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Photographing the 7 Secrets of Grand Central Terminal

Part 1: Hidden in Plain Sight

As you set foot in the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal, one of the first sights you will see is the clock sitting atop the info booth right in the center of the room. Hundreds of thousands of people traverse the floor of that grand room and see this clock every day. But few realize it is made from Opal and worth between 10 and 20 million dollars.

Officially there are 7 secrets to Grand Central Terminal, some hidden in plain sight, some not so easily seen. What are the 7 secrets?

1. The clock on main concourse above the information booth – the clock faces are made from Opal and it is worth between 10 and 20 million dollars.
2. The grand staircases on the east and west ends of the concourse – the eastern staircase is a few inches shorter and newer than the western staircase.
3. The constellations on the ceiling are in the wrong perspective – as if looking down from the heavens, not up from Earth.
4. There is a hole in the ceiling – visible from the main floor
5. There is a secret staircase, through a secret door in the middle of the concourse
6. There is a “secret” super-sub-basement (the lowest space on the island) called the M42
7. Franklin Roosevelt had a private platform built below the Waldorf Astoria. A boxcar still remains there from the Roosevelt era.

I have had several opportunities to photograph Grand Central Terminal and have collect images of all of these secrets. Barring one (and dependant on your vantage point), wide angle to normal lenses are the best choice to get the grand scope of these objects.

In 1995, during the most recent renovations of Grand Central Terminal, the decision was made to install a staircase on the East end of the concourse. The construction company hired to do the job researched the original plans for this iteration of the terminal and found that the plans had called for a grand staircase at both the east and west ends of the concourse, but somehow, only the stairs on the west end had been built. So, they had the original quarry (in Italy) reopened and obtained the stone needed to build the exact same staircase on the east end. Yet, for some reason, the stairs on the east end of the concourse turned out to be a couple of inches shorter than their older counterpart.

I don’t know how one would go about photographically showing the difference in height between these two staircases, at least not in some sort of “artistic”, visually pleasing way. However, much can be made from long exposures and/or taking an unusual vantage point. (for the record, these are the west stairs)

“They’re coming for you, man!” said a young man as he scurried past me, carrying his tripod. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, tripod at its shortest length, and camera pointed straight up at the ceiling. I looked over my shoulder and noticed the policeman coming my way. I proudly displayed the sticker on my chest. “Ah, I see! Special Pass.” “My mommy says I’m special.” “Yeah?” he chuckled, “Mine too! Have a good day sir.”

I must have had my pass checked seven times in the hour I spent on the floor that day. To be sure, using a tripod in Grand Central Terminal is no problem at all, but you must get a pass to do so. Information regarding how to get a pass to use a tripod (and other large “professional” gear) can be found on Grand Central’s website.

In the 1988 film The House on Carroll Street they utilized the hole in a stunt where a man (Mandy Patinkin’s character) falls from the ceiling. For this “secret”, it might be nice to have a telephoto lens to get you in nice and close. I didn’t have one with me on the days I was shooting the ceiling, so I could recommend any creative options… I can tell you that you can find this toward the west end of the concourse.

In Part 2: Underground, I will take you deep beneath the terminal and show you the remaining three secrets.

If you like more information about my excursions into Grand Central Terminal, you can find the stories published on Enticing the Light, here and here.



Shared Assumptions

“Comedy is 90% shared experience, 5% imagination and 5% timing.” I was having a chat with a comedian friend of mine about his creative process. I thought this was an interesting and somewhat universal point. Without some necessary amount of common ground, any communication would be futile, or at least severely hampered.
Immediately I found myself trying to find the parallels, the truth of this statement, in photography. While it can at times express exceedingly complicated ideas and emotions, photography is a relatively simple form of communication. No complex set of characters, whose combination in different orders and amounts have assigned meanings. No rules of grammar. No phonmes, pitched or otherwise, to give an indication of the author’s intentions. Only the information contained within a frame, or a series of frames, to convey the creator’s vision.
Photography is a simple form of communication because it is based, primarily, on the shared experience of being human. Humans create photographs for other humans to experience. Be that as it may, it would seem, then, that communication in photographs it based largely on common themes and common assumptions, more than common experiences.
Take, for instance, this picture:
(lovers on the beach in PV)
The common theme, the common assumption, is that there is a romantic relationship between the two people. To be honest, I never met them; so I can neither confirm, nor deny.
(The Conversation – all 7)
In the above group of photos “The Conversation”, the story is more or less clear. One is left to guess the actual subject, but how the conversation played out seems pretty obvious. (Truth be told, this is actually from a series of about 20 photos, but displayed out of chronological order to create this “story”). Void of little more information than the shadows, we have made assumptions about the relationship between the two people, and assigned some kind of meaning to each of the gestures and postures in each image.
Taking it a step further, I suppose all communication is a form of assumption. But in the case of a photograph, often the author is not present to clarify its meaning. Maybe the question really is, if the viewer finds meaning in an image, does it matter it is the same as the author’s intention?


Thinking on (and off) My Feet

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There’s an old entertainment line (attributed to W.C. Fields) about never working with kids or animals. They always steal the show. Last Sunday I had the opportunity to go out and take pictures of a couple of my friends and their kids. I had been out with them before, but didn’t get as many shots of the happy couple alone and we’d have liked. So we tried again, taking the whole family downtown this time. The kids weren’t too keen on group shots, but when let loose… well, it was difficult to focus on the adults.
Kids are difficult to photograph. Ask anyone who has tried to make portraits of children and they will tell you, kids don’t stay still for long. The challenge is in keeping up with them… and keeping them happy – nobody wants a portrait of their child crying.

In order to keep their son occupied for a few moments (and allow me to get in a few shots of the parents alone), they handed him their P&S camera and asked him to take some pictures as well. (I didn’t get to see his results, but I understand they turned out well; we may have a prodigy on our hands.)

Taking a page out of… well lots of places, really – the concept being that to make a better picture of things smaller than the average adult human (things we tend to look at from a downward angle, like animals or children), it is better to get down to eye level or lower with the subject. I decided to lie down on the side of this hill and see if I could get the kids to come close enough and stand still long enough for me to get an interesting portrait. Of course, they had no interest in helping me on this task, but their daughter did allow me this action shot as she tumbled down the hill.

For my portrait work, I find myself most often reaching for my fast prime lenses. I can’t give many real, tangible reasons for this. I guess it just feels right to me. But for working with young children and families with young children, there are some very real advantages to using a zoom lens. Then you can let the kids play, and just try and keep up.



I Do My Best Thinking When…

I have a friend who can sit down and just be creative. It seems like a rare skill. To me, it seems like telling someone to tell a joke out of the blue, you know “hey you; be funny now” – “hey you; be creative now”. Even though my job often includes improvising music, that method has never worked for me. I’ve never been one to be creative on the spot.

In reality, creativity doesn’t just happen in a void. There are two important aspects to creativity that often go overlooked. Performances and products that are viewed to be creative usually didn’t just happen in that moment, but had been rolling around, in one form or another, in the creator’s mind for some time. Also, creativity is usually the result of practice. The more you practice the act of being creative, the better you get at it.

You may have heard someone make reference (sometimes in jest) to ‘doing their best thinking’ in the bathroom (shower, toilet, etc.), or they might mention some other mundane activity. You’ll find it’s always a mundane activity that is done on a regular and frequent basis. There is a reason for this. These activities don’t require a lot of thought, practically none at all. They are blocks of time when you can usually be left to you solace. In that privacy, you allow yourself to think, imagine, even daydream. There’s no need for editing or filters. You are alone with yourself. It’s this space that often allows for the best thinking.

Now, I’m not advocating bringing your camera into the shower with you (unless you’ve got a waterproof camera, and you think you will create something interesting – just look out for lens fog :-)). But there are other situations when you can’t have the camera nearby. So, one of two things has to happen. You’ll either need to remember the ideas that come to you when you are away from the camera, or you need to be able to put yourself into that creative mode at will… or, preferably, both.

Many people I know in the arts (musicians, composers, writers, comedians) keep some form of notebook. It’s a place to jot down ideas as you have them, in whatever stage of development, so you can reference them later. Over the last decade I’ve developed the mind of a steel colander; I forget things almost as fast as I can think of them. So, recently I’ve started carrying around a voice recorder. (In the past I’ve carried around a little note pad and found that to be nearly as effective.) This way I can approach the idea later, when my circumstances are better suited to taking a good look at it. I also tend to get a lot more done in general with this tool.

Back to my friend at the top of this writing. He does, in deed, just sit down and (in his case) compose. He has developed the skill of putting himself in the right head space to be able to do that. This didn’t just happen. He has been practicing that skill for more than 10 years. So now, he can just find that creative place and start working. A good portion of being creative, is the practice of being creative. It is the practice of putting yourself in the right frame of mind that makes it easier to get there again.

There are occasions when, in the moment, one is seemingly struck with divine inspiration, when some brilliant idea comes from out of the blue, but these are rare. More often, it’s the preparation and the practice that yields the best results.



Seeing with the Heart

My job keeps me away from home for 5 to 6 months at a time. I’m not complaining. These days it’s good to be employed. And, actually, it’s a pretty cool job, all things considered, and I get to see some pretty cool places. But it does mean that I miss out on some of the creature comforts common to being in one place all the time, like regularly delivered mail and magazine subscriptions. I do, however, have a subscription to Outdoor Photographer magazine, courtesy of a friend, so I don’t always buy an issue off the shelves, sometimes opting to wait till I get home to read them. I am home now, for a little while, and I was catching up on my reading this morning over coffee. The January/February issue of OP has a few quite useful articles. The first I read was “Timeless Moments: The Mauna Loa View” by David Muench.

Muench addresses the spiritual aspects of landscape photography. He suggests that a great photograph conveys the sacred qualities of the land. To be honest, it’s a short, but powerful article, and I don’t really want to try to condense it here. It’s worth reading for yourself.

Reading Muench’s words reminded me of a time when I would venture out with my camera, day after day, and notice things. I’d stop and look at whatever had caught my eye, study it for a minute, decide “that would probably make a good picture”. Then I’d carry on, without ever removing my camera from my bag. At first I thought the problem was that I was getting lazy. I tried starting out with the camera already in hand. Same results. I didn’t bother lifting the camera to my eyes. On the occasions that I did, I walked away with a decent shot, but nothing I was too excited about. Reviewing those images later, I considered them to be humdrum at best.

Why was this happening? I had become closed off. My eyes still saw, but I could not feel. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. I had let other areas of my life come in and affect my photography, which, ironically is what I reserved as a break from the other areas of my life. But it lead me to an important lesson. There are beautiful, interesting and moving images everywhere. But to see them, to capture them, to be able to make that communication through the lens, I need to be present in the moment. I need to be open to feeling my surroundings, to look at my environment with fascination and wonder. Perhaps a great image isn’t seen with the eyes. Maybe it’s the heart that sees, and our eyes are just the tools it uses.

Muench closes his article with this advice:

“… just stop.

Put your ego and purpose aside.
Open up.
Feel the earth.
Respect everything that comes to you — an urge, an impulse, a sense of the magical. Then start photographing.”


What comes after shutter speeds, f-stops and the rule of thirds?


The act of photography is inherently creative. I suppose it’s a fact that is easily lost in this digital age – where once, unexposed film was exposed to the light, then processed and often printed. You then had something physically in your hands to show for it, a negative, and slide, and/or a print. Something was created. Now, with digital photography, the images that don’t get deleted before they leave the camera, get stored on a computer somewhere, a series of 1’s and 0’s, difficult to imagine as some thing. But what do we create when we make a photograph? Organization of visual elements, information – a communication (hopefully), an emotion.

In my own photography, while I feel I have made strides in the last few years, I don’t feel I am as creative as I could be. Each time I take on a project, I seem to produce images quite similar to ones I have already seem before. On the one hand, I am happy to be gaining the skills to be able to produce images similar to ones I admire. But, on the other hand, I’d like to stretch further, to begin to find a vocabulary of my own. I suppose I’m looking for the same sense of discovery, now, through the camera, as I’ve had about the camera over the last few years.

So, I hope to foster a discussion about creativity in photography. What comes after shutter speeds, f-stops and the rule of thirds?

June 2023


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