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Photo by Jonathan Flaum

Connecting Through Images: An Interview with Photographer Jonathan Flaum

By High Line | January 9, 2020

Jonathan Flaum is a life-long New Yorker. He’s been photographing the city for decades—including documentation of the High Line before it was transformed from an old railroad track into a city landmark. We sat down with Jonathan to talk about telling stories through images, his relationship to the park, the history of the West Side of Manhattan, and his background as an artist.

HIGH LINE

What is your background as a photographer?

JONATHAN FLAUM

When I was a teenager, my father let me borrow his 35mm Pentax camera and that opened a new door for my love for photography. I would go out and shoot photographs of my friends and explore the different neighborhoods and landscapes of New York City, with all its grit and history. I started taking photography classes in high school and that helped me improve my understanding and use of the camera, and learn the proper basics of photo capture and developing in the darkroom. In my twenties, I bought my own point and shoot camera and then saved up for a 6 × 4.5 medium format camera and a Polaroid Land camera.

Black and white photo of plants covering railroad tracks

High Line B&W 3, August, 2003Jonathan Flaum

I’ve mostly shot personal projects over the years that have led to a few shared gallery shows and other art type events, and that has been great. I am a film/video editor by trade for over 25 years now. I am constantly working with and looking at images, mostly moving images for advertising clients. I still shoot as much as I can today and have a few personal projects that I am currently working on.

HIGH LINE

Why photograph the High Line? What makes it an interesting subject?

JONATHAN

I grew up in New York City in the 70s and 80s in Manhattan on East 23rd Street. The High Line was always something I found intriguing, since you don’t see abandoned train tracks in the city every day. When I was young, we used to go roller-skating at the Roxy, right under the High Line. As a teenager, my friends and I would sneak up on the High Line to visit friends that were doing graffiti, or sometimes just to explore the tracks and see the art. I always loved figuring out a way to get up on the tracks and was amazed at how quiet it was up there compared to the loud and chaotic streets of Manhattan, but it was undeniably a risky place. The High Line was sort of a playground of adventure and danger for me.

In 1998, I heard a rumor that the High Line was going to be demolished. I decided to photograph the High Line so I could preserve it in my memory before we lost this piece of New York History. The High Line was a very special place to me and to so many others. There’s so much history behind those abandoned tracks, but unfortunately these tracks were prime real estate, so to keep the High Line intact, it would need an incredible team to fight to preserve them.

Black-and-white photo of a sign that reads "Save the tracks"

High Line B&W 16, July, 2004Jonathan Flaum

I am so thankful for Robert Hammond and Joshua David and the High Line staff for their endless commitment to saving this New York City treasure. Amazingly it all came together with their guidance and the help of so many others who loved the High Line like I did. After years of their hard work and passion, the entire High Line was saved. Today the High Line connects so many neighborhoods, from the Meat Packing District and the West Village, to Chelsea and all the way up to Hudson Yards. And the Spur (the final part of the High Line by Hudson Yards) was also saved, meaning that the original and complete footprint of the High Line was preserved, which was a huge accomplishment for all involved.

HIGH LINE

As a documentarian of sorts, how have you seen the neighborhood change? How have you seen the High Line change?

JONATHAN

The Meatpacking District and West and North Chelsea have all changed tremendously. I started going out to the nightclubs in the Meatpacking District around 1988 and had the greatest time. The stench of the neighborhood was pretty gross to be honest, with blood from the meat on the streets. The characters on the streets were incredible, real New York street nightlife. You had to see it (and smell it) to believe it. Over the years, the conversion of the neighborhoods along the High Line has been exciting to watch, yet sometimes makes the neighborhood unrecognizable. These revived neighborhoods that surround the High Line have attracted architects from around the world and the buildings and environments they are creating are incredible. There are too many high-end boutiques if you ask me, but overall I am very happy with the way the High Line has transformed these neighborhoods and New York City. And now people from all over the world can experience the beauty that the High Line has to offer.

A demolished train track

High Line Color 4, March 2001Jonathan Flaum

HIGH LINE

What challenges do these changes create for you as a photographer? What about them makes your work exciting?

JONATHAN

I started my quest to document the High Line because I really thought that it was going to be destroyed and erased from history. I had a very special bond with the High Line from my childhood and wanted to make sure that it was preserved somehow forever. I thought that I could do that through my photography. I don’t really shoot photographs of the High Line anymore because I feel like the project for me at least, historic in its nature, is completed. I do love seeing new photographs of the High Line from photographers like Iwan Baan and Timothy Schenck and I still love going up there for walks whenever I can. And I spend time my wife and kids up there, which is a beautiful place to share with them knowing my connection with the High Line.

A collage of photos of buildings

High Line Collage 2, April, 2001Jonathan Flaum

HIGH LINE

Any favorite places on the High Line to photograph?

JONATHAN

I think the 10th Avenue Square is my favorite place on the High Line. The use of that space is amazing with the stadium seating and the view North to 10th avenue. I also love what has been done at the most southern end, by the corner of Gansevoort with the Whitney Museum. And then there is the Spur and the Hudson Yards project, which is a true testament to the power of NYC the Great!

A collage of photographs of buildings

High Line Collage 9, June, 2001Jonathan Flaum

HIGH LINE

As we prepare for next year, we’re thinking a lot about civic engagement, citizen science, and public advocacy. How, if it all, do you seen photography as civic engagement?

JONATHAN

Photography is a powerful tool. You get to share your distinct point of view through your lens. Still photographs are emotional and evoke discussion on any level. And there is something to be said about a discussion without words, only images. A lot is left to the interpretation of the viewer.

Railroad tracks covered in greenery

High Line Color 1, June 2005Jonathan Flaum

HIGH LINE

How does photography help you “connect”?

JONATHAN

I always try to connect to photography by looking at the work of others, and I am always working on my own personal photography projects. My wife Stacy and I have two kids, so we take lots of family photos. We love sharing photos with our two girls, which has us laughing together a lot. That’s what is incredible about photography; still images can bring people together and make us laugh, cry or want to scream.

Learn more about the photographer at jonathanflaum.com.

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