Category Archives: Anthropology

Mostly Amazing Strangers

How to Document your Park

Aug 3, 2016
Hello Bob,

My names Atilio and I’m a 24 year old living in Calgary Alberta up north in Canada! I’m a huge fan and have been following your art for the last few years. I've been into photography for a few years now and after lot of thought and inspiration from your work I've decided I want to branch off into anthropology as well.

Calgary has a few locations not too different from Union Square and I’m going to try and create a documentary about the people of these areas. I was hoping I could get some advice from you as your art has been a huge factor in my decision to start this project!

I've never created a doc and really have no idea what I’m doing! What kind of equipment do you use for your videos and any advise that would help make the locals more receptive to being recorded and photographed? i hope to hear back from you and id really appreciate your time.

Best wishes,
-Atilio

 

Hey Atilio,
I'm definitely pleased to hear that I've inspired you to do something similar to what I was doing at Union.

Interestingly enough, when I first found myself at the Square I had no plans at all about documenting it in any way. I just fell in love with that park the minute I saw it. It was such an amazing place for people watching. It's those two factors that made it a great documentary possibility. #1 Amazing people watching. #2 Falling in love with the place.

It wasn't until after a couple years into hanging out there I realized I had to have a camera to start filming what I was witnessing there. At first I bought cheap little cameras that didn't exceed $200 and took mediocre photos, and really crappy videos. Mind you, this was around 2004 before digital photography & HD videos got as popular and affordable as they are now. And I'd already had the online presence with Jesus Dressup so I was ready with a platform to showcase my work.

Looking back, the thing I had most in my favor in regards to making people receptive to being photographed, and/or simply allowing me to shoot what I wanted whenever I wanted, was seniority. The more time I spent at that park and the more years that passed, the more comfortable I felt, and the people there just got used to me always being there. They'd even approach me wanting to be interviewed. Then when it came to filming the eccentric regulars like Wendell, Signs or the crusty punks who'd normally shun photographers, I was able to develop a relationship with them before pulling out the camera at all. As time passed and I reached the 8 to 10 year mark I was permitted to film almost whatever I wanted because the people there simply knew who I was, what I was doing, and were even there to back me up if I looked like I might be getting a bit nosey to someone unfamiliar with me. Then it wasn't until probably 2012 or so that I really developed a skill for interviewing. Now that I think about it, that started with me interviewing Shaggy for Year In Reviews. That's probably when I discovered I could basically use the same method of getting information out of anyone.

It also didn't hurt making it all into a game on the postcards to get people involved. Having something tangible to show gave me credit of sorts when approaching strangers and getting them interested in being interviewed on camera.

Around 2008 or so, after the Amazing Strangers section of my site started to actually get noticed by making the Peepers famous I had a fan email me telling me to "Check your PO Box." When I got to the post office, inside waiting for me was a brand new $500 Canon Powershot SX50 HS. I asked the anonymous emailer why he got it for me and what he wanted in return for such an expensive gift. He simply replied "I'm sick of watching the crappy quality of your stuff, but I love what you're doing there." All I had to do was promise him I'd continue to document and upload NYC for him to see. That began my love for the Canon Powershot. And it's the 2012 model that I prefer most. It has the most dependable mic, the farthest zoom reach, and has lasted the longest of the followup models I bought later.

As for editing, I've always just preferred the iMovie program that came with my Mac. As long as I was able to move audio & video around easily, and maybe a few special effect options like slow motion and fading clips together I had all I needed. All of it I found easy to teach myself over the years.

Since I started the one thing I wish I would have invested in earlier would have to be external hard drives. I've lost plenty of photos and videos that I'd give anything to have back simply because I was a cheapskate and put off buying something to back everything up on. Now I have a stack of them, and I'm so pleased to have everything safely saved in several places. In my opinion getting something like a 3 terabyte Toshiba is easily affordable, will store years and years of footage, and could save you lots of heartache in the future.

I think the biggest challenge for you will be finding a place as easy to find subject matter as Union Square was for me. I've asked people from all over the world (who were visiting NYC) if they've ever seen a park like Union in their travels, and almost unanimously the response has been, "Nope. Not like this." But I'd be really interested to see what you can come up with there in Calgary Alberta, Canada. I've yet to see anyone else documenting a park like I have, and to me it seems like an obvious hobby for any filmographer out there.

Thank you for the compliments. I hope I answered your questions thoroughly enough!
Normal Bob

 

Thank you so much for the advice Bob! I was not expecting such a thorough reply I greatly appreciate it! 

I hope to start this project soon after some more investigation into the different areas of my city. Luckily I have almost identical equipment to your own but I'll definitely be picking up a hard drive for back ups! It's awesome to hear about the gifted camera and doesn’t surprise me at all your works incredible and you have a lot of fans! 

Once i get this whole thing kicked off I want you to know you’ll be credited in any video I produce and I’m absolutely honored to be mentioned on your site! thanks again for everything bob! 

Best wishes,
-Atilio

 

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Jolly Cat

goofy man cartoon
Hat In The Cat Matchgame Postcard art

It seems even when I’m far far away the Amazing Strangers continue on with their lives, and the drama of Union Square moves forward without even the slightest bit of nudging from yours truly.
Last Christmas I got a distressed email from the one and only Jolly Cat himself accusing me of slander for the videos I’d been posting of him over the years. He emailed me years prior about removing them and I politely obliged. But then he kept showing back up at the park and doing the exact same show for us again and again! So I put them back up.  Then finally,  back in December he sent me another email, and it went something exactly like this:

Hi Bob,
I noticed after you deleted my videos you posted them back up. This is slander and here is why. My characters actually bring lots of laughter and joy to many ppl and receive big applauses but on some days like when you caught me in the park ppl weren't laughing and I looked really bad. It is a false representation of what I do.

I am letting my manager know about this and if you don't delete all my videos he will contact you with the next steps we must take. I hope we can handle it now.

Sincerely, Vinny Hat in Cat
Dec 29, 2015

In response to this I decided that the videos weren’t all that important to me, so I took them down and replied:

Jolly Cat
Good to hear from you! I don't believe it's slander to show video of you not making people laugh. Maybe if you were making them laugh and I edited it so they weren't. But showing exactly what happened isn't lying, or slander, or any kind of deceit at all. It's showing what happened. There's nothing illegal or protected about showing video of public performances.

The problem is that you're blaming the audience instead of your act. I thought that was the joke? Apparently not.

Normal Bob
Dec 29, 2015

Despite all of this I granted his request.
Now, 6 months later, what do I see? Jolly Cat performing his trademarked act on America’s Got Talent with exactly the same results I witnessed every single time at the park. And here is that amazing video.

The way I found out about this AGT video was Shaggy calling me up frantically asking “Where are all your Hat in the Cat videos?!? I can’t find them!”

After explaining why I took them down Shaggy showed me Jolly Cat’s television debut. My jaw dropped, and then I put them all back up again.

I’m sure I’ll probably hear from him again, but none of what I filmed was edited or taken out of context. It’s what Shaggy, I and many others had to bare witness to when he chose to perform in front of us. So with great pleasure I bring you back to the Original Hat in the Cat, more famously known as “Jolly Cat” as we all know him from Union Square NYC!

And to Jolly Cat – I think the burden is on you (or better yet, your manager) to produce and distribute video of you making people laugh. It is not my responsibility. I mean, if I do not witness it, it is impossible for me to film it. Right? And portraying your show as something other than what I see would be committing High Perjury! Then I’d have to let my manager know about this so he could contact your manager about taking the next steps in regards to all of this. Anyhow I’m also happy to promote the video you asked me to promote in this video.

Jolly Cat’s “A Wacky Love Story” feature he promoted in the previous video.

And this is the first time I ever saw and recorded Jolly Cat back in Feb 2009.

Found Year

Amazing Strangers Wendell iconI had the most incredible thing happen this Memorial Day Weekend and no one seems to, or could possibly appreciate it as much as I. Years ago, the winter of 2013-14, during a sorting and cleaning house process with my external hard drives, I mistakenly threw out 2013. People have asked me if I’ve lost footage I’ve shot over time, and that answer is, God, yes. This time it included every photo and video I shot in 2013. And the 2 seconds after I emptied that trashcan I knew exactly what I’d done. It was terrible.

I called my friend Greg and he told me to bring that hard drive over and he’d retrieve what he could. But another mistake I made was while searching for it in panic mode I moved stuff back and forth on hard drives which unbeknownst to me makes what I tossed even more difficult to retrieve. Anyhow, I took it all to Greg, and he couldn’t get the bulk of it. Most the photos were saved, but all he could restore of all the videos were thumbnails. It was heartbreaking. So I made a new folder for 2013 where I put all this so at the very least I’d have record of what I lost. And every time I went there in the months and years to follow I’d see these incomplete folders and my heart would break all over again.

The one thing this tragedy did do was make me commit, from that day forward to back stuff up better. The other commitment I made after this was to shoot enough footage from here on to dwarf what had been lost.

So now here I am in Michigan with finally the time, quiet and mindset to get back into organizing and editing old videos that I’ve had stored away for so long. By the way, I’ve got sooooo much unused, unseen footage now I could post a new video a week for the next year and still have more left over. And it’s quality footage too, as you might have seen from the stuff I’ve been posting lately. It’s insane how much I’ve accumulated over a decade.

Anyhow, this last weekend I was going through old hard drives (I have several) and buried in a folder within a folder within another folder, deep down in the matrix of my files was one titled 2013. My heart skipped a beat. And upon opening it, low and behold there was the entire 2013 year of photos and videos, just sitting there! Lord knows how or why. I don’t remember backing it up there, but that was also a time when I was trying to be a responsible photographer, and, my god, it paid off. I’m just overjoyed.

I’ve really been getting into going back through all this stuff and giving it new life. The process is helping my brain hone in on this project’s future. I’m able to see more clearly where this is going, what I’ll do down the line to complete these stories, and what it all might look like. I’ve contacted my friend Neil Abramson who shot the Bob Smith movie back in 2003 to see if he might have any interest in working on this with me. He also has footage of Shaggy and me when we first met that year which never made it to his final movie, but would be perfect for this. Either way though, I’m going to make something happen. I just need time.

Union Square Amazing Strangers group photo postcard front& back  Quantity 1 postcard $2.00 USD 2 postcards $3.50 USD 8 postcards $11.00 USD 12 postcards $12.00 USD
Union Square Amazing Strangers group photo postcard front& back

In all this Union Square nostalgia I finally made a new postcard! This one’s different though. What I did was take every character I ever put on the Matchgame postcards from the past and gathered them for a group photo at the illustrated park. You’d have to be the most obsessive Amazing Strangers nerd to name them all, but I tell ya, it’s beautiful. It’s about twice the size of a normal store-bought postcard, and the back is the standard for mailing, but includes the Wendell Head logo I drew last year. They really are quite impressive, and I’ve put them up for sale in my store. The other match game cards are all gone except for the 2013 one. I’ve got this up for sale too for as long as they last.

wendell, postcard
Wendell with the new Union Square postcard given to him by Shaggy

If your cartoon image actually appears on this group shot card I will mail you it  for free! You have to prove to me somehow you’re the person you say you are, and give me a mailing address, but I’ll happily send one to you no charge under those conditions.

I’ve been speaking to Shaggy on an almost weekly basis and he’s still visiting Union daily. But he’s also said the parks completely changed. He described the change as freaky. None of the regulars from the past hang around any more. The groups like the junkies, homeless kids, crusties and other weirdos aren’t there any more. And in Shaggy’s own words “Union is no different now than any other park in NYC.” I’m not sure how much of that has to do with me leaving, or the direction it was already headed that nudged me towards leaving, but the combination of both are probably what did it. If you go there and find otherwise please let me know. But for now this is the news from Union Square.

Now here’s some more of that 2013 year I thought was lost forever.

Good & Bad News from the Square

Amazing Strangers Wendell iconThis week I got both. Some good news, and some bad news, in videos from the Square.
Which do you want first? The good news? All right. That’s easy. Kameltoe has a new music video out and it’s adorable! It’s a crime that it’s only got 226 views! We gotta change that.

Now for the bad news 🙁 And it’s a crime too. Only, the sad kind.
I woke up Friday the 13th with everybody and their grandmother emailing me the link to this. Jeremy back in trouble again, punching a girl in the face at Times Square for not paying.

People in the comments under his videos were always telling me to try and talk some sense into the kid before he gets out of hand. Shaggy and I did just that. Often! I just didn’t post the videos of it figuring it wouldn’t help his situation any. But it’s almost a year to the day we shot this. We could see it coming before it happened, and couldn’t do anything about it.

God, they even caught the punch on sky-cam, and set it to creepy music no less. It’s not good. If the Chief of Police is having a televised press conference about you, it means you’ve crossed the line one too many times and they’re going to throw the book at you. So I thought maybe showing us with Jeremy last year lecturing him on this might at least complete the picture somehow. He’s not your typical thug. “Hug Thug” one network called him! Christ.

But fact is, if you have someone who can’t help themselves from punching girls (or anyone, for that matter) you can’t having them Free Hugging on the streets every day. They have to face the consequences of their actions.

I’ll let you know as I find out any more on this, and you’re welcome to do the same for me.