Photographing New York: Reflections On Capturing the City’s Essence

The photographer behind the Girl in the Yellow Taxi NYC Instagram account and forthcoming book, "Dearest New York: A Love Letter to the Big Apple," gives Observer a behind-the-scenes look at her work and her world.

New York City is a treasure trove of hidden gems, secluded alleyways, bespoke shops and architectural wonders paired with a glittering skyline that is a photographic feast from every perspective. As a visual storyteller, I find that each photograph I take creates a unique peek into the heart, soul and stories of the city. With one snap of the camera, a fleeting moment can become eternal.

The New York City skyline as seen from a park
A view of the El Dorado Apartments as seen from Central Park. Photo by Deirdre Gartner. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

How do I do justice to this city in a single photograph? There are a couple of things I’ve learned in my curiosity-filled meanderings. The first is that there is always something new to see and capture. Even if I have photographed the same neighborhood, block or gorgeous façade before, when I go back, I’ll notice some new detail: an interesting mural, a charming new shop or a group of friends sitting at a sidewalk café. It takes time, and sometimes retracing my steps, to capture all the details.

To capture both movement and moments, it’s vital to recognize that every neighborhood has its own character. As I plan my day, I try to think of the story I want to tell with my photographs. One of my favorite go-to spots is Central Park—each of the park’s 843 acres contains a pocket of art or entertainment, and it has the best people-watching in the city. The key is to be patient.

A woman in a ballgown runs on a bridge in Central Park
Bow Bridge in Central Park. Photo by Deirdre Gartner. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

Arriving early in the morning lets me watch and feel the park come to life. That also gives me time to find the best vantage point and creative angle—I might shoot from the top of a bridge, through a railing or at the base of a body of water. I love taking photos from above the Bethesda Terrace where there are spectacular views of what I feel is the heart of the park. There are dog walkers, movie makers, street performers and brides and grooms, making this spot a gift that keeps on giving. You never know what you’ll see from moment to moment.

Searching for the off-the-beaten-path parts of the city, or as I like to call them, the hidden treasures in plain sight, is just as important. The New York Flower District is not only the best place to find beautiful fresh bouquets but also the perfect place to photograph some of the city’s history dating back to the late 19th Century. Its labyrinth of wholesale shops, potted plants, trees and flowers in every color of the rainbow vie for the attention of discerning eyes. The Flower District is in constant motion, so I’m always prepared to lean over sidewalk flower displays, maneuver through narrow shop isles, step over leaves and stray petals and dodge nursery trucks pulling up to load or unload. It’s a bit of a dangerous mission, but I know I will leave the district with gorgeous, colorful photos of a part of New York many people never visit.

Pink tulips at a sidewalk flower shop
A shot of blooms for sale in the Flower District. Photo by Deirdre Gartner. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

There is no better time to photograph New York City than on a “bad weather” day. When the forecast calls for rain, sleet, snow or clouds, I do a little happy dance because I know the weather will add a sense of drama and saturated colors to each photo. I use puddles to create reflections of the surroundings or shoot through raindrop-covered glass to create one-of-a-kind images. Times Square with its colorful neon billboards and throngs of tourists rushing around is the perfect place to capture the vibrancy of the city, especially on a rainy day.  On snowy days, I head to the West Village, a neighborhood whose quaint patchwork of 19th-century architecture; tree-lined, angled and even cobblestoned streets; and cozy cafes and specialty shops fronted with a dusting of snow in winter makes me feel as though I’m in a movie set in a bygone era of New York City.

New York City brownstones on a snowy day
Snow in the city. Photo by Deirdre Gartner. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

Fact: New Yorkers love a celebration. On New Year’s Eve, an estimated one million people descend on Times Square to watch the ball drop and ring in another year in the city. On March 17, the traditional green line is painted down the middle of Fifth Avenue, the location of the world’s oldest and largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A few weeks later, there is the Easter Parade—a literal eight-block runway of dandies and swells strutting their Easter Bonnet best from the sublime to the outrageous. June is filled with a rainbow of Pride festivities, and on July 4th, the Macy’s fireworks display bursts upon the city to the delighted “oohs” and “aahs” of appreciative crowds. There is also nothing like the annual Village Halloween Parade in which ghouls, witches, mummies and monsters take to the streets, followed just a few weeks later by the famous Thanksgiving Day Parade that heralds the start of the most magical time of all: the holiday season.

These are just some of the many events that show the true spirit of New York and its inhabitants. I always try to find that quirky character or group that sums up the day: the family that has spent months on their over-the-top Halloween costumes or the little girl dressed in her holiday finest peering up at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

Two women in old fashioned dresses
New Yorkers being New Yorkers. Photo by Deirdre Gartner. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

Finally, I am always on the lookout for that perfect photo. Some days, I can walk for miles, and just as I’m about to call it a day, something funny, beautiful and quintessentially New York will pop into view, offering me another chance to capture a moment in time.

Photographing New York: Reflections On Capturing the City’s Essence