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Spotlight: Leland Bobbe Photographs NYC's Hard Hat Workers

By David Schonauer   Monday March 4, 2019


New York City constantly reinvents itself.

The towers of Manhattan rise, fall, and are replaced with taller towers, like trees in a forest striving for sunlight. Nature builds forests, but in the city it’s people who do the work. And those people wear hardhats.

It was the hats that first caught the attention of New York-based photographer Leland Bobbé. Over the past year, he began taking pictures of construction workers at lunchtime, when they came down from their lofty perches for food. The result is his series “Hardhats NYC.”

“I thought they really stood out on the street from everyone else — from their hardhats, often with decals that defined their personal style, to bright orange and chartreuse shirts and vests,” he says. “I thought they would be great subjects for street  portraits.”

Bobbé walked the streets with his wife Robin, who has a background in production in both still photography and documentary film, looking for construction sites — not a difficult thing to find in Manhattan. They approached construction workers, offering them $10 dollars and an emailed photo to stand for a portrait. “The majority said yes, but some turned me down,” Bobbé notes.

“We would look for subjects who we thought had a lot of character,” he says. “We told them it would take about 5 to 10 minutes and that there was a simple release to sign. Before I shot them, Robin would take an iPhone shot of the subject holding the filled out release so I would know who was who.” The iPhone portraits served another function, as well: “We would show the workers samples on our iPhones, which definitely helped convince them to let us take their pictures,” Bobbé adds.

Bobbé shot the portraits with a Nikon D700 and a 35mm lens — meaning he had to get very close to his subjects on the hectic New York sidewalks. He used an off-camera fill flash fitted with a compact beauty dish to light the workers and separate them from the background.

“What's interesting about the portraits is that some decorate their hardhats with stickers, others add decorations, dependent on the season,” noted Creative Boom recently. “Some offer a broad smile, others present themselves more professionally. What's universally clear is what you can see in each person's eyes – a sense of pride and job satisfaction to be employed and contributing to something that will most definitely leave a legacy.”

“The most challenging part for me was having to shoot fast while engaging the subjects and constantly having to come up with background variations,” says Bobbé. “Also — and it is common shooting on the streets of NYC — having to wait for traffic light changes and trying to avoid distracting elements on the street that constantly change.”

Bobbé has searched the streets for other New York City characters in the past, including the women of Fifth Avenue. His series “Half Drag” featured portraits of drag queens as half male and half female.

He new series underscores the humanity that is the foundation of the glass-and-steel towers reaching to the New York sky.

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