The big picture: the giant of 42nd Street | Art and design


Jonathan Higbee came quite late to photography. He grew up in the American south and started his career as a travel writer, but when he moved to New York he discovered that words and sentences could not do justice to the streets he lived on.

In the first instance, he has suggested, photography was a cheap surrogate for therapy, a way of slowing Manhattan down and forcing himself to look and find patterns in the apparently chaotic visual scene around him. He started to get a feel for odd coincidences in that chaos – moments when the background of street furniture and high rise and billboard and graffiti and traffic seemed to communicate directly with the people passing by: stripes on shirts that matched zebra crossings; legs extending from bus shelters that made a comic tableau with adverts; accidents of scale and serendipity that seemed like the fleeting work of an inspired choreographer.

Among his favourite pictures in his book, Coincidences: New York By Chance, is this one of a “giant” walking past a billboard on 42nd Street. To Higbee’s delight, extensive Reddit threads and Instagram conversations have been devoted to theories of how the image is made. In the best of his photographs, as here, even when you understand the visual trick, your eye holds on to the illusion.

Finding these images is slow work for Higbee. While he might spot the possibilities of a backdrop quite quickly, he watches and waits for hours for the ever-shifting cast in front of it to bring its ironies to life. He says he is lucky to add two images to his portfolio of the uncanny in a month. When it works, however, Higbee feels he is collaborating with the city itself.

Coincidences: New York by Chance, by Jonathan Higbee, is out now (£28, Anthology Editions)



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