March 03, 2004
If in the old days you committed suicide by jumping off the top of the Empire State Building people used to respect your privacy but not any more

James Lileks today manages to combine two of my favourite subjects, skyscrapers and cheap digital photography:

Still reading the history of the Empire State Building, and came across a remarkable anecdote. (One or two per page, really – it's such a fine book.) In the 30s the networks broadcast national shows from the toppermost of the ESB, and you imagine what it must have been like to sit in a kitchen in Witchita and listen to a live concert from the 86th floor in Manhattan. What a modern world, full of wonders. Well. WOR had a show called "Microphone in the Sky," which aired at 1 PM, interviewing people on the observation deck. In October 1937 a man standing six feet from the mike threw himself off the deck one minute before air time. Here's the difference between then and now:

"Although the broadcasters were stunned by the suicide, they remained calm, and pleaded with the crowd not to become hysterical. The program went on the air as usual, with no mention of the suicide."

Why? Because people were tuning in to hear a happy Manhattan melody from the top of the ESB, that’s why. And if the broadcasters didn’t say it happened, then for the next half hour it hadn't happened. Such a thing would be impossible now – the announcers would devote the entire show to the event, webcams would catch the fall, people would blog it from the lounge.

And the worst picture of all would be not the man plummeting, but a dozen people leaning over the railing, pointing their cellphones at the man, snapping a photo as he fell to his death.

Could you blame them? The more ubiquitous these things become, the more people’s instincts will shift from horrified helpless onlooker to impromptu archiver of random history.

And why not? - is what I say. I always carry my camera with me, but it does take a bit of a while to get ready, and the first picture is either flash when I don't want flash or no flash when I do. Still, I live in hope of snapping any falling bodies in my immediate vicinity before they land.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:28 PM
Category: ArchitecturePhotography