What turned me away from painting was a realization that the streets and parks of Boston provided me with subject matter that I could not conjure up in my studio. At that point, a blank canvas drew nothing but a blank stare. So, with a newly purchased 35mm Leica loaded with tri-x film, I began my forays into downtown Boston to photograph. The kind of photographs I took then related to my art school days, when I would amble around the city making quick pencil sketches of people on park benches and subways.
After roaming around Vermont in the summer of 1964, I decided to move to Cambridge, MA where I took a full-time job in a commercial art studio. I was by this time married to my first wife and our plan was to save up enough to live for a year in Europe. Instead we wound up in New York, arriving by U-Haul in the summer of 1967. Rents were cheap, and we could now get by on my part-time work in advertising studios. I had abundant free time, and I took full advantage of it.
Manhattan, now as well as forty years ago, was a walker’s city. I could wear out a good deal of shoe leather crisscrossing the streets of midtown, with detours into Central Park where Mayor Lindsay had just recently opened up the grassy areas that drew great crowds. The energy level of New Yorkers rushing to and from their myriad destinations (and they do move faster here than in any other city) was galvanizing. The minor—and major—dramas of the city were the main attraction. People in New York were different.
Along with the usual crowd of workers and shoppers, there was always a cast of secondary characters that converged in the midtown area. There was a man known as “Moondog” who, dressed as a Viking, complete with horned helmet, stood motionless on a corner of Sixth Avenue. There was “Rat Man,” wild-eyed and hirsute, who would station himself mid-block with a rubber rat nestled in his arm like a pet and startle people by making it jump out in their direction. Harmless, inane. There was a man dressed as Uncle Sam who appeared at political events. There was another man who sang arias from Italian opera as he strolled down Fifth Avenue. In spring, there were the Hari Krishnas, a benign and festive presence with their orange robes, their tambourines and their chants, handing out pamphlets and flowers. These were my fellow “office workers,” seasonal landmarks along the way.
It was the sheer quantity of people on the street that made the spectacle unique. There were so many opportunities; you had to be perpetually alert and believe something was going to happen. You were not looking for photographs, but for the raw material that would make you want to photograph; the gesture or expression that demanded to be recorded. You were in the moment and you didn’t judge or qualify. For example, in the 1973 photograph taken at a parade, two business men are perched like statues on standpipes, trying to see over the heads of the crowd that had momentarily parted. They were serious; they had a sense of purpose. About what, the photograph doesn’t give a clue. That information is outside the frame’s viewpoint and beyond the camera’s scope.
Making pictorial sense of the sidewalks’ barrage of sensation presented a constant problem. After viewing my results on a contact sheet, I found most frames were not worth selecting for enlargement. From a roll of thirty-six exposures, I might select only two or three. Once I understood it was the editing, long after the photographing was completed, that became the important thing, it was less frustrating when I failed. Like the stock market, I had good days and bad days. However, when I actually found a successful photograph, there was the immediate pleasure of seeing how the camera had accommodated my reaction at the moment of pressing the shutter.
There was also the unexpected delight of finding a detail within the frame that amplified the larger meaning of the image. For instance, when I took “Blind Man, Hare Krishnas and Woman,” I was not especially attentive to the neon light that was above the head of the figure of the Hare Krishna on the far right. Instead, it was the incipient sense of drama unfolding between the figures that had caught my attention. Yet in the printed photograph, I noticed that the neon light suddenly took on the aspect of a halo, which seemed in keeping with the figure’s prayerful gesture of clasped hands. This visual surprise made the photograph even stronger.
Another example is the photograph that was taken in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was this fellow—he looked like an anarchist, or more accurately, a cartoon version of one. In fact, he was an art student studying the sculptures. But he was taking liberties. He was touching the art, which is of course taboo in any museum. I was anxious while I followed him: was he going to knock something over? Would the guards intervene? Maybe he was aware of me, maybe not. Maybe he was performing for me—it happens a lot that people begin playing roles for the camera as you are shooting. So I took a few pictures. Later, in viewing the enlarged print I saw that the three sculptures of heads, each with a beard slightly fuller than the other, connected. My subject had the bushiest beard and as if he were looking at his predecessors. But again, I could only see this later, in the enlargement.
This essay grew out of several conversations with the writer and poet Albert Mobilio. Paul McDonough: New York Photographs 1968–1978 will be published by Umbrage Books on November 4. An exhibition of McDonough’s work will be on display at the Sasha Wolf Gallery from November 4, 2010 to January 8, 2011.