The idea was straightforward: Take a genre of photography that is usually reserved for adults — street style photography — and apply it to children aged 3 to 18 for yesterday’s issue of The New York Times for Kids, the monthly print section for The Times’s youngest readers.
Street style is not new to me. I’ve been photographing well-dressed strangers on the street since 2006. Theoretically, it would be possible to take the same sort of photographs I usually take at New York Fashion Week for the Styles section and take them of kids going to school instead.
Was I sure it would work? Not really.
Yet my editors at the Kids section were determined. Dates were arranged, and, as an extra precaution, legal forms were drawn up for parents’ signatures. I was armed with a camera, a digital recorder and a ream of photo release forms, and sent out into the streets.
“Make it like Bill Cunningham,” the legendary Times photographer who died in 2016, they said — which is about the most terrifying thing anyone can say to a street style photographer. As I wandered through Central Park one afternoon after school, only to find it almost completely devoid of (nontourist) children, I was flummoxed. Where were the kids playing tag and riding Big Wheels, like when I grew up in the ’70s? What would Bill Cunningham do? He certainly wouldn’t have been stranded in the middle of nowhere with nary a fashionable person around.
Actually finding the kids was the most difficult part of this story for me, especially as a non-mom. First of all, they wake up at a frighteningly early hour. Some schools start at 7:45 a.m., and after school, kids don’t exactly frolic unsupervised in Central Park. Today’s kids have sports, activities and clubs galore. Minutes after they finish one activity, they are whisked to another, either by a school bus or a parent.
I began to work this to my advantage. The “dropoff” and “pickup” periods at school are very much like the arrivals and departures at a big fashion show. First, it is deadly quiet, then a slow trickle starts, then a veritable torrent of children pours into or out of school doors. But I had to choose wisely, or I might miss a really stylish kid while photographing another.
The other issue was that I was standing outside schools with a large professional camera, staring at children. I am a smallish woman who usually doesn’t inspire fear in others, but I invited suspicion, especially at the more affluent and elite schools.
At one school in Chelsea, where I was standing on the street outside, a security guard asked me to leave because I was making parents “nervous.” At another in Gramercy, I took a photo of a child crossing the street, hand-in-hand with his dad, trying to get the same sort of urban action shot Bill Cunningham took on the corner of 57th Street. The dad curtly refused to participate in the story, and I never filed the photo.
Later, I heard, the security team sent out a schoolwide email about my presence near the school. They reassured parents that I was only a journalist.
After that, I kept my camera in my bag. Without the camera, I could blend in and look like any other mom there to pick up or drop off. I only took the camera out once I had already approached and explained the story to the child and parent. Otherwise, just having a professional camera around my neck could invite trouble.
In other neighborhoods, kids and parents were initially wary but then happy to talk to me when they heard about the purpose of the story — and saw all the forms on New York Times letterhead. I began to gravitate toward places like these because, frankly, it was easier. Plus, when tweens or teenagers have working parents and no nanny, they also have more free time to just hang around and be kids. I could actually photograph them doing something spontaneous.
Once the story was filed, I began to miss interacting with the kids. They always had something surprising to say, some book or video game or entire sport I had never heard of. Some were on the vanguard of street trends, some were just marching to the beat of their own drum.
Anyway, parents, don’t be worried. Your future is in good hands.