New York Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival
March 27th 2016
Every year on Easter Sunday 5th Avenue in Manhattan is closed between 49th and 57th streets for the annual Easter parade. This is an event that has taken place since the 1870s, originally it was a religious festival that focused on the extensive decorating of churches with floral displays. It seems to have quickly developed from this beginning to a parade of people in their Sunday best adorned with flowers. As early as 1873 a newspaper reported on the number of ladies “who displayed all the gorgeous and marvelous articles of dress”. By the 1880s the Easter parade had become a vast spectacle of fashion and religious observance. It was an after church event where the rich in their new and fashionable clothing would stroll from their own church to see the extensive floral displays. At the same time people from the poorer class would observe the parade to learn the latest trends in fashion.
Since the mid twentieth century the religious aspects of the parade have disappeared leaving an event where people dress up in Easter or New York themed fancy dress, ideally wearing an outrageous hat. The parade is very much an event created by the people taking part, there is nothing organised other that the street being closed. Anyone turn up in fancy dress and process up and down 5th avenue stopping to talk to friends or just admiring other people’s outfits. Crowds of onlookers turn up making hard to move up and down the street. Photographers from NYC and beyond to capture take part in what is a very photogenic fun family event.
I often end up going on holiday around Easter and I had seen the parade several times in the past and I thought that it would make a great subject for this assignment. The brief for the assignment is:
“The object of this assignment is to plan and execute a set of images of people in some form of meaningful activity. This could be work, sport, a stage performance (music, drama), or at a social event.
You should produce a set of approximately 10 final, selected images, and you can choose between depicting the same person (or small group) at different kinds of activity, or different people at the same single activity or event.
Concentrate especially on two aspects: on telling moments, and on ‘explaining’ the activity (which means choosing viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible).”
I am not sure that I would describe the Easter Parade as a “meaningful” activity but it is certainly a social event. My intention in these pictures was to depict some of the different groups of people who attend and their different styles of dress.
Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday
To start with a hat in the shape of the Chrysler building and a Marylin Monroe look alike wearing the headdress from the statue of liberty combined with a halter necked dress with that is reminiscent of the famous scene, filmed a few blocks from the parade route, in the film the seven-year itch where Marylin’s dress is blown skywards as she crosses a subway grating. Maybe blue is the wrong colour for the dress but this picture captures the essence of the parade, in many ways a celebration of New York by people who just want to have fun.
The background of the lower floors of tall buildings and the US flag give some sense of location but it would have been better had there been a more building that was recognizable as a New York Landmark behind the figures.
As well as the fancy dress there is some sense of the crowds that attend this event in this picture that is missing in some of the later pictures. At an event like this I find it very tempting to tightly frame the subject at the expense of ensuring that the figures have a well-defined context around them.
Developing the theme of movies these three are channeling Wayne’s World which I believe was filmed in Chicago and not New York but they do seem to be having fun and the flowers from another reveller’s hat in the foreground provide a link to the flower theme that features in many people fancy dress. Much as I like this group they could be in fancy dress anywhere in the world and because of this I did agonise about including this picture
When this parade first started the new spring flowers that appear around Easter were key to the event and floral hats and outfits are worn by many of the people taking part. The portrait below is one of my favourite pictures of the event, the woman’s outfit has a sense of Victorian style with restrained floral accompaniment that harks back to the earlier times. The picture also has a nice soft tone because woman was in shade as was the facade building behind her. Thus, in this picture I didn’t have to fight to control the hash shadows caused by the late-morning sun or a figure in shade with a bright background behind them. The lighting is tricky at this event because the tall buildings along 5th Avenue mean that parts of the street are in deep shadow and others in bright and the crowds mean it is often hard to get in the right position to get the best lighting.
At the other extreme, there are giant floral hats like the one below that shades the wearers face so much she could almost be trying to hide herself.
It is Easter so the Easter bunny must play a key role in the proceedings, I love this moment where the man on the left is having his photograph taken mimicking the expression on the bunny mask.
People even dress up their pets, I’m not sure this dog is too happy perhaps he would rather be chasing rabbits than being dress up as the Easter bunny?
Everywhere you go today people are taking selfies and the Easter parade is no exception, I like the way the woman’s colourful outfit, yellow coat, orange jumper and mock animal skin skirt contrasts with the mono tone outfits behind her. You could almost imagine that the models in the giant pictures on the Armani Exchange store in the back ground are looking down approvingly. After I looked at this picture for a while I realised that is another story here, the phone the woman is using has a picture of Jesus stuck to the back of it with the words “Jesus I trust in you!” underneath it. What she is doing here is taking a selfie with St. Patricks Cathedral in the background and perhaps she is so dressed up because when has just been to a service. Although I like this picture perhaps if I had walked few yards further and got a picture with the Cathedral in the background it would have been better but if I had done that I would have missed the moment she took her selfie
A picture for their album, a selfie in front of the main entrance to St Patricks Cathedral, watching couple take selfies is often interesting because invariable one person looks happier than the other. Here the man holding the selfie stick looks to have a forced smile and the woman looks a little pensive. It is almost like this is a ritual that neither of them is comfortable with.
As well as the Selfie crowd, there are people who want to pose with people or groups of people in striking fancy dress. I think this was a tourist who just wanted to be photographed with this family group in their matching floral and Easter egg hats. This would have been a good family group picture but the normality this outsider in his blue anorak and check shirt adds to the sense of absurdity of the scene.
It seems fitting to finish with this group of friends with hats based on the theme of amusement park rides with an Easter twist. When I saw this group I immediately though of Coney Island the famous amusement park across the water in Brooklyn. Perhaps that was their inspiration but perhaps it was not but to me this picture will always make me think of the fading glory that is Coney Island.
Reflections on this Assignment
I selected the pictures in this assignment to tell the story of the New York Easter Parade and overall I believe that I have succeeded. Before I settled on this story approach I thought of others eg a set the best street portraits I took on the day but although that would have let me include some other strong images it would not have fully fulfilled the brief. Generally, I am happy with the set of pictures submitted although some are certainly stronger than others.
I really like the first picture of the woman dress like Marilyn Monroe and her friend dress as the Chrysler building I think this captures the location and theme of the event. The second picture showing the ‘Wayne’s world’ charters seen through the flowers on another person hat appealed to me as a fun picture, the three characters all look as if they are really enjoying the event, the strong sunlight made this a bit of a challenge to post process and like many of the pictures I took on the day might have been improved if it had been a cloudy day giving a softer light.
I really liked the picture of the woman in the white outfit with the mauve flowers, she has some a wonderful expression. And the hat frames her face well. The big challenge with this picture was retaining some detail in the white dress and hat without making her face too dark, I think the balance I have is ok but I keep looking at the picture and thinking maybe I should make some more tweaks but I am not sure I could really make it much better and I believe I have spent enough time on it.
Extending the theme of flowers the fourth picture captures portrait of a woman in a completely over the top floral hat, to me this image reflects on the excesses that sometimes creep into American culture. In retrospect, perhaps this picture would have been better if I had pulled back a bit and included some background to give the picture some context?
The six picture of the man imitating the expression on the Easter bunny mask next to him really emphasises everything this event is about; Easter, fun, dressing up. Maybe the man in the balloon hat in the right of the frame is a little distracting perhaps I could have darkened that part of the frame. Overall I think this figure adds context to the frame and he is already dark enough not to distract from the two main figures and together with the person appearing in the left of the picture he provides a frame to the main characters.
I included the seventh picture of the dog dressed up with bunny ears in a pushchair to illustrate the absurdity of the whole event although perhaps it also says a lot about New Yorkers and their dogs. Originally this picture included the owner pushing the pushchair but, as shown on the left. However, despite my best efforts at post processing it didn’t really work.The owner’s face was in deep shadow and the pregnant woman in the background in the white jacket dominated the frame. I wanted the dog to be the star of this picture but the original composition draws the viewer to the three people in the top half of the frame. Cropping the people out and focusing on the dog produced a much more successful picture.
I love the picture of the well-dressed woman with the bunny ears on taking a selfie, I wish I could have got St Patricks cathedral in the background to complete the story in this image but even without that I believe it is a strong image. It was getting towards mid-day when I took this picture and the harsh sunlight illuminating the woman is not ideal but the strong colours in her outfit go some way to mitigating this.
I think their expression make the picture of the couple taking the selfie with St Patricks in the background. In some ways, this comments on the entire selfie culture point out that taking pictures like this is now a ritual and perhaps something that people no longer really enjoy. Will the picture this couple have taken say “we had a great time in New York” or will it just be a boast saying “we have been to 5th Avenue and seen St. Patricks cathedral”?
I thought the picture of the man in the blue jacket standing next to the family wearing the matching Easter hats is weakest in this set. I included it because it shows people gate crashing family groups to have their picture taken. Perhaps there is a different story here, the man is a relative, friend, work colleague… ? I tried to make this a stronger image using different crops but I couldn’t make a significant improvement. I quite like the square crop below because it eliminates a lot of the background but I feel it is spolit by the man in the background on the write with the white hair who really distracts the view from the contrast on the left side.
I chose final picture of the people wearing the hats representing funfair rides because they show the lengths people go to construct hats for this event. Also in the New York area Coney Island is somewhere everyone goes at some stage in their life, although perhaps it is less well known in the UK. I started this set of pictures with one that represented American icons (Marilyn Munroe, the statue of liberty and the Chrysler building) so it seemed appropriate to finish with a representation of an iconic place. Even without this symbolism I like this picture of the group but again it is suffering from the harsh lighting, this was one of the last pictures I took on the day before the crowds and sunlight got too much and I decided to go and get lunch.
Overall I believe that these are strong pictures and together they tell the story of the event. Although I planned my shoot carefully things didn’t quite work out as planned. I had originally planned to check out of my hotel very early (we were flying home on Easter Sunday) to be able to get shots in the early morning light (at least before the Sun got high enough to shine over the builds down to street level) but a trip to go and buy an extra suitcase to be able to pack everything we had purchased meant I start and hour or so later than planned which meant I missed the early stages of the parade when there are less people and a softer light because most of the street is in shadow.