The Sidewalk Ballet
Photographs by Melissa O’Shaughnessy
The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) is pleased to present a collection of street photography by Melissa O’Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy’s work captures people as they move with and around one another through New York’s built environment. The exhibition is inspired by Jane Jacobs’ concept of the sidewalk ballet, the vitality and character that pedestrians bring to urban public space just by the act of moving through it.
“The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with improvisations.” – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
I have always loved taking long walks around New York City, and in 2014 I started bringing a camera with me. Several days a week I head out with neither a plan nor a preconceived notion about what I might find, keeping my eyes and heart open to the ballet unfolding on the sidewalk in front of me. I’m always ready to click the shutter when something catches my attention, be it a flicker of emotion on a face, a puff of wind lifting a lock of hair, a gentle bond between a mother and daughter, or an accidental lockstep dance of unrelated passersby. For an observer open to chance encounters, New York City is a generous place.
About the Artist
Melissa O’Shaughnessy was born in 1960 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and studied at Georgetown University and the University of St. Thomas, graduating with a degree in journalism. She is now a photographer based in New York City. Her work has been featured in numerous international exhibitions and publications, and is included in the book Bystander: A History of Street Photography and the recently published Women Street Photographers. She is a member of UP Photographers, a collective of 25 international street photographers. Her first monograph, Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs, was published by Aperture in October 2020.