Urban Absurdities

Jay Giampietro's Instagram Photos

By Tanner Tafelski

Each day is a walk on the wild side. On the street and in the parks, characters are still everywhere in New York City. A wiry blonde with a face tattoo of a spider’s web (his Overkill tank-top says what everyone’s thinking) sits on a High Line bench. A gawky bespectacled guy, his mouth caught in a rictus, wears a red stuffed-and-chained lizard on his shoulder. In front of a metal gate, an older man in a wrinkled blue-striped polo hawks a pair of unopened Aim toothpaste tubes.

These are the kinds of people glimpsed askance with curiosity as one goes about one's mundane day-to-day business. They’re also the people that fascinate the filmmaker Jay Giampietro, whose Instagram account (@jaygiampietro) is a collection of hilarious yet all-too-human moments in the city.

“They’re direct. Lots of pop, like circus posters,” says photographer and Instagram user Daniel Arnold.

Lean, with shoulder-length black hair and a groomed but not too groomed gray-streaked beard, Jay looks rather like Kenny Loggins, which is exactly what one man told him during our chat at a Lower East Side café. He looks like “a typical hipster,” something somebody said about him once while he snapped his picture unawares. Looking like everyone else works in Jay’s favor: It enables him to snap iPhone photos of people without them knowing it.

But blending in only works up to a certain point. To get such bold images, Jay uses a method he’s been refining ever since he started his Instagram project three years ago, when he snapped a blurry picture of a forlorn guy carrying two jumbo stuffed cartoon characters under his arms in a New Jersey Transit bus station. “I started pretending that I was talking on the phone, developing this technique of glancing a little bit, pretending like I’m looking for reception. That seemed to work,” he said. His phone placed to the side of his head, parallel to his ear, Jay would take photos while pretending to talk to someone on the other line. “It would be like improvising 101. I just start describing as if I’m talking to my girlfriend about food. ‘Oh yeah, I’m pretty hungry. I can eat. Do you want to eat?’”

If he plans to take pictures, Jay will do it before his job in the evening processing videos for a major corporation. He’ll spend about four hours snapping pictures. Although he does take suggestions from friends about potential hot spots, he often follows a loose route. Since he lives in Brooklyn's Greenpoint, Jay will ride his bike across the Williamsburg Bridge, cut through Tompkins Square Park, and wind up somewhere in the East Village. However, “last summer has been more about Union Square,” he said. More often than not, though, Jay will take some of his best photos — like the one called “Special face,” which captures an older man whose special face resembles a plastic mask — while going to work or completing his daily routines.

When photographing strangers, Jay’s always looking for something particular. “I’m as much as possible trying to capture the essence of what I see and the essence of that person’s energy in the moment.” Jay thinks such an impulse began during his college days at Seton Hall. “I made a video about all these eccentric characters that lived in New Jersey, and one character in particular, who anytime he would see us with a video camera would try to attack us.” News spread about this video, and it became a local cult object. “Everybody knew him — the mayor knew him, the cops knew him. They thought it was really funny, so they would come up to me and be like, ‘Oh man, can I get a copy of the Arnie tape?’”

Just like the Arnie tape, Jay snaps photos of people without their permission, raising questions about voyeurism and exploitation. “Somebody said once about invasion of privacy, but I think right now we’re in this time where the concept of privacy is a really strange thing once you start thinking about it. You have a phone that has apps that are accessing everything about what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. There are cameras everywhere.”

“I like Jay’s photos a lot because there’s humor. I think there’s great humanism and humor,” says photographer David Luraschi. “I don’t think he’s disrespecting these people. I think he’s more praising them than disrespecting them.” If there is any disrespect, it comes from Instagram users, who occasionally write mean, disparaging, mocking comments.

The photos have influenced Jay’s work as a filmmaker. He uses his Instagram account as an image bank from which he selects individual photos to be a “mood board” for his short films. “I think you’re finding tones,” he says about making a movie. “What really fits with the tone? If I’m in a naturalistic movie, what’s real? I’ve seen so much now that I know about these urban absurdities that I’m interested in. Pretty much anything goes.”

In Whiffed Out (2013), a man stresses over a bike he’s holding for a friend of a friend, so much so that he tries to give it away. For the short, Jay borrows imagery from his photos such as people sleeping spread-eagled on park benches. In Hernia (2015), which premiered at the 53rd New York Film Festival last October, a man strains relationships with friends when he persistently wants their sympathy for his possible hernia. An important moment in the film involves a vacuum cleaner. It’s inspired by a photo Jay took about a year ago, “Street cleaner,” in which a baggy, balding, graying man is about to carry a red vacuum onto a MTA bus.

“Look, this is why I like being in New York. This is part of the fabric, these characters and these urban anomalies. I think these people are into it, too,” he added. “There is a performance to a lot of these people I think in general. It’s capturing that part of New York that I guess is a forever lament about it being chipped away at and made extinct.”

Jay’s photos preserve one of New York’s quirks they’re the traces of a bygone era, of the wild Seventies and Eighties. A cast of characters dressed to impress or depress lurk in the shadows of the city. Front and center, caught unawares, they’re the superstars in Giampietro’s photos.

Published May 9th, 2016

Tanner Tafelski is a film and art journalist based in New York City. He specializes in arthouse, horror, avant-garde, underground, and micro-budget cinemas, as well as experimental music.