When he began creating the visual census of New Yorkers known as Humans of New York (aka HONY), Brandon Stanton’s goal was to make 10,000 portraits, not to get 10,000 Facebook likes. After three years and several thousand portraits, he is well on his way to the first goal, and with an organically-grown cult following, has rocketed well beyond the second.
Once a bond trader in Chicago, the 28-year-old, self-taught photographer now dedicates all of his time to the work: walking, finding, and photographing New Yorkers and recording their stories. Strolling the same streets that have hosted legendary photographers of previous generations, like Garry Winogrand, Stanton creates work that now almost seems to harken back to WPA-era documentation. Stanton also seems to share the drive of the essayist Joseph Mitchell, who, like Stanton, moved to New York from the South, and adopted the city as both home and subject.
The fans have come to him because of the work — not the other way around, he asserted in a pop-up speech at LaGuardia High School at Manhattan’s Lincoln center this Wednesday. Given the sizable crowd and their fervent enthusiasm, this statement of a truly social relationship to social media appears to be true.
Stanton announced Wednesday’s talk with 24 hours notice on his Humans of New York Facebook page, which at publication boasts 606,138 likes. With a photograph of the talk’s location and a working title of “Sh*t I Wish People Had Told Me When I Was A Teenager,” Stanton invited LaGuardia students to hear his “[T]houghts on how social media has transformed both the opportunities and challenges of being an artist. I’m not a believer in the One True Path,” he posted, “but I’ll tell you what worked for me.”
I arrived to the above-pictured steps around 4:15. At about 4:25 an estimated flock of 300 teenagers appeared and moved en mass toward an area in front of the Library of Performing Arts between the iconic fountain and just to the right of the other, rectangular one. The photographer led them, his tall head eventually visible at center of 300. He used no amplifier, no Occupy-style human microphone. Like a philosopher of the ancient world, he spoke out to the encircled crowd and we caught his advice on being an artist in snippets.
Stanton said he noticed his friends spending 80 percent of their effort on promoting their work, which leaves only 20 percent of time and energy on making the actual work. He stated his goal of 10,000 portraits rather than 10,000 likes. He laid down 5 pieces of advice to the young, twittering crowd:
1) Sustain your work, Stanton advised to the budding artists. Keep at it.
2) Take tons of pictures.
Stanton himself uses a digital camera (arguably far more sustainable than older photographic models of paper, film, and silver nitrate) and then selects from the thousands of shots he takes. From these, he finds what is compelling. He said he began by photographing everything he saw– gum on the sidewalk, buildings, etc. Eventually he decided that humans are most compelling, and through his site it appears that he has been honing in on what is striking in image and text. Characters? Bright colors? Crazy hair? Or everyday, relateable stories?
3) When you promote your work, promote your concept.
“Verbalize a succinct statement of what you want to do to yourself and others,” Stanton projected over the mostly attentive but increasingly chatty group of students.
For reference, Humans of New York’s statement is: “With over 300,000 collective followers on Facebook and Tumblr, HONY provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City.”
“Energy,” Stanton insisted, “is more important than talent or intelligence. The world isn’t going to give you anything because you’re talented.” Learn to fail, he told the highschoolers. You have room for that. Practice taking risks. The guy with the parrot who tells you to screw off might be more important, he suggested, than the people who want you to take their picture.
Stanton put this piece of advice into practice, keeping his calm between speaking to the teens, running across 66th street to take their group picture, and then leading them, en mass (one or two hundred flocked to his side), to an open space in Central Park where he posed for picture after picture.
5) Read biographies.
In his final piece of advice, Stanton said “Pick someone you really admire and read about their life.” See how they worked hard, and what they did. Don’t think about how smart you are and assume you’re going to be given opportunities, Stanton warned. That’s apparently what he was doing while he dropped out of college. Now, he’s riding high.
How does Mr. Stanton model his work and life? Sustainably and with an obsessive, human-focused goal, it seems. Mostly in NYC but also recently in Iran, the photographer spends hours a day taking photographs. The trip to Iran itself, as a seamless, unselfconscious continuation of New York-style street portraiture, spoke better of common quirky humanity than any number of op-eds.
Stanton’s focus on the work, and inherent generosity, came out when DKNY used some of his images without his permission; Stanton refused a settlement of money for himself, and instead asked the company to donate $100,000 to the Bed-Stuy YMCA. DKNY gave $25,000, so Stanton raised the remaining donation — through IndieGogo and with the 72-hour support of thousands of HONY friends and followers.
Of Stanton’s chosen profession, 2012 The Atlantic Cities profile asks, “How does he afford it?”
“I’m broke, and I live very cheaply,” says Stanton. “I don’t eat out. I don’t go out. I don’t want the project to be a means to achieve a lifestyle. I want it to be a lifestyle in itself.”
He has had “a couple of generous benefactors,” and he’s been using savings from his bond-trader days. Still, he knows he’s going to have to figure out how to monetize Humans of New York eventually.
That’s starting to seem like a real possibility as word of Stanton’s project has spread.
We look forward to following as HONY continues to show the diversity and richness of people on the streets of New York.
Photo: Kaye Cain-Nielsen
Some highlights of early HONY, below: