Humans of New York: Book Review

Humans of New York, by Brandon Stanton, is a book that uniquely celebrates the human body and spirit. The photographs prompt happiness, compassion, and nostalgia, among other emotions. Those people that follow the “Humans of New York” blog or Facebook page will be familiar with the distinctive dynamic that occurs between the viewer and the subject, the subject and the photographer, and the photographer and the viewer. People who are enjoying Humans of New York for the first time will also appreciate the underlying complexities of Stanton’s work.

In 2010, former Chicago based bond trader and aspiring photographer Brandon Stanton moved to New York City. Three years after his big move, he released his first book titled Humans of New York. One week after the book’s release, it sat at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. It was a success story made for Hollywood: a young man is laid off from his lucrative job, follows his passion, and receives one of the most prestigious honors any book author can hope to achieve. Brandon Stanton fulfilled his American dream by portraying his fellow Americans.

After his departure from Chicago, Stanton stopped in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, before finding himself in the Big Apple. Each city he visited provided him with the opportunity to explore his passion of photography. As he refined his photographic process, he too refined what he was looking for in a city. The more photos he took the more he became interested in people. While Pittsburg and Philadelphia certainly provide their fair share, in his mind there was no better place to explore people than in New York City.

“Humans of New York”, Stanton’s photo blog that is the namesake of his book, started as a photographic census of NYC and its five boroughs. His goal was to take 10,000 photos and plot them geographically on a map of the city. Once a person went to his website they would be able to click on any neighborhood and see the people who lived there. The idea was short lived. He soon became enthralled with the stories of each person he photographed. Each was seemingly more interesting than the next, and every photograph pulled on the hearts of his newfound following on Facebook.

Like his blog, Stanton’s book also shares the story of each photograph in the form of a small caption. The caption either contains an actual quote from the person being photographed, or Stanton’s own recollection of the encounter. The captions help Stanton’s photographs significantly. Even the most mundane photo can be elevated by a good story, and Stanton executes this tactic to perfection. Every photo comes to life in a way that most portraits do not, because each is personal.

Stanton’s images reveal people that we see as “the other”. The pages are plastered with the overly exuberant and unique people – individuals filled with energy and personality. Viewing the “other” has always been captivating, so this photographic approach is certainly not unique to Stanton (see Steve McCurry and his famous photograph “Afghan Girl”). However, Stanton’s “others” are not people living on the other side of the world. These are distinctive people that we walk past daily.

Stanton’s lack of technical skill is evident in some of his earlier work in the book. Some images are in soft focus or are not focused on the subject. Others have the wrong color balance, casting a blue or yellow hue over the image. Stanton compensates for his shortcomings in camera operation with his intellect. His thinking is far beyond his technical camera ability and it shows in his work. Where Stanton excels is his understanding of color theory. His subjects are often vibrant, both in personality and clothing choice. He has the innate ability to match his subject to their surroundings in an incredible manor. This is especially impressive when one considers that all of the pictures were taken within a few yards of where Stanton initially confronted his subjects.

While it is undeniable that Humans of New York is filled with compelling and unique imagery, its final impression was lackluster. Photography placed in a physical book will always have value and it was nice to be able to hold the culmination of three years of hard work. However, it lacked the sense of community that HONY has fostered since its inauguration. Community is one of HONY’s greatest but most overlooked assets and its absence makes the book feel incomplete. More than anything HONY is a study of the human. It provides a platform for sharing different cultures and celebrating individuality. In this respect, Humans of New York came up short of expectations.

If you are interested in purchasing the book, you can find it here. 

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