The Algonquin Hotel is an historic New York City property situated on 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, about  two blocks from Times Square.  Built in 1902, the Algonquin is probably most noted for the Round Table, a regular lunchtime gathering of brilliant young literary types including Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, and George S. Kaufman, who set the standard for witty, acerbic criticism. (Parker’s reviews are known, for instance, for such gems as “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force;” “Miss Hepburn’s performance ran the emotional gamut from A to B;” and “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”)

I stayed one night at the Algonquin, during a ten-day series of seemingly endless board of directors meetings in New Brunswick, NJ. New Brunswick is, mercifully, less than an hour’s train ride from New York, and a one-day break in the PowerPoint festivities gave me the opportunity to abandon New Jersey and see a Broadway show (it was the utterly brilliant “Follies” revival, with Bernadette Peters, if you must know). Being dedicated to personal comfort and convenience, I decided to spend the night in the city, and take the train back to hell–er, New Jersey–the following morning. And the Algonquin is where I stayed.

The Algonquin is small and charming, and the rooms even smaller and more charming. My room, for instance, was exactly large enough to contain a full-size bed with just enough space to walk around it. My view (and here, at last, we get to the meat of this thing) was of the air shaft. For those of you unfamiliar with New York urban design, all residential buildings erected after 1871 were required to have a window opening to the outside in every unit. Since not all apartments could be on the front, with charming views of parks and the skyline, space was left between buildings that would otherwise have abutted each other at the sides and back. The result is the air shaft: a tall, undecorated brick-lined well punctured with windows and accented by ductwork, ventilation systems, and exposed plumbing, with a patch of sky just visible if you twist your head the right way.

But this is supposed to be about photography, though, and not about urban design or architecture or literary history, so I’ll get to the point.

In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about being the “attentive eye,” that finds how “each moment of the year has its own beauty and…beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before and shall never be seen again.” I don’t know about the “never before/never again” bit, since my room at the Algonquin presumably has a pretty rapid turnover rate, but the bit about finding beauty in each moment is relevant. That’s because, to me, there was stunning and stark beauty outside my window; it was only necessary to get past the “oh damn I don’t have a nice view” response, and really start looking:

Air shaft at night

There was, for instance, a large steel tube running up the side of the shaft. Whether this was for ventilation, or heat, or a garbage chute I have no idea. What I do know is that it photographed well:

Close up of steel chute

But look again at that first photo of the air shaft. I honestly didn’t notice it at the time, but only when I was safely back in Southern California cropping the photos in Photoshop. Look closely: just above the water tank on the roof of a neighboring building, there’s a bright pink room. The whole photo is very muted (it was, in fact, around 11PM when I took this photo, so it was about as dark as New York gets, and the exposure  (0.8 at f/3.5) was challenging for a hand-held shot), but there’s a bright pink window in the upper right.

To me, it’s a mysterious and evocative little detail. It makes me wonder who lives there, and why their room is so garish, and what exactly goes on up there. The neighboring rooms aren’t festively colored, just that one. Is it a one-window studio apartment inhabited by an uninhibited Bohemian artist, with beaded curtains and furnished in eclectic thrift-store chic? A prostitute’s bedroom? A little girl’s nursery? A lonely woman clinging tragically to her youth? The gamut of possibilities runs considerably farther than Dorothy Parker’s estimation of Hepburn’s acting.

It’s a tiny detail in the overall image, but it lends itself to the title: “The Pink Room.” What I like about that title is that it forces the observer to look for the detail that gives the photo its name. At first glance, a nighttime view of an air shaft should be called “Air Shaft, Night, 43” or something. “The Pink Room” suggests a lot of other possibilities not entirely expected.

This makes me think that maybe I’ll write about titling photos someday. But for now, it’s really all about this one: Finding the strange and mysterious little pink window in the vaster image of exposed brick and steel and window air conditioners. Being a photographer is about being Emerson’s “attentive eye,” after all. I would have been prouder had I noticed the pink window when I was taking the picture, but I was honestly thinking more about the air shaft as a whole: how to frame its lines and textures and perspective in my viewfinder, and how to hold the camera still for a long exposure in the dark, and how to avoid reflections in the glass window I was shooting through. I was distracted by all those “big picture” considerations from the very real, very interesting bit that, in the end, made the photo unique.

And that, I guess, is the moral of this story: You may think you’re taking a picture of one thing, only to find out later that you were really taking an altogether different picture. And that’s OK: the finding of the real “thingness” of what’s being photographed is as much a part of the photographer’s art as finding beauty in places and things that run contrary to established norms of aesthetic beauty, like air shafts for instance.

Allerton Hotel, Chicago, air shaft at night