weirdness in your photos - anomalies where the phase of the capture at the sensor and the phase of the light sources didn't agree with one another. It looks something like this - 

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Imaging problems relating to electronic shutter

Every now and again, this fluke will yield some interesting, even aesthetically pleasing weirdness like in the image above. But usually not!

List price for the A7RII is 3200 USD. Expensive but well worth it if you've found this style of camera helps you do your best work. Don't cheap out on your tools. 



Digital Black & Whites

Digital Black & Whites

I'm not sure why I was so resistant to the concept of digital black & white. It just seemed so disingenuous; this aesthetic isn't the result of a film stock that physically lacks the dyes to reproduce color but a choice made long after the fact in post production. Along the way in my photographic re-immersion, I saw "Salt of the Earth", Wim Wender's excellent doc on the famed social photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, best described as "witness to the human condition." Equally heartbreaking and inspiring, this man made enormous sacrifices to his personal life and mental health to share his unflinchingly bleak images with the world - most of which are black and white. When I was a student, I spent hours pouring over his photographs of Brazilian gold mines and had forgotten how powerfully absorbing they are. Even though it's unlikely I will ever load another roll of 400 speed Tri-X into a camera in my entire life, the reintroduction to Salgado's images reminded me of the power of the achromatic image, particularly in today's infinite kaleidoscope of unnaturally chromatic digital photos. I now appreciate the simplicity of B&W, even digital despite its inherent "dishonesty", that much more.

The images in this blog post were captured digitally, in full color, and using the latest Sony Alpha cameras while on a boating trip earlier this year down the holy river Ganges in northern India. These photos coincided with the worst bout of food poisoning on my entire six month trip and to be honest, I barely remember taking them. 100 days back into the reality of New York City and it feels like another life. Real but impossibly far away.