The Sunset That Never Was

Short Photo Essays

The sun was supposed to glow last night right at sunset. The temperature was good, the sky had been clear all day. It was the last day of 2014 Manhattanhenge, a twice-a-year phenomenon where the sun aligns perfectly with the East-West grid of Manhattan, making the sunset perfectly visible in all the cross streets, with the sun positioned and framed by the buildings on both sides of the streets. New Yorkers are creatures of infinite curiosity. Living in the city for years doesn’t take away their sense of awe for things they consider “worth seeing.” Many will drop any plan just to go watch a parade, stand in line for hours on end to buy a new gadget, score tickets to a free play or try the new “in” food item of the month. New Yorkers are so used to co-existing with many people in small spaces that the idea of a big crowd won’t stand in their way of having a fun moment. They also love to share the cool things they do, releasing videos, photographs and updates that multiply through social media and amplify that idea that this city is the best in the world, and that despite the sacrifices it requires to live in, the rewards are better. Therefore, New Yorkers wouldn’t miss a chance to photograph the sunset of the year, from any angle, from any skill level and piece of equipment — the only thing that mattered was to able to say “I was there, I saw it and now you do too.”

I set out to be one more New Yorker last night, and headed to the Grand Central Station overpass on 42nd Street, alongside my husband Anton and our friend Angel, hoping to capture some good images. As a street photographer, in my mind, I was facing the afternoon more with the goal of taking pictures of people bathed in the glowing magic sunset light, rather than city or sun shots (after all, with thousands of people taking the same shot, it hardly seems challenging). We walked alongside the narrow space for pedestrians on the overpass, and the moment we arrived, it became clear there would be nowhere to stand to get a good angle. Mind you, this was even one full hour before the expected sunset time (8:24pm), and the crowd was growing bigger and bigger. I stepped to one side, away from the people, and stared at the traffic that was coming from both directions. I realized this was my opportunity for the day, to capture something more interesting from a vantage point no one else was even looking at… Cars and taxis, carrying commuters trying to get home after work and perhaps tourists on their way to hotels or the airport. Drivers and passengers would look at the growing crowd with a mix of feelings — some with curiosity, others happy and joining the celebratory mood. A few of them responded with annoyance, since there were so many people arriving at this point that they were forced to stand outside the pedestrian area, therefore blocking traffic. Some taxis would open their windows and a passenger would ask what was everyone trying to photograph, what big event or superstar was down there on the street below. When they would hear it was all for “the sunset” they would look as dumbfounded as they seemed confused. Some of them took their own cellphones out the window, trying perhaps to be one with the crowd, to also be able to get their own memento, and publish a post that said “I saw it too.”

Traffic became a nightmare, with the sound of horns rising. I was stunned how many of those people now standing in the middle of the road, where they could have been hit by a car, were absolutely oblivious of the risk, fixated only and obsessively in that horizon line with New Jersey at the end of 42nd St, expecting the sun to suddenly appear in a glowing ball of light, with their cameras and phones in the hand… 8:20pm. The sunset was almost there. The anticipation was big. But there were clouds in the horizon. Damn clouds. Would this be all for nothing? More people coming. Lines of trapped cars in both directions. Horns. A very angry passenger opening his window and screaming “Go home, you idiots!” And suddenly… a siren and the familiar red and blue light of an NYPD car approaching. An officer came out, megaphone in hand. “No pedestrians allowed on this bridge. Go down immediately or risk being summoned or arrested.” Oh, the irony…. as the crowd complied and started walking away, disappointed, 8:24pm on my watch. The clouds still covering the horizon in a dark blue tone. There would be no big sunset tonight. But if one thing defines New Yorkers it is their relentless determination. If they couldn’t be on the overpass bridge, they would stand on the street, right under it, and blocking 42nd St traffic if for only a minute, everyone taking pictures of… actually nothing, a cloudy horizon. A promise of what should have been.