Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
A photographer ventures up to the tops of New York City buildings to capture unique views
For the past year, Stewart Mader has been photographing New York City. There’s no shortage of photos of the big apple, but few take his particular approach. He focuses on capturing views from the high-up windows and balconies of the city’s skyscrapers for his blog, Elevator View. Mader has ventured into more than 20 buildings so far, and posted photos of about 100 views on his site. He chatted with us about the inspiration for the site, some of his dream photo shoot locations, and the value of seeing the city from the "Goldilocks zone," between the 30th and 60th floors.
What’s the fascination? What got you to start the site?
I grew up just outside of New York City and I think I’ve always had a fascination with the idea of verticality and building up. You think about the millions of people that live in New York and visit New York, and most often what you see in photos is stuff you see at the street level. And as fascinating and dynamic and amazing as the street level is, I think that what you see above the city is like a whole different world. Right now I’m standing in my office, I’m on the 22nd floor of a building in east midtown and just looking across the way I can see the offices and the people in the building next door to me, and it’s kind of a unique view. Most people don’t see that. And you could argue that in some ways that might not be the most interesting view. I can see two guys across in this building sitting in cubicles working at desks. But at the same time, those people probably have stories and interesting things about them, and so there’s something intriguing about that. But I think at a larger architectural and urban scale, I think what’s fascinating to me is that New York City is quintessentially the city that’s never been afraid to build up and so many cities are afraid of that. I think that that fear of building up and the fact that that’s never really been the case in New York has resulted in a place that people universally agree is a pretty extraordinary place.
It seems like there’s almost an element of voyeurism here – of the people, the architecture and the urbanism. Does that play a role in your interest?
To me it’s less so about that and more about the idea that there’s a different perspective on the city. And when I look at the city from above, I often think about a lot of the urbanism issues that are inherent in a city almost more so than when I’m on the ground. Because when I’m on the ground I’m usually walking somewhere quickly or hurrying home or hurrying to a meeting. For me there’s a quintessential moment when I’m doing the photography, when I’m riding up the elevator in a building, and when I get off the elevator and I’m up on a high floor and I spot that first little glimpse of either the windows I’m going to be shooting out from or the rooftop, and that’s an incredibly energizing moment for me.
When you get that vantage point, how do you think it changes the way you think about the city?
In those moments when I’m looking out at that high level the thing that’s most visible is the layers of history that are there in a skyline or in a view of a particular neighborhood that are really interesting when you’re fairly close to them. So that’s why there are two places that I haven’t shot from, and never say never, but I tend to stay away from places like “Top of the Rock” and the Empire State Building. Places like that that are very high up and very easily accessible because they are marketed to anybody, tourists, locals, anybody who pays for a ticket can come on up -- I almost think that those are too easy. And a lot of what I do is look for places to go that are harder to get into and places where I’ve got to talk to somebody, I’ve got to explain the project and I’ve got to get access. Because, number one, I want to share those views. Those are the views that I want to capture and share on the site because those are the views that anybody with a smartphone can’t just capture because they’re visiting the Empire State Building. Millions of people do that. In some ways the sweet spot for this is I try to shoot from buildings where a lot of what I’m seeing is the city as opposed to being so far above the city that what I’m really seeing is beyond it. So you go up really high and you’re looking out at New Jersey and Long Island and Connecticut. And there’s nothing wrong with that, those are breathtaking views. But what fascinates me is when I’m somewhere between 30 and 50 or maybe 60 stories up and most of what I’m seeing when I look out are the details of the buildings around me. And that’s really where you see the layers of history, where you see the variety of architectural styles, the variety of heights, the variety of different massing in the buildings.
How do you get into these places?
A combination of things. The easy one is the building I work in. I’m incredibly fortunate that we have balconies on this floor, so I have that. But in other buildings it’s a combination of sometimes if I have a meeting somewhere in the city and I know I’m going to be in a building that has good views I’ll bring my camera along and I’ll just ask and grab a couple shots. Other times when I tell people about the project, people have been gracious enough to invite me up into their buildings to do photo shoots. And a few times I’ve contacted buildings and just asked.
Any covert operations?
I’ll plead the fifth on that. But, no, not really. I’ve thought about doing that but the reason that I really haven’t is I’m actually worried that if I did that and I got caught somebody might totally misinterpret what I’m doing. Because there is still a fear of terrorism in New York City.
Are there any dream shoots that you haven’t been able to get yet?
One is the Woolworth building. I think that’s kind of a dream shoot for a lot of architectural photographers. I would love to shoot the views from either One or Four World Trade Center. Another one that I’m really interested in is a building going up on 57th Street, One57, which is going to be the tallest residential tower in the city. And that’s one that’s under construction, so I think it would be fascinating to be able to get in there while the building is under construction and there’s no curtain wall glass that’s in the way. Shooting from any floor would be as good as shooting from the roof. I would eventually like to get to, I don’t know if I’d say every building in the city, that might be kind of crazy, but certainly there’s no end of interesting vantage points to shoot from. And I’m going to be doing it for as along as I can.
All photos courtesy Stewart Mader