This Photo Series Set in the Insanity of Times Square Will Make You See It in a New Light

Times Square's documentarian Betsy Karel talks about what it's like to spend your days in the most crowded and commercial five block radius in the country.

From Betsy Karel’s Times Square series. Steidl

If the idea of venturing toward Times Square in New York fills you with excitement, you’re a Broadway lover with blinders on or you’re a tourist. For everyone else, there is no bright spot among the lights—it’s a littered, commercial, crowded cultural wasteland that should be avoided at all costs. 

And yet, in the hands of a deft artist, it’s the perfect backdrop for depicting the best and worst facets of contemporary American life. Photographer Betsy Karel stalked the five city blocks that compose Times Square to capture images that expose the intricate dichotomies of our current historic moment. The haul of those efforts will be on view with the February release of America’s Stage: Times Square by lauded art book publisher Steidl.

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From Betsy Karel’s Times Square series. Steidl

The book lushly portrays Karel’s intricate photography, letting readers revel in her expansive compositions and superb portraiture. Her photography uses the Times Square petri dish as a prime place for viewing globalism, consumerism, ubiquitous sexualization, hucksterism, surveillance and narcissism.

Karel spoke to Observer about how distaste for a place can soon turn to fascination, and what your days are like when you spend them working in Times Square.

Observer: What made you take on Times Square as a subject?
Betsy Karel: I grew up in Manhattan and lived there until I left for college. I had never spent any time in Times Square. After seeing a Broadway show there, we wanted to get out of the area as quickly as possible. More importantly, being a photographer and a lover of photography, I was well aware that Times Square is ground zero for street photography. So, I avoided it! There is no way I’d allow myself up be compared to my heroes.

Then early in the morning in the summer of 2014, my son and I were having coffee in Hell’s Kitchen and afterwards I just happened to wander over to Times Square. It transfixed me. It was so visually rich, I couldn’t believe it. After a couple of hours, it occurred to me that this place could be a metaphor for our urban society today. Private corporate interests claim almost every inch of public space. Fantasy parades as reality. All this hype, hucksterism, hyper-sexualization, consumerism—it’s all there. I thought it was too good to be true, really. I wanted to give it a go. I no longer cared what others thought about my take on Times Square.

From Betsy Karel’s Times Square series. Steidl

What were your work days like working on this series?
I live in Washington, D.C., and would come up for weekends to work. I have a lot of family still in New York. But, rather than stay with them, I found a small hotel in Times Square. I wanted the freedom of photographing any time day or night and the convenience of dropping off my equipment if I needed a break.

One night, when I happened to be in a new hotel on the 57th floor, at midnight my bed felt like it was shaking. The noise was deafening. Workers down on the street were using jack hammers to break up the sidewalks. Realizing I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, I dressed and then photographed until 4 am. Some of those images are among my favorites. I also returned to my small hotel after that experience.

From Betsy Karel’s Times Square series. Steidl

America’s Stage is your third book. What is it that keeps bringing you back to photography projects?
I think that when I’m getting my best images, I’m totally in the moment. That doesn’t happen very often in life. It’s always gratifying to be in that position. The other thing is that, when I’m doing a project, it allows me to explore worlds that I wouldn’t necessarily spent time in. That’s as true today as it was when I was a photojournalist in the ‘70s covering topics like Watergate, or following Peace Corps volunteers around in Africa, or entering coal mines in West Virginia.

From Betsy Karel’s Times Square series. Steidl

How did you decide which images to pair up in the book?
Sometimes it’s just intuitive. At one point, the book was going to be organized chronologically, but that just seemed too constricting.  With the exception of a few hours from maybe 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., days and nights are interchangeable. And you want images to play with each other when they are on the same spread.

From Betsy Karel’s Times Square series. Steidl

Do any examples come to mind?
There are two young women, desnudas, whose bodies are painted like American flags. They’re standing against a fence covered with fake ivy. It happened to surprisingly cold that morning, so they’re warming up. That’s next to 2 a.m. picture of folded chairs stacked up and waiting for transport. It’s clearly the end of the day. To me, it’s just the way that the light hits the slats of the chairs that echo the stripes on the desnudas. That’s fun to make that visual pairing, to hopefully surprise the viewer.

You also need to think about what images come next when you turn the page. A book like this needs a rhythm so that the reader doesn’t get bored or worn out. Many of my files are so dense, there is so much information in them, that I knew I needed simple images in-between. There’s no particularly right answer for how things are done or how they should be done. I just hope that when people look at my book, they enjoy what I saw. This Photo Series Set in the Insanity of Times Square Will Make You See It in a New Light