The Wild Streets of New York

The Photo Blog
March 18 2013 10:51 AM

The Wild Streets of New York of the 1960s and '70s

Paul McDonough,Paul McDonough

Photographer Paul McDonough has a knack for catching passing, off-kilter incongruities on the New York City streets. He arrived in the city in 1967 and started taking photographs of unique moments happening around him; the New York City 1968-1972 series is said to be his first as a photographer.

Capturing weirdness on the streets of New York City might seem like an easy feat, but McDonough has a rare ability to capture a confluence of gestures in the exact moment in which a great photograph happens.

Paul McDonough
Two Men on Stand Pipes Watching Parade, 1975.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

Paul McDonough
Priest With Dark Glasses, NYC, 1970.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

Although McDonough was relatively new to photography when he arrived in New York (he had gone to college for painting), he rented an apartment from photographer Tod Papageorge and eventually turned away from painting.


New York in the late 1960s was filled with a seemingly endless amount of visual material: characters like Moondog and be-ins were photographic fodder and were documented by McDonough as well as his contemporaries such as Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus.

McDonough wrote via email:

“Public places, particularly like New York City, are very ‘public.’ It's very public and very private at the same time. People are in their own world when they walk. I don't generally stop to photograph, that would take too much time. I am photographing as I see something flying past me. I have to see what I want, and be ready and react to it at any moment … I never want to use the term ‘street photography’ because it’s so confining and repellent … if I am standing in one place long enough, someone might say—‘Did you just take a picture of me?’, I would reply—‘What picture?’ There are no pictures, I am exposing film. When the film gets developed—that is when I discover pictures.”

McDonough had befriended Winogrand in 1966, before moving to New York City, and would take photo walks with him.

Paul McDonough
Street Corner, East Side, Man With Shopping Bag, 1973.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

Paul McDonough
The Roman Room at the Met, 1973.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

Paul McDonough
Central Park, Couple With Baby in Newspaper, 1978.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

In the interview with Albert Mobilio in the introduction of his book regarding editing his large amount of film from his photo walks, McDonough describes “… the unexpected delight of finding a detail within the frame that amplified the larger meaning of the image. For instance, when I took the photograph Blind Man, Old Woman, Hari Krishnas, I was not especially attentive to the neon light that was above the head of the figure of the Hari Krishna on the far right. … Yet in the printed photograph, I noticed that the neon light suddenly took on the aspect of a halo, which seemed in keeping with the figure’s prayerful gesture of clasped hands.”

These details give McDonough’s photographs so many points of interest, multiple layers beyond the ones that are already obvious immediately upon seeing his photos.

Although McDonough started showing work in 1970 and sold three prints to the Museum of Modern Art in 1973, he maintained a relatively low profile after a few gallery rejections and became involved in teaching art rather than pursuing art-world attention. It wasn’t until 2007, when he met gallerist Sasha Wolf, that McDonough’s work was published in its own volume.

McDonough said that tackling street photography today versus the 1960s and 1970s is radically different. He explained via email:

“The reaction is different today. Cameras are much more ubiquitous now. In the ‘70s there was a whole different atmosphere, it was much more laid back then. People didn't particularly care if you were photographing them. By today's standards, where there's so much media trying to get information from people, people are much more wary. People see cameras as containing the possibility of exploitation. Everyone is spying. Local government, advertisers—they all want to know what it is you are thinking and doing. People were less paranoid in the ‘70s.”

McDonough’s work Sight Seeing will be on view at Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York through May 5.

Paul McDonough
Couple, Central Park Cafe, 1973.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

Paul McDonough
Couple Kissing on Street Corner, 1973.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

Paul McDonough
Woman in Wheelchair, NYC, 1969.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

Paul McDonough
Couple and Pilgrim Statue, 1973.

© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.


It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?