Issue 23

David La Spina

An exclusive portfolio by photographer David La Spina explores the hidden patterns and intimate moments of New York street life

All you need to know about David La Spina is in the first picture of this portfolio. He is motivated when the light is hot and strong and the contrast is high. He frames chaos within chaos. He picks up on signifiers of how we live. Two women grip cell phones with ferocity. Are they hostage takers or hostages? One of the women listens intently to one phone while holding another. What does it mean to have two phones?

La Spina’s photos are full of everyday mysteries and nuances. The uncanny waits for him. With quick reflexes he snags the splatter of light and shade on their faces. The smudgy shadows tumbling down the side of the woman’s face as she steps into sunlight could not be more perfect if he drew them in with a charcoal stick.

As the women come towards us, La Spina also registers the back of a man walking towards them. And then he re-raises the ante by lassoing the leafy shadows on the gentleman’s shoulders, and then the shadow of yet another person falling across the man’s back. Is it La Spina’s shadow? Can this be the portraitist inserting a self-portrait among the pedestrians on an ordinary day of extraordinary Manhattan light? The man’s bent fingers at the edge of the frame add to the choreography of hands. A ‘Parking’ sign descends in the background, testament to La Spina’s love of vernacular typography. La Spina is the equivalent of a studio musician laying down all of the tracks in a song, all at once.

La Spina’s images savour the urban elegance of stairs, wrought iron railings and fire escapes. The angles, edges, reflective surfaces and intersecting shapes of urban buildings inspire and delight him. His eye owes its rigour and discipline to his love of architecture. Later on in the story, laundry hanging behind two buildings stands out. The clothes hang from a grid of bars that echoes the grid of windows in the background. One can imagine the windows and bars aligned and matching perfectly. Does every walk La Spina takes down a city street on a sunny day result in a moment of visual ecstasy?

After years of working with sophisticated cameras, La Spina started shooting with his smartphone, liberating him to make pictures quickly – usually when he is in transition: on his way to the subway, heading to work or pushing his daughter in a stroller. At first he was “very insecure about these pictures and thought they were second fiddle”. Then he realised “they were getting better than the pictures I thought were my serious pictures.” These vividly beautiful, impatiently captured and elegantly rendered photographs are proof of the irrepressible power and pleasure of great street photography.

Kathy Ryan is director of photography at The New York Times Magazine