The Power of Photography

Before New York City’s High Line was an innovative and stunning public park, it was scheduled for demolition. The High Line’s story was rewritten and photography was the catalyst. Artistry offered hope and brought reclamation. 

Beginning in 1934, the New York Central Railroad transported goods to Manhattan’s West Side above street level. Meat was delivered to the meat packing district, and baking supplies to Nabisco. Years went by and more and more freight traveled by truck. The last trip delivered three cars of frozen turkeys in 1980, leaving the High Line abandoned and forgotten.

Shortly after the trains stopped running, millennials were just being born. The invention of smartphones put high quality, high resolution photography in the hands of more people than at any point in human history. Just imagine the budding photographers getting their first tastes of capturing life and objects through the lens of a smartphone. 

Smartphones. What a beautiful gift. An accessible tool to tell the human story. Art has been captured and stories shared and we are better for it. Photography in particular has a striking way to show us things already there that may be overlooked. There’s amazing power in that.

An unlikely wilderness took shape on the quiet railroad tracks. By the ‘90s, wild grasses and flowers grew into an unexpected landscape. Street level property owners in West Chelsea didn’t see beauty and they called the High Line an ‘eye sore’ and lobbied for the city to have it torn down. Demolition orders were signed. 

There is magic in a camera lens. It is seeing through someone else’s lens. It can show you beauty you weren’t even looking for. It was found for you, searched out and revealed. 

Supporters of the High Line partnered with photographer Joel Sternfeld. He captured the stunning beauty growing along the forgotten tracks. He gave the gift of perspective. His photos were shared during meetings and a movement to reclaim the High Line spurred on. 

When I see something that stops me from scrolling on Instagram, it makes an impression on me. It might be life, color, or connection. It might be the way natural light hits a toddler’s chin. It might be vines creeping up a building I pass every day. It could be peonies in a kitchen, coffee, a newborn baby, or macrame. 

I often say a bad photo can’t be taken at Oxford Exchange. I love seeing people take photos in OE - with friends, of something that caught their eye, or of their feet on the marble at the main entrance. Watching people choose to take photos around Tampa is one of my favorite things to see. I love seeing people pose in front of murals across Tampa Bay. Or capture food that was crafted by Tampa chefs. Or architecture that was carefully selected and craft-fully built. I love seeing a bit of the story they want to tell others. 

The High Line as we know it today opened in 2009 and the final section will open this year. The High Line inspired real estate developments in surrounding neighborhoods and increased property values in the city. Once forgotten and abandoned, the High Line is one of the world’s most innovative public spaces and attracts nearly 5 million visitors every year. All this prosperity was motivated by the power of photography.

Photographers, artists, tourists, and neighbors, you have a gift to offer your city and community - your perspective. I encourage you to choose well. Choose to capture the beauty around you and share it with the world. Choose to use photos to tell stories of authenticity and hidden beauty. Choose to share stories of hope and imperfection, rather than sacrificing truth for a ‘perfect feed.’ 

Technology has downsides, yes. But instead of dismissing social media entirely, let us uncover the potential it holds. Photography and social media have enhanced our collective story through digital storytelling. There is potential in corners of your life, pockets of hidden beauty that maybe you can only see. Like the West Chelsea business owners, there are people in your life whose perspective is at ‘street level.’ They would have been content with the High Line’s story ending in demolition. They never saw the sun set through the wild grasses. Or the beauty of flowers growing in between the abandoned tracks. There is a beautiful power in photography. How are you going to choose to use it? 

 

 - Andrea Wolloff