Life before the pandemic: Vivid collection of photographs capture the chaos and maskless crowds of the Big Apple's streets - and New Yorkers' most intimate moments

 It was the best of times, it was the maskless times. It was a New York City with its street theater in full swing with its usual cast of characters – tourists, commuters, businesspeople, locals – who jostled and jockeyed for position on the avenues.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the city in March and drained the streets of their vitality, photographer Melissa O'Shaughnessy spent six years capturing unexpected moments from Union Square to Chinatown to Lower Manhattan to Midtown.

'The streets of New York City are a very generous place,' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com.

Indeed, her vivid color images that chronicle the chaos, selfies, families, 'twins,' the private moments and the everyday are part of her new book, Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs.

'The pandemic drew a hard line between this work and the present time,' she explained. 'Immediately the times put a bracket around this work and pictured New York in pre-COVID times.'

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down New York City in March, photographer Melissa O'Shaughnessy chronicled its busy streets. Her new book, Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs, speaks to a time before COVID-19, masks and social distancing. 'What you try to do is tame the chaos,' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com about the above image, Sixth Avenue, 2016. She noted the woman taking a selfie. 'There's a ballet of gestures to the right and left. The streets of New York City are a very generous place... Pictures like this are few and far between.' When an image comes together like the one above, she said, it 'is why you go out again'

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down New York City in March, photographer Melissa O'Shaughnessy chronicled its busy streets. Her new book, Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs, speaks to a time before COVID-19, masks and social distancing. 'What you try to do is tame the chaos,' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com about the above image, Sixth Avenue, 2016. She noted the woman taking a selfie. 'There's a ballet of gestures to the right and left. The streets of New York City are a very generous place... Pictures like this are few and far between.' When an image comes together like the one above, she said, it 'is why you go out again'

A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, O'Shaughnessy moved to the New York City area in 1991. After two of her three children moved to the city, she and her husband bought an apartment in Union Square. The image above, Broadway, 2016, was taken a few blocks from her apartment. Families are a subject that interest the photographer. She pointed out that three members are eating an apple and that the likely brother and sister are both scratching their hands. It is a picture, she said that shows the 'flow of people in the city. It's nothing special but it's very special.' To catch a moment like this, she added, 'feels like a gift'

A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, O'Shaughnessy moved to the New York City area in 1991. After two of her three children moved to the city, she and her husband bought an apartment in Union Square. The image above, Broadway, 2016, was taken a few blocks from her apartment. Families are a subject that interest the photographer. She pointed out that three members are eating an apple and that the likely brother and sister are both scratching their hands. It is a picture, she said that shows the 'flow of people in the city. It's nothing special but it's very special.' To catch a moment like this, she added, 'feels like a gift'

Her new book, Perfect Strangers, was about six years of work, O'Shaughnessy said. Her typical routine was to head to Chinatown to Lower Manhattan and then work her way north to Midtown. The above photograph was taken at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. 'It's one of the best crossroads for a street photographer in New York City.' She said she thinks this picture was taken probably on a Friday at 4:30 or 5pm. The older man on the left, O'Shaughnessy said, anchors the image. The seven people featured are seven different stories happening, she said, noting that there is not a cellphone in the image. 'Everyone's in their own world'

Her new book, Perfect Strangers, was about six years of work, O'Shaughnessy said. Her typical routine was to head to Chinatown to Lower Manhattan and then work her way north to Midtown. The above photograph was taken at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. 'It's one of the best crossroads for a street photographer in New York City.' She said she thinks this picture was taken probably on a Friday at 4:30 or 5pm. The older man on the left, O'Shaughnessy said, anchors the image. The seven people featured are seven different stories happening, she said, noting that there is not a cellphone in the image. 'Everyone's in their own world'

'She notices me,' O'Shaughnessy said of the girl on the right in the above image, Fifth Avenue, 2019. The photographer noted her direct gaze, headphones and smudges of perhaps chocolate ice cream on her face. O'Shaughnessy explained that she wants to observe the world like a child. 'They are so present in the moment – that's what I'm trying to be as a photographer. Everyone's hustling and bustling but the children are looking at me.' She noted the arms pointing and the similarity of the dresses' floral patterns

'She notices me,' O'Shaughnessy said of the girl on the right in the above image, Fifth Avenue, 2019. The photographer noted her direct gaze, headphones and smudges of perhaps chocolate ice cream on her face. O'Shaughnessy explained that she wants to observe the world like a child. 'They are so present in the moment – that's what I'm trying to be as a photographer. Everyone's hustling and bustling but the children are looking at me.' She noted the arms pointing and the similarity of the dresses' floral patterns

A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, O'Shaughnessy moved to the New York City area in 1991. She and her husband built a small financial company. 'I had children young,' she recalled.

In the early 2000s, when her son was in high school, he took an introductory photography class and asked for a darkroom in the basement. O'Shaughnessy had quit working and said: 'If he's doing it, I should learn.'

Now in her early 40s, she took a course at the local university. 'My beginnings were really black and white in the darkroom,' she said, adding that her father had been an avid amateur photographer.

After two of her three children moved to New York City, she and her husband bought an apartment in Union Square. 'Having the city at the doorsteps propelled me into the streets.'

She was mostly focused on landscapes before she went to a Joel Meyerowitz workshop in around 2011. According to a 2019 article, Meyerowitz, a well-known street photographer, had said: 'Every time you click the shutter, you say YES.'


O'Shaughnessy was inspired by what he had to say about street photography and that it was 'split second of real life,' she recalled. 'That seed was firmly planted in my brain and I never looked back.'

When she returned to New York City after the workshop, she began shooting on the street. 'When you have a camera in your hand, your awareness is heightened,' she explained, adding that you are 'more attuned to the world.'

But she was worried about offending people and afraid of being seen as rude or invading their space. 'I was very shy at the start.'   

To combat this, O'Shaughnessy said: 'I've cultivated this tourist persona.'

She dresses in all black and her camera is hung around her neck. In his essay for her new book, Perfect Strangers, Meyerowitz called her 'an innocent-seeming yet ninja-like sprite.'

O'Shaughnessy noted that she isn't sneaky about taking photographs on the street. Even if people do notice her, she said: 'You just put on a nice smile on your face and give them a compliment – it disarms almost every situation.'  

Twinning is one of the themes of O'Shaughnessy's new book, Perfect Strangers. 'I see twins,' she explained. 'I'm really interested in how mothers dress their children alike.' She also noted that some couples over time start to look similar as well. 'That hair is something to behold,' O'Shaughnessy said of the above image, Fifth Avenue, 2018. 'These girls are extraordinary.' She often takes pictures at parades and said the two girls are getting ready for the St. Patrick's Day Parade. The annual event down Fifth Avenue takes place in March but was canceled this year because of the pandemic. A smaller march did take place, according to NY1

Twinning is one of the themes of O'Shaughnessy's new book, Perfect Strangers. 'I see twins,' she explained. 'I'm really interested in how mothers dress their children alike.' She also noted that some couples over time start to look similar as well. 'That hair is something to behold,' O'Shaughnessy said of the above image, Fifth Avenue, 2018. 'These girls are extraordinary.' She often takes pictures at parades and said the two girls are getting ready for the St. Patrick's Day Parade. The annual event down Fifth Avenue takes place in March but was canceled this year because of the pandemic. A smaller march did take place, according to NY1

'When I'm out shooting, I'm on the move,' she explained. 'I'm impatient.' O'Shaughnessy would shoot in Manhattan two to three times a week, and if possible, all day. Throughout her monograph, wind is present in some images. 'I'm trying to capture the energy in what is a static photograph,' she said. Above, the wind plays with the woman's hair in the center as well as the two women to her left and right. The photograph, Seventh Avenue, 2017, captures what was a typical afternoon of a crowd crossing the street. 'It's just a simple moment'

'When I'm out shooting, I'm on the move,' she explained. 'I'm impatient.' O'Shaughnessy would shoot in Manhattan two to three times a week, and if possible, all day. Throughout her monograph, wind is present in some images. 'I'm trying to capture the energy in what is a static photograph,' she said. Above, the wind plays with the woman's hair in the center as well as the two women to her left and right. The photograph, Seventh Avenue, 2017, captures what was a typical afternoon of a crowd crossing the street. 'It's just a simple moment'

During the summer, there are weddings on Saturdays at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Above, a bridal party peers into a white vintage car with the bride and groom inside. 'Everybody looks in to take a picture,' O'Shaughnessy said, who noted the mauve of the gowns. 'They're the star of the show but we don't see them.' The above image, Fifth Avenue, 2017, 'draws you in – you want to peek in the car yourself.' She pointed out that there were several tourists also taking pictures as well

During the summer, there are weddings on Saturdays at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Above, a bridal party peers into a white vintage car with the bride and groom inside. 'Everybody looks in to take a picture,' O'Shaughnessy said, who noted the mauve of the gowns. 'They're the star of the show but we don't see them.' The above image, Fifth Avenue, 2017, 'draws you in – you want to peek in the car yourself.' She pointed out that there were several tourists also taking pictures as well

'When you see something like this, you chase,' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com about the above image, 42nd Street, 2019. She pointed out the girls' matching tutus and braids as well as the similar backpacks of their moms as they strolled up the street on a busy afternoon. 'It's a delight,' O'Shaughnessy said, adding that she and her sister dressed alike for years while they were growing up. She said the mothers and daughters had been at Times Square

'When you see something like this, you chase,' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com about the above image, 42nd Street, 2019. She pointed out the girls' matching tutus and braids as well as the similar backpacks of their moms as they strolled up the street on a busy afternoon. 'It's a delight,' O'Shaughnessy said, adding that she and her sister dressed alike for years while they were growing up. She said the mothers and daughters had been at Times Square

'Who is this innocent-seeming yet ninja-like sprite, darting, feinting, melding, and slip-sliding her way through the crowds in her favorite city?,' Joel Meyerowitz, a well-known street photographer, wrote in his introduction to O'Shaughnessy's new book, Perfect Strangers. O'Shaughnessy said she has cultivated a tourist persona so people don't notice her while she is out shooting on the street. She said the above image, Sixth Avenue, 2016, was about the woman, center, amid the chaos and pointed out her cross necklaces. 'She looks so at peace. She's full of grace'

'Who is this innocent-seeming yet ninja-like sprite, darting, feinting, melding, and slip-sliding her way through the crowds in her favorite city?,' Joel Meyerowitz, a well-known street photographer, wrote in his introduction to O'Shaughnessy's new book, Perfect Strangers. O'Shaughnessy said she has cultivated a tourist persona so people don't notice her while she is out shooting on the street. She said the above image, Sixth Avenue, 2016, was about the woman, center, amid the chaos and pointed out her cross necklaces. 'She looks so at peace. She's full of grace'

It was a picture that she made of an older couple - who did not notice her - with a younger pair off to the side that gave her the confidence that there was a way to put together three or four disparate elements to tell a story, she said. 'You can capture something of delight and wisdom.'  

O'Shaughnessy would shoot in Manhattan two to three times a week, and if possible, all day. A typical day started in Union Square, where her apartment is located, to Chinatown, Lower Manhattan and then up to Midtown. 'You know where the action is if you're out in the streets enough.'

She said she is trying to 'tame the chaos.' For instance, one of her images features a woman taking a selfie on a crowded corner. O'Shaughnessy saw her and started to take photographs. 'There's a ballet of gestures to the right and left,' she said. 'There's action in it. Pictures like this are few and far between. 99.9 percent of the time you don't get this shot.'

But when things coalesce, she explained, that is why you go out and hit the streets again. 'When nothing comes of a 10 mile walk (which is so often the case) it's pretty frustrating, but when things come together there's nothing like it,' she said in a 2019 interview. 'When I come home with a good photograph it feels like a cosmic gift.' 

O'Shaughnessy is still going out and shooting but the pandemic has changed the tenor of the streets. 'It's completely different. I worked a lot in Midtown. There are no tourists. There are no businesspeople. I miss seeing people's faces and expressions.'

Nonetheless, she said the images in her new book are about her respect, tenderness and affection for people.

'It's my love letter to New York City.'          

'I began and ended the book with a wonderful older lady,' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com about her new monograph, Perfect Strangers. The woman, above in the image, 42nd Street, 2018, never saw O'Shaughnessy. 'I'm very quick. I'm petite.' The woman is marvelous with an amazing hat, she noted. 'I haven't inserted myself in what's happening. This was what I saw. The book is about people and my delight and tenderness toward them'

'I began and ended the book with a wonderful older lady,' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com about her new monograph, Perfect Strangers. The woman, above in the image, 42nd Street, 2018, never saw O'Shaughnessy. 'I'm very quick. I'm petite.' The woman is marvelous with an amazing hat, she noted. 'I haven't inserted myself in what's happening. This was what I saw. The book is about people and my delight and tenderness toward them'

Above, an image, Vesey Street, 2015, that shows the beautiful light in the late afternoon Downtown, O'Shaughnessy said. The photographer pointed out the woman who has covered herself on the left and the man on the right with his cellphone. 'It's a very simple picture that's very peaceful in a busy moment. It's my love letter to New York City.' People are often lost in their own world, she observed. The corner where this image was taken has since changed, she noted

Above, an image, Vesey Street, 2015, that shows the beautiful light in the late afternoon Downtown, O'Shaughnessy said. The photographer pointed out the woman who has covered herself on the left and the man on the right with his cellphone. 'It's a very simple picture that's very peaceful in a busy moment. It's my love letter to New York City.' People are often lost in their own world, she observed. The corner where this image was taken has since changed, she noted                 

In his introduction to her new book, Joel Meyerowitz wrote: 'Witness O'Shaughnessy's awareness of weather in the many photographs in which sudden gusts of wind blow through the canyons and corners of the city's streets - sending men's coats flying and updrafting women's carefully coiffed hair, swirling it around their faces and tossing it up and out like a donkey's ears.' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com that the wind is present in many of her photographs, like the one above, Liberty Street, 2018. 'I love the color of her dress against the blue sky and architecture'

In his introduction to her new book, Joel Meyerowitz wrote: 'Witness O'Shaughnessy's awareness of weather in the many photographs in which sudden gusts of wind blow through the canyons and corners of the city's streets - sending men's coats flying and updrafting women's carefully coiffed hair, swirling it around their faces and tossing it up and out like a donkey's ears.' O'Shaughnessy told DailyMail.com that the wind is present in many of her photographs, like the one above, Liberty Street, 2018. 'I love the color of her dress against the blue sky and architecture'

O'Shaughnessy said that she is drawn to clothing that says something, like the 'Stay True' of the coat in the above image, 57th Street, 2018. 'That's a wonderful statement,' she told DailyMail.com. She pointed out how he was gently tugging at the corner of his coat when a bus came by. It is a 'lovely gentle private moment in the chaos,' she said

O'Shaughnessy said that she is drawn to clothing that says something, like the 'Stay True' of the coat in the above image, 57th Street, 2018. 'That's a wonderful statement,' she told DailyMail.com. She pointed out how he was gently tugging at the corner of his coat when a bus came by. It is a 'lovely gentle private moment in the chaos,' she said

Life before the pandemic: Vivid collection of photographs capture the chaos and maskless crowds of the Big Apple's streets - and New Yorkers' most intimate moments Life before the pandemic: Vivid collection of photographs capture the chaos and maskless crowds of the Big Apple's streets - and New Yorkers' most intimate moments Reviewed by STATION GOSSIP on 03:42 Rating: 5

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