Nancy Hightower interviewed for Evergreen Review by Miracle Jones
Dr. Nancy Hightower is an author, teacher, and photographer who has been taking pictures of New York City in standing water, showing the living city in the reflection of stagnant puddles, finding her light among the floating trash and foul odors. Her mind-bending photos of NYC as literal scum tell the story of the city during and after the pandemic better than mere angry or desperate words ever could: the beautiful images capture hope in the medium of our empty streets and waiting buildings. We are all still alive here in the festering mirror.
What made you decide to start taking pictures of the reflections of buildings in placid NYC puddles?
I doubt I would have noticed them except that NYC came to a standstill in March 2020. I was living in a dorm room in a seminary, and I didn’t think I could survive the isolation except to walk the very empty streets of Chelsea. Except they weren’t as empty as I thought. Stoop culture, ever a fixture in NYC, was taken to a new level. Shoes and food were left out, yes, but also tea sets, incense sticks, bowling balls, and unicorn hats. What might have been weekly offerings became daily. I came to appreciate the strange whimsy my neighbors had when setting out their wares.
That year trained me to look down at the street rather than straight ahead or at my phone. It taught me to be more present while walking. But it wasn’t until 2021, when the stores and restaurants really starting opening up, that I walked outside of my little grid. It also rained a lot more. In fact, 2021 was one of the rainiest years on recent record. And looking down into those giant puddles, I saw another world. The first was this giant puddle at Union Square at the golden hour, and I was transfixed.
What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you while trying to get a pic?
I had gotten my dress pretty drenched trying to take a picture of the Empire State Building through a pavement puddle on a rainy night. Umbrella in one hand and camera in the other, I managed to get maybe ten shots after about twenty minutes. Walking back home through the Flatiron District, I saw another puddle and started circling it, but I was also feeling wet and cold and really didn’t want to crouch down beside it. I didn’t realize a trio (two women and a man) were watching me. When asked what I was doing, I explained how I wanted to capture the magic of the city through puddle reflections, and then showed them some photos on my phone.
They said they had a little group that discussed how to reclaim magic and wonder in their life, and they were meeting that Friday. Would I like to come? I said sure and met them at a restaurant in the Upper West Side. They seemed to love my prints and asked me all sorts of questions about my process. But by the end of our time together, I realized they had only given me first names and when we said goodbye, I wondered if I would ever see them again (I haven’t). As if that wasn’t strange enough, on my walk home from 127 on 72nd Street, I took 7th Avenue down to Times Square, and at 7:22 p.m. I looked up and saw that it was 72 degrees. A strange little shiver went through me. Of course I believe in coincidence, but I also wonder if NYC really is a thin space for those looking.
Do you look for a gutter puddle first or for a cool building first? Assuming you need both to get a picture together!
I look for puddles, as I would have to crane my neck while walking to see the full scope of most high-rises. But then I would also seem like an irritating tourist slowing down foot traffic. Whereas the puddle shows me the tops of the buildings first (so I look down to gaze up). I’ve discovered so much fascinating architecture this way and now see NYC buildings as a kind of forest.
What sort of training/experience do you have as a photographer? Have you done any other series or taken any other photos professionally or for fun?
I have absolutely no training. I started taking pictures of readings when I was helping Andrew Lloyd Jones run Liars League, and then afterwards took pictures of literary events put on at the Coffee House club. I learned a few things about light and angles, since you want to post pictures of people that they’ll like. So I’ve been slowly learning over the past few years how to take a good photo from whatever phone I have.
Would your method work in any other American city or does this form of photography require buildings to be close together and rain to be plentiful, leading to stagnant standing water in non-draining pools?
The only other city I’ve tried is Chicago, and it was tough because it had rained, but the puddles were in parking lots and too big to really act as a frame. I did get one on the side of the road that was spectacular—a building appears to be disintegrating in this post-apocalyptic space, and it’s still one of my favorite photos.
I have a standing invitation to Boston by a friend who wants me to look for puddlescapes there, but it’s hard to predict when it will truly rain enough, and also, if there will be areas of standing water from street washing and construction (which is where NYC gets its standing water from). I’ve mostly done Manhattan since I live there and walk a lot—usually five or six miles a day.
You’ve also taken pictures using the gleaming reflections of cars. Are there any other reflective surfaces you’d like to use as media for your photography practice?
At first, I took self-portraits using broken and cast-off mirrors everyone set out during the worst of the pandemic in 2020. So many people fled the city, and effect of these broken mirrors reveal the shattered, fractured state most of us were living in.
I’ve tried to take pictures of buildings that reflect other buildings, often more than one, but the effect just wasn’t the same—not enough warping or strangeness to make it visually interesting. Maybe I’m just not picking the right buildings.
How long does it take you approximately to take a photo that you are comfortable with once you spot the perfect puddle?
It depends on several factors, like how many cars are whizzing by me, or might want the parking spot. I’ve gotten a shot just as a car was pulling in, or during the last few minutes of sunset. The other night I was trying to get the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue, but bicyclists were flying past me every other minute, and one went right through the puddle so I got splashed pretty good. Then again, they’re not on the lookout for a woman kneeling over a puddle at 10 p.m., so I can’t really fault them.
Usually, I will spend around ten minutes trying to get whatever I can. Even during the day, it’s not great to be hunched over a puddle for an extended period of time (which I’ve done while waiting for the wind to die down or people to pass). My purse tends to stick out behind me while I’m taking the shot. I’m amazed no one has lifted my wallet yet.
What sorts of puddles are you on the lookout for? Are there some kinds of gutter lakes that are more salutary than others?
Bike lanes challenge and delight me because the green paint adds to the puddle texture, and I never quite know what I’ll get. The same holds for the puddles near trees because multicolored leaves cascade over the buildings in a surreal way come fall. Smaller puddles actually create a more dynamic frame and force me to really work at getting a narrative. Sometimes a puddle is so big and still that it really is more of a mirror, and that’s when I do a split shot.
Are there any buildings or structures in NYC that you desperately want to photograph but which never have any standing water around that will let you capture a reflection?
Yes! The puddles along the High Line or around the Upper East Side drain within the hour unless it’s a big rain. The building above the Starbucks on Eighth and Greenwich has these gorgeous blue-green windows that look otherworldly in a puddle, but there’s rarely one big enough to get it.
Some places also have great puddles but horrible environmental conditions. The Google building has the most minty green windows I’ve ever seen in a puddle, but it’s right on Eighth Avenue, and between wind and cars wanting to park there, I’ve yet to get a good shot. At some point I want to make a puddle map of NYC.
Have you ever tried to take a photo in a passing tourist’s sunglasses or in the shiny pate of a bald man’s smooth, waxed head?
I can’t imagine trying to take a photograph of a moving reflection. Although I find that I can make buildings jump from car to car, and I wonder if I should experiment with video.
You are a practicing, devoted Christian yet also a committed progressive activist. Do you find that these things contradict each other in today’s divided and judgmental political world?
Not really. I mean, I find myself at odds with most churches that won’t confront their own white supremacy. But I am equally at odds with the academic world for much of the same reason. In that sense I feel adrift without a community I can really call home. I follow people like the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II or Bree Newsome on Twitter because they show me how to include their spirituality into their fight for justice.
The Bible says that we only perceive reality as though through a glass, darkly. Yet your illusions create almost perfect facsimiles of the reflected buildings juxtaposed beside them! What does your art have to say about simulation vs. reality?
Sometimes when I’m cropping those split-world photos I have to look closely to see which one is the puddle and which is the real place, which surprises me. For me, the simulation gets us more interested and invested in the real place. People say my pictures make them miss New York or helps them appreciate its magic on those days the city feels gray and suffocating. So often we are rushing to work or to meet someone and are only vaguely aware of our surroundings. Puddles slow me down and reinvent what I know of the city. Even the same puddle can show me a different world because of light or leaves, a piece of trash. Sometimes I’m bent over a puddle for so long that I have to blink hard and shake my head to remind myself where I am (because NYC can turn into Middle Earth in some cases, or a futuristic sci-fi novel in others).
As a student (and teacher) of the grotesque, what have you learned by examining our city’s fetid urban puddles using an artist’s careful eye?
I’ve argued for a while now that wonder is found in the mundane, and that beauty can be at the center of what we apprehend first only as trash. The split-world cover photo on the latest issue of Epiphany magazine came from one of the foulest smelling puddles that I’ve encountered. I immediately had to throw my clothes into a separate bag for the laundry, they smelled so bad. But that photo really won people’s hearts, and everyone started calling it Batman’s NYC. The purple effect came from a glitch in my camera as it was going into night mode. So it was accident upon accident that created something beautiful. The grotesque is something more than this, of course, because it has to have some aspect of horror, and I really don’t think my art holds that level of fear in any real way.
What sorts of photos/photographers inspire you?
I follow Elizabeth Bourne and Adrianna Amari on Facebook. Both of them do fantastic nature photography. I really appreciate what they do with focus and color.
What else are you working on these days besides photography?
I wish I could say I was writing, but that stalled a bit this year with a move and taking on more adjunct teaching to pay the bills. I have a series of reworked fairytales and folklore I need to get back to.
Have you seen any interesting trash or underground new trends in NYC during your directed wandering and as a result of your hyperfocus on the (temporarily flooded) margins of the city?
I’ve come to appreciate the graffiti that has cropped up in Chelsea since 2020, especially when the same artwork appears in several places. People also leave shoe pairings all around Chelsea in various positions. I see them at least once a week. During peak pandemic it got to be almost once a day.
What is your stance on the spotted lanternfly? Should we all be murdering them like the government says or do they deserve clemency on account of being so pretty and strange? They feel like real New Yorkers to me. But then again, I guess they eat trees and crops or something.
I have a healthy and respectful fear of “invasive species” because I’ve seen what they do in the plant world. Still, I was feeling torn. One night at dinner, we were sitting next to some bushes and the lanternflies kept landing on me with a kind of “thud,” like they were mini bats. So now I’m totally on board with killing them, pretty as they are.
What is your favorite NYC vermin or parasite?
I don’t think anyone would ever say roach, and the only fun rat is Pizza Rat, so I’ll go with the raccoons in Central Park.
How do you feel about Instagram and the seemingly-unstoppable rise of visual social media?
I still don’t understand how to work Instagram, and my photos always get more love on Facebook. I also don’t believe that social media platforms destroy the fabric of our lives. They merely fill in the gap left by the absence of other things. I used to have a community I saw in real life weekly. Now it’s monthly, or every other month, or perhaps twice a year. Did IG or FB create that distance? I doubt it, but I feel the disconnect. I post drafts of my photos on IG story just to get a sense of what it might look like. Then I usually post on Facebook to get another set of reactions, and then I put it into my Picfair store. I also stringently curate most of these platforms to give me news and essays that I can bring to my students.
What’s scarier to you when you are out there working: mosquito bites or bedbugs?
Neither! I am more terrified that I’ll drop my phone into the puddle. I have already lost countless gloves and masks that way.
Nancy Hightower has taught Writing about Art at the University of Colorado, as well as Writing in the Art and Design Professions at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her photography has been published in Epiphany, Cobra Milk, and Cagibi. Her prints can be found at https://nancyhigh.picfair.com/
Miracle Jones is a writer and impresario. He is the co-founding director of Fiction Circus and the co-publisher of Instar Books.