In 2009, British photographer Alys Tomlinson travelled to New York to begin working on a set of images that would document some of the strangers she was to encounter on a series of long walks along Broadway. Tomlinson’s ambles were to become a kind of ritual, and she would return several times over the following years to work on the project.
The result of these solo expeditions is Following Broadway, a collection of 40 images that seem to stretch beyond the bounds of the thoroughfare by offering a fascinating social documentary of some of the Big Apple’s population.
Dazed Digital: Tell us about the genesis of the project.
Alys: I lived in New York City for a year after completing my BA, and, whilst interning at a film production company, was lucky enough to get a photographic commission to shoot all the pictures for the Time Out Guide to New York. I was sent all over, and that's when I became fascinated by the changing neighbourhoods. I secretly hoped that one day I’d go back to the city in order to work on a long-term photography project. When I did return, several years later, I knew that I wanted to show the diversity of the people, but I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about the ‘type’ of people I was after. This idea was the basis of Following Broadway. I chose Broadway in particular because it’s the only street in the city that snakes from one end to the other.
DD: Can you detail how the project’s themes and ideas were manifested within your practice?
Alys: I’ve always been aware of the directness of New Yorkers. This is why all the subjects are looking to camera. I also tried to capture the fleeting exchange that you have with strangers. This hopefully leaves a sense of mystery and makes you ask questions about who they are and what they are doing at that exact point on Broadway. There is an anonymity to the images, but also a very strong presence.
DD: How long were you shooting for?
Alys: I went back to New York several times over three or four years. The first time, I went specifically to do the project and so I arranged a flat swap with a lovely, retired pediatrician who lived on the Upper East Side. I spent a month there and worked on the project most days. I’d get up at dawn, grab a coffee and a bagel, and either start photographing down in the financial district and walk north, or get the subway to 242nd street and then head south. I’d carry a map with me and mark each portrait on the map. This then became the basis for the cover artwork of the book. Every time I went back after that I brought my 6x7 camera and continued to walk Broadway.
DD: Were most people receptive to having their photograph taken?
Alys: There were a few awkward encounters, but around 90 percent of people agreed to being photographed. I was gentle and polite in my approach and being British perhaps helped as well. One woman freaked out, but I think she was a little crazy. The rudest people I encountered were the city traders. But yes, most people were happy to be photographed – I guess there’s something quite flattering about being picked out from thousands of people. It was an exchange of sorts. I’d take their picture and, for a brief moment, they’d allow me into their world.
DD: Did you sense that some people were performing for the camera?
Alys: Well, I didn’t want people to do that, so I avoided any overly flamboyant types and tried to focus on the everyday characters. Most of the people who appear in the book seemed comfortable and confident with who they are. I also photographed them in exactly the spot they were already in rather than moving them to a different position or backdrop. So, for instance, the girls on 116th Street, with the blonde friend lying hungover next to them, are students at Columbia who were discussing what had gone on the previous night.
DD: What’s next for you?
Alys: I’m working on a long-term project about pilgrims and faith in Lourdes, France. The Lourdes project ties in with a part-time MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage at SOAS. It’s going to form the basis of my dissertation. I’d love it to culminate in another book and exhibition.