It's hard not to get a little romantic about New York City. For one reason or another, we are all drawn to it; because it changes, despite its changes, because we never know how or when it's going to change.
There's an almost unbroken rhythm of nostalgia any time we set foot on its streets. Any and every sight we hold for the first-- or millionth time --can bring us back to some unique, unexpected, incomprehensible moment; some pivotal, hopelessly romantic realization.
"I'm here. I've made it. I'm alive in this place, at this time, and everything has fit into this strange, fantastic moment with me." Sometimes that realization is immediately followed by the recognition that putting those things down into words or speaking them out loud is troublingly melodramatic.
Succumbing to the romance of the city is certainly a prerequisite to moving here, and it's almost essential for remaining.
Even in the snow. Especially in the snow. At least, that's the case for NYC photographer Vivienne Gucwa.
You undoubtedly follow her on Instagram (if not, fix that mistake immediately by following @TravelingLens), has gone from struggling Queens' native, to amateur photographer, to a sponsored, professional photographer who takes arguably the most beautiful shots of NYC in the snow.
We fell in love with her work pretty quickly, and you'll catch glimpses of her work all over spoiled.
Of course, Instagram being what it is, you never get a full understanding of that person's entire body of work without doing a little of what's commonly known as "stalking." So, we did just that. Actually, we did more than just that.
I caught up with Vivienne on the phone and talked to her about her life as a photographer, her new book of photography out at the end of next year, her favorite things in and about New York, what a real New Yorker is and what that should mean, snow, and her favorite Martin Scorsese film.
Her first book, NY Through the Lens, was released back in November of 2014, and it's certainly incredible. Her next? It's all about snow which, to be clear, she loves. She's been doing photography since 2009, and two months in she shot her first snowstorm.
"I fell in love with that, and I've pretty much shot every single storm in the past 6 years," she said. She was out there during Jonas; once during the day, then again at night. "The more extreme it is, the more likely I’m out. If it’s just a few inches, I don’t do anything with it." Seems crazy, right? It gets better.
travelinglens ...and the trees spin their branches like webs over streets held down by the barest hint of gravity.... ❄️❄️❄️❄️❄️❄️ New York City, Madison Square Park
"Top of my bucket list, as far as travel goes, is Siberia." Why Siberia? Essentially, from what I understood of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Siberia is where you go to die.
"A lot of the reasons why I like NYC in the snow, it's one of the few times you can be in such a huge city alone, so I'm attracted to this idea of isolation. Siberia’s one of the two coldest places in the world, and I find it really interesting that people live there. They experience the world in a way none of us ever experience it."
travelinglens Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! A lot of people have asked me about how I protect my camera and myself when I take all of my snow photos. I have photographed every single snowstorm in NYC for the last 5 years. The first storm I ever photographed, I nearly got frostbite and I was shooting with a broken point and shoot camera covering it between shots with my useless gloves. My current camera bodies (all Sony) do really well in snow and rain but my lenses are not weather-sealed and I am paranoid about ruining them. I use....drum-roll...a plastic bag (to be less eloquent, a trash bag - the thickest kind I can find). I take the bag, take one of the corners and snip the corner with scissors. I then put the bag over my lens with the snipped corner in the center of the lens. Then I stretch the bag over my lens with only the glass of the lens exposed. Next: (this is important!) I take the lens hood and put it on the lens with the bag stretched as detailed above. Sometimes I take a hair tie or rubber band and put it around the lens near the body. I use the hood as protection while walking around for miles. I point the camera down between shots and blowing snow collects on the outside of the lens hood which is SO helpful. I shoot in manual mode always so since I mainly shoot these photos at night, I do my settings every single block so I don't miss shots since I have to shoot very, very, very quickly due to the conditions. I will cover what I wear in my next post tomorrow morning since I ran out of room! Be careful out there! This is a photo from the same night as my previous post :)
To be clear, it's not just snow in general. There's nothing pretty about giant slush piles, dirty, gray mounds of grossness.
"I absolutely love the snow. I love the snow, but for me when I photograph it, I’m only interested in it as it starts snowing... It snowed a lot when I was younger, and when it snows, everyone forgets how stressed out they are. There's an incredible sense of wonderment. It's the ultimate nostalgic idea."
travelinglens Missing snow stardust...
Nostalgia. It's such an interesting, sorely misunderstood idea, particularly when it comes to NYC, Vivienne's work, and the ideas of Saudade and Sehnsucht that drive her.
For the sake of sparing you a Google search, these ideas, to Vivienne, communicate a deep longing for a place that is unidentifiable, but somehow familiar and indicative of what could be identified as home.
"I get emails from people who hate New York, they say it's not something they're into. They couldn't see themselves ever living in a big city, but they write me, and they say, 'I see your photos, and I feel an incredible sense of nostalgia even though I’ve never been there.
But where is home? What is home? Is home the place that you come from, or is it the place you make for yourself in the crowded place you occupy for a prolonged period of time? Is it even a place at all? Or is it an idea?
"I grew up very poor side of lower middle class, so my background informs my view of New York City. Because I grew up with very little, a lot of my starry eyed ideas of what Manhattan was came from movies, music."
travelinglens New York City. ❄️ (Heading to PhotoPlus Expo tomorrow, Friday? I am speaking at the @sony stage 4 times starting at 10 am tomorrow 👀 Come say hi 🙋🏻)
"On the Town, the opening shots of Woody Allen's Manhattan. Scorsese movies (her favorite is After Hours). I was fascinated with these visions-- visions of NYC that only existed in those minds, yet they were so appealing and fascinating-- I was drawn to something that doesn’t even really exist.",
It was interesting to hear from a Flushing, Queens native that her first impressions of Manhattan, seemingly within arm's reach of her own neighborhood, were shaped, formed, or disrupted by works of fiction.
Then again, it's hard not to get romantic about NYC, Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, how it's all told in stories, movies; love letters about the skyline, the sights, the sidewalks crowded with cameras and tourists and you and me and everyone we've never met, but could know at any time. All of it.
Her own story is that of the struggling New Yorker; something no different than what any transplant learns to accept as a possibility, but one rarely expected of those who've only ever lived here.
"I had to move out on my own in 17, and I worked a lot of jobs. Horrible jobs. Crappy jobs. I was doing what you have to do to pay rent, and stay in the city I knew I really loved. I moved around a lot, but I always had a longing for the imaginative New York City-- the one from brilliant, cinematic movie openings-- because I didn’t have this concept of home myself."
"I didn’t feel I belonged, so that's really when I started photographing.
She said the struggle "was what made me start walking around NYC. I was taking a chance to chill out. I was learning to appreciate that about it. Walking around. Taking deep breaths. Just breathing. Letting it sink in where I was, finally."
As a transplant, you have to wonder about these competing ideas of NYC romanticism; one that is at once enamored with the city around you, and the way its story is told; the other, how unbearably hard it is to remain in a city you have a deep, abiding love for, but one that has no love for you.
travelinglens It is officially my birthday!! 🎂🎈🎂 I just wanted to thank absolutely everyone for all of the kind comments, support, encouragement, positivity, and all of the awesomeness you have thrown my way. If I could hug every one of you, I would! 🙈 This is one of my favorite photos I have ever taken. I even have a huge metal print of it in my apartment. My ongoing passion project when I am not doing commissioned photography work is photographing #newyorkcity in the snow. ❄️ People always wonder why I am so passionate about photographing snow and this photo is exactly how I feel about these sorts of nights. Winter nights in the snow are when nostalgia wraps around you like a blanket; when wonder takes you by the hand. My wish is for everyone to experience this feeling this year whether it's through travel or even through just being present in a meaningful moment. ✨ Here's to capturing the momentary happiness of being happy to be alive for another spaceship turn around the sun. 🚀☀️
To be clear: she has no strong opinions for or against transplants.
"It's interesting because everybody kind of takes something different from NYC. What they’re inspired by is so different than anyone else. A lot of people who follow my work love the idea of NYC and the city I’m presenting."
"If I had this horrible idea of it doesn’t belong to you if you weren’t born here, well, that'd be completely contradictory to what I do."
How do you reconcile the love for a city and its history with actually living in the city whose history, as you come to learn, is not merely forgotten over time, but irrevocably altered?
"In New York, we build over our history.
"I live in one of the most transient neighborhoods, the Lower East Side. I've lived here for the last 7 years, and I'm one of the most tenured tenants other than a guy who's lived there for 20 years."
"People come here, they want the New York experience, and then they leave. It's almost become this college rite of passage. They want to move to New York, experience it, and go."
travelinglens What's your favorite Winter memory or moment? One of mine was the first time I ever photographed Central Park during a blizzard (this photo is from that time). The wind gusts were brutal and I had climbed my way through the park in the snow towards this bridge, Bow Bridge. As I approached, the storm eased up momentarily. The snow-dampened silence was accentuated by only the crunching snow underfoot. And Bow Bridge stretched out before me like something out of a fairytale. That sense of wonder was one of the best feelings.
"I think that’s why I like living here; it’s a different neighborhood. It's one of the most rambunctious, but at the same time, it's surrounded by the most history any NYC neighborhood has to offer."
travelinglens Tranquility. #newyorkcity
"My favorite place is the Tenement Museum. The history, all of it-- you can't get that kind of NYC in any other neighborhood."
Because New York builds over its history.
But does NYC love her? If so many want to believe NYC is a character rather than a caricature or living, breathing backdrop, what is its opinion of her? Of any of us?
travelinglens Weathering... #newyorkcity
"I think New York is a difficult city, especially since I experienced the worst of it. I worked 7 days a week, I was barely making it. I'm not sure if New York City is someone who has time to love you back. It always changes. People grow up with all of this history."
"I grew up here. I don’t know if NYC has the capacity to love me back.
It's hard for each and every one of us not to get romantic about NYC. Even when it hurts. Even when NYC is hard. Especially when it hurts. Especially when it's hard.
"It's interesting that even if you have this sort of tension with it--- this city can suck if you’re not doing well, I get it --that tension creates some interesting art."
Interesting is a word for her art. Beautiful is another. A little piece of home, wherever and whatever that may be, is, well, more than a word, and hardly sufficient.
Experience Vivienne Gucwa's Story of NYC for Yourself. Follow Her on Instagram Here.
*An earlier version of this article stated Gucwa had only taken shots of Jonas during the day. While she typically captures NYC snow at night, she photographed Snowstorm Jonas both during the day and at night. This version has been corrected.*