You Can Take That Picture...Today, Anyway

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Leave it to the damned New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting (MOFTB: Doesn’t it sound like someone cursing in a text message?) and those persnickety civil libertarians to destroy my dreams of wealth and grandeur!

You see, I was all ready to quit my day job and become an independent businesswoman. I was going to cash in insurance policies on which I’ll probably never collect and teach my cats tricks that would’ve wowed the reception hall crowds so I could follow what would’ve been the best business idea in the history of the Big Apple.

Best of all, this plan wouldn’t have involved stocks, bonds, real estate, lotteries or inheritances I didn’t know I had. All it would’ve taken was my love of this city and my slightly-better-than-layman’s understanding of the visual arts.

So what was my grand scheme?, you ask.

I was going to open up a postcard stand next to the Chrysler Building, my favorite structure (along with the Brooklyn and Verrazano-Narrows Bridges) in this fair metropolis. Of course I would have stacked and sold those 3-by-5 images of spotless skyscrapers glistening against azure skies with a turquoise-hued Hudson as a backdrop. I also would have offered films, videos and DVDs of the landmarks tourists visit and copies of famous films like The French Connection, Midnight Cowboy, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Taxi Driver that use the one or all of the five boroughs as their subject or setting.

Just think…I could’ve grown rich and fat (Well, I’ve already accomplished the latter!) from the wallets and purses of tourists bearing pounds, euros and other currencies that make the dollar look like the paper tiger it is.

So what happened? Bowing to pressure from the American and New York Civil Liberties Unions, the MOFTB is "redrafting" a new set of rules that, had they been enacted, would have placed greater restrictions than the current ones that bind photographers, film and video makers, television producers and other kinds of artists and journalists.

The proposed rules would have required city-issued permits for groups of two or more people who wanted to work at a single site for more than thirty minutes, or for groups of five or more who wanted to set up a tripod for ten minutes or more. On one hand, the city issues the permits for free; on the other, anyone who wants such a pass has to have a million dollars’ worth of liability insurance coverage.

To be fair, there are provisions for film students and others who don’t have access to such insurance coverage. And, the MOFTB insists that they are not trying to keep tourists and amateur photographers from capturing their impressions of the Empire State Building or of little Hans or Madame Izumi posing between Patience and Fortitude on the steps of the New York Public Library.

Was the MOFTB naïve or disingenuous in making such a claim? Granted, it’s likely that the vast majority of photos taken are of the "shoot and run" variety and will not be seen by anyone but relatives and friends of the photographer. But among the throngs of tourists are significant numbers of people who, while not professionals, take great care in the way they compose their photos. They may use tripods; very often they are in groups of five or more, and they often linger where they are taking their photos. Then there are any number of hobbyists who expend considerable time, care and sums of money in trying to record people and places as they see them. I often see such photographers along the city’s waterfront, in its parks and around buildings, public sculptures and other structures that don’t look or feel like their counterparts anywhere else. To my knowledge, they are the only ones who capture such things as the oddly bucolic feeling of Wall Street or the Brooklyn and Bronx manufacturing zones on a Sunday.

Perhaps the pictures tourists and amateurs snap don’t enhance the city’s image or enrich its bureaucrats. Still, they are a vital part of life in this city, and hindering them would be an offense to anyone who enjoys the life, if not the politics, of this place.

Hopefully, the next draft of the MOFTB regulations will be more sensible than what was proposed. (I’d prefer no regulations, but I guess we’ll take what we can get.) For that I’d be very happy to give up my grand scheme to make me rich and to spend my life writing, teaching and scholaring. Tough work, but as we say in my neighborhood, somebody’s gotta do it.

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.

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