Twice a year, just before and just after the summer solstice, the setting sun aligns perfectly with the Manhattan street grid illuminating both the north and the south sides of every cross street. This phenomenon is called Manhattanhenge, a term coined by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History. For photographers that know what they’re doing with a camera, they can capture the most magnificent light shining through the glass and steel canyons. If you’re hoping to find images like that here, read no further.
Manhattanhenge first occurs around Memorial Day, this year that was on May 29 and 30. The weather was lousy both days so the magnificence was a no show. The second time it happened was during Major League Baseball’s All-Star break, this week on July 11 and 12. Skies were clear. The best locations to take pictures are wide cross streets where one can see straight through to New Jersey: 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd and 57th Streets.
On Monday evening, July 11, when I was walking up West 72nd Street en route to the subway, I noticed a guy walking ahead of me carrying a nice digital camera. I was certain he was going to shoot Manhattanhenge photos, so I decided it would behoove me to follow him. Was he going to take his pictures on 72nd Street? I felt sucker punched when he turned right on Broadway and entered Trader Joes.
I entered the subway station where I caught the 1 local to 59th Street. Fifteen minutes later, I joined a crowd of fellow sunset chasers at 57th and Broadway. Many were chumps like me, prepared to shoot pictures with just their iPhones. Several seemed content to just take selfies. I observed one guy with an ancient point and shoot camera that he carried in a plastic sandwich bag. Possibly, when he’s not using it, he stores it the cupboard next to the mustard.
I exchanged small talk with Megan, a very personable young woman who told me that she had just arrived from Dublin, Ireland the week before; this was her first time visiting New York. She was here for a year. I thought that was wonderful. Here she was in this dynamic city that never sleeps, mixing with the nerds. I wanted to ask her if she had seen the film, Brooklyn, about a young Irish woman who visits New York, but I suffered a brain freeze and inconveniently blanked on the word, “Brooklyn.”
What I predominantly observed as I stared at the sun was fierce retina burn and this fleshy fellow lugging tons of camera gear running frantically from the curb to the center of the street several times while angry motorists honked their horns.
I was fully prepared to photograph him bouncing off the hood of a taxi.
By sunset, the street was flooded with onlookers raising their cameras upward and West, in observance of the magnificent glow of the radiant round ball. Unfortunately, my best shot at that magical moment resembled a study of runny scrambled eggs.
The next day, Tuesday, July 12, with my iPhone SE in my pocket and invisible bucket of insanity planted on my head, I returned to 57th Street. That evening, the sight was a half sun setting on the grid. I decided I would try my luck one block further east at 57th and Seventh Avenue, across the street from Carnegie Hall.
The slight change of surroundings did not reveal a vastly different result, but I hit some button on my phone that produced images that were indeed better, or more accurately, better on the low end of mediocre.
As for seeing the enchanting sight of a half sun setting on the grid, even though I was there, somehow I completely missed it.
As I was leaving, I realized that all was not lost. Something did catch my eye: this guy’s satchel.
So I set out to photograph a natural phenomenon and end up with an image of a sling bag shaped like a station wagon that can hold a six-pack. That’s not something I see everyday. It’s comforting to know that I was finally in the right place at the right time to get that shot.