Photo of the Week: Walking the High Line with Joel Sternfeld

A Railroad Artifact, 30th Street, May 2000. Photo by Joel Sternfeld, courtesy of Luhring Augustine New York

Today, on World Photo Day, we are reminded of the power of photography, both for the world at large and for our organization. From Friends of the High Line's inception, to present day when the High Line was named one of the top ten Instagrammed places in the world in 2013, photography has been an integral part of the park and how visitors experience it.

Let's go back to the beginning – it was the year 2000. The new year had arrived without a Y2K meltdown. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt were still a thing. And the co-founders of the freshly minted non-profit Friends of the High Line were trying to gather support to save the High Line.

Joshua David and Robert Hammond, Friends of the High Line's Co-Founders, had walked along the abandoned railway many times, but they needed a way to translate the raw beauty and the "incredible wildscape" (as Robert called it) to community members and potential supporters and political allies. On a recommendation, they reached out to Joel Sternfeld, an acclaimed New York City-based photographer (although they hadn't realized at the time how famous he was).

As Robert recalls, "I looked up Joel on the Web. The only picture of his I could find was of a car that had fallen into a ravine. I found his number in the phone book and called him. I told him I'd like him to take pictures of the High Line–was he interested? As soon as Joel saw [the High Line], he took me aside and said, 'I want to do this. Don't let anyone else up here for a year. I will give you beautiful photos.'"

So began over a year of documentation of the High Line. From April 2000 through July 2001, Joel lugged a large format film camera along the High Line capturing the changing seasons along the overgrown railway. The resulting photos sparked much-needed interest and support for the High Line project, which was just focused on saving the structure and paving the way for it to become public space at the time.

"I think of Joel as the third cofounder," Robert says. "The photos he took became important tools for us. Instead of showing people architectural renderings, we would show them Joel's photos. People could read different things into them. In one of his most famous photos of the High Line, you can see the Empire State Building, an old metal railroad box, the tracks, the various plants, and lots of different buildings, old and new. Some people would just look at the photo and see a preservation project. Some would see horticulture. Rail buffs would get excited about the tracks. Some people imagined architecture. They would say, 'Look, there's the Empire State Building. This is right in the middle of Manhattan. You can build something up there.'"

Below are a couple more of Joel's photos from his series on the High Line. Buy a book of all his High Line photos, or even a poster of his most famous High Line shot, in our High Line Shop.

Ailanthus Trees, 25th Street, May 2000.

Looking South towards Chelsea Markets, December 2000.

See present day photos of the High Line on Friends of the High Line's Flickr pool or Instagram.

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