Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Travis Huggett waits at bus stops and red lights to artfully capture MTA passengers at night.
New York City's bus system carries 2.6 million riders on average per weekday. Travis Huggett wants to take their picture.
In a project the photographer started last fall called Last Night at the Bus Stop, Huggett has been parking himself in front of MTA bus stops, mostly after dusk, around the Lower East Side and East Village. Each time, he hopes to get just the right shot of an anonymous passenger that stands out to him.
Whether it's the fog in their window or just the awkward eye contact they're making with Huggett, his shots provide an artful look at the many kinds of New Yorkers who get around the city by bus.
In a city with no shortage of urban photography, we spoke with Huggett about how he goes about taking the best pictures he can of bus riders.
What inspired you to start this project?
For years I've noticed the way people looked inside the bus at night with the harsh interior lights glowing like a fish tank. But there was one night I saw something that made me to start thinking of this as a potential photo project.
I was standing on the corner of 14th street and Avenue A next to a bus stopped at a red light. The interior of the bus had fogged up, and a young girl had wiped a streak through the fog. She was looking out through that streak and she just looked really cool. I pulled out my phone and took a terrible, blurry photo of her. I don't remember if it was that night or the next night, but I soon started heading out with my camera, hoping I'd get another chance at a photo like that.
Walk us through a typical night of shooting for this project.
I usually go out a little after dusk. Over time I've learned which areas work the best. Ideally, I find a corner where I can see in several directions and can see far enough down the streets to know a bus is coming so I can get to a good spot at a bus stop or a light. I spend a lot of time hoping buses get stopped at red lights.
I'll usually spend an hour or so shooting. I go through phases with how often I go out. If I'm busy with work or family stuff, I'll take a break. When things get slow I'll go out almost every night.
Are there specific hours or locations within the city you prefer?
So far I have stuck to the Lower East Side and the East Village of Manhattan. It's where I live and I feel very connected to the neighborhood. Part of what made this project grow so fast was that it required no travel and no cooperation from anyone else. Those two things have often slowed up personal work for me in the past. Now, I can go out for 10 minutes before dinner or, if my family is out of town and I've stayed for a job or whatever, I'll go out shooting all night.
I would love to explore the differences of doing the same project
somewhere else in the world however. Maybe that's next.
What do you look for in each shot?
When a bus is pulling up I do a quick scan of the passengers. I'm looking for something interesting. Generally I'll start with trying to find people who are not staring at their phones. That's why I think many of the best shots I get are of kids and older people. The kids don't have phones yet, and the older people are not in the habit of checking their Instagram on the way home.
I like when people are interacting with each other, daydreaming, sleeping. I also like when they look at me, and don't then immediately look away. The curiosity often makes for a good shot. Most people are tired, and can't be bothered to care why I'm out there.
Are there other photographers doing similar work that influence your style?
I don't know of any other photographers doing something similar to this. When I started it, I actually looked pretty hard, because I thought that it was quite possible someone had. I have since seen a few one off shots that are similar, but nothing like this as a project.
I've always loved street photography and I'm influenced by a lot of photographers. Bruce Davidson's photos on the New York City subways are my favorite. I love the work Todd Hido does, shooting through the windshield of his car. I'm blown away every time I see new work from Khallik Allah. There is just so much good photography out there.
How often do you use the bus?
I use the bus all the the time and I often think about whether I'd take my own photo. The answer is almost always no, because I'm usually looking at Instagram.