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The pandemic has helped photographer Robin Riley to rediscover her love for the work that brought her to New York City in the first place. Here’s her West Side Story
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I moved here in 1996 from Kentucky to work in the photography business. It was what Gen Xers from the midwest did to escape the bible belt.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
I was living in Brooklyn and my landlords asked me to move out as they wanted to renovate their brownstone. I moved in with my boyfriend at the time, back in 2003. The apartment had been rented by friends of his while they went to Colombia ten years earlier, and various friends had rotated in or out over the years. The apartment was called The Lungden, because that’s what the landline phone number spelled and because there was a lot of pot smoking. We had parties with people crammed in wall-to-wall. It was a lot of fun at the time but the apartment was a real mess too. Over the years my ex moved out and my husband moved in. We did some fixing up and it’s turned into a lovely home.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
I love that it’s a small neighborhood in a big city. I have met my best friends here and I love walking out the door and seeing friends. You can’t beat the restaurants, the proximity to the park and museums. In 1990 I did a study abroad and had never been to NYC. The airplane was coming in to land at JFK and tipped over midtown Manhattan all aglow at dusk. I looked down and knew I had to live here someday.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
Ninth Avenue traffic jams where you can’t safely cross the street. Idiots from New Jersey who should have taken public transportation, sitting there with one hand on the horn.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
We were here for all of it. The eerie quiet in the beginning was upsetting but seeing spring bloom from day to day was wonderful and I grew to love the time to rest and focus on my career.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
Pre-COVID I was shooting restaurants, food, markets and portraits for Booking.com, the city of New York and others. I was spinning my wheels with bigger demands from clients while day rates went down. The pandemic allowed me to stop and take a sideways turn to something I had always wanted to do — sell my images as fine art. I took a few months to re-edit and be creative, adding mixed media to my images. Then I built a website and am now selling to customers directly. I hope to get my images in with home decor lines and am working on getting my work in front of product buyers. Strangely, I have worked more hours a week through COVID than I had for years but I have found it exciting. I’ve learned so much and it feels like the right path.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
I had lost my love for photography over the years and have rediscovered how much I truly love it again. I’ve been shooting for pleasure and I feel rejuvenated.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
I was here for 9/11 and my attitude has always been to be safe and get through this. New Yorkers are tough! I traveled a ton pre-COVID and now spend a lot of time on Google Maps, walking the streets of Rome or in Provence looking at vineyards. Going to see new places again someday is a great motivator in remaining calm and healthy right now.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
A few years back I was coming home late from a club and actually stepped on a rat in front of my building. Luckily not too hard. It squeaked at me loudly (I’m walking here!), ran off and I kept on going. THAT is the test of being a real New Yorker! 🙂
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
I have met dozens of famous people. I’m usually surprised by how small celebrities are!
I worked on Vin Diesel’s first movie when I moved to NYC. I was once at a party with Mick Jagger — a hush goes across the room! Another time, Michael Stipe and I eyed each other at an event. I almost ran Alan Cumming over on 8th by Studio 54 when he was doing Cabaret. A split-second different and that night’s show would have been off!
What’s your superpower?
I’m what’s called a tetrachromat. I see more color than the average person. I also have synesthesia, which means colors have taste to me. As a kid, I was always trying to eat crayons and paint.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel. My English husband took me to the real Solsbury Hill when we were dating. It was near-impossible to get to and was more or less a field of cows with Bath in the distance. And yes, I married him. That’s a keeper.
Which people inspire you the most?
My friend Jordan, a professor at Fordham, who literally does everything well and has the best heart. We co-parent brother dogs.
It’s Women’s History Month! So… Jane Burden Morris grew up poor in 1850s England, married William Morris after a chance encounter, was a muse to him, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and other artists. She learned to speak French and Italian, was a voracious reader, learned how to play the piano and was an adept artist. She had many lovers, was friends to suffragists and a brilliant circle of friends and helped run Morris & Co after her husband’s death. She was the influence for My Fair Lady, according to Wiki.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list” ~ Voltaire
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
Mixed feelings. I’ve liked it a lot more during COVID, but otherwise, I think it’s the home of New York’s least imaginative tourists.
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
It seems designed to please rich people and doesn’t have much soul. I’m not a fan yet but the jury is still out.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
Two places, please? Bellevue Bar, where I hung out with other rockers a million years ago, and Bettibar, where I had so many wonderful meals over the years and really loved the atmosphere.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
Check out my photography at robinrileyphotography.com
Anything we missed?
I am interested in meeting other Hell’s Kitchen artists and forming a coop gallery. Email me at email@example.com
HELL’S KITCHEN HAPPY PLACES
Hibernia (W50th between 9/10th Ave). My local pub since they opened. The nicest staff in HK and a lovely place to sit outside and drink beer.
Clinton Community Garden (W48th between 9/10th Ave). Beautiful neighborhood garden. Our own little slice of heaven.
Intrepid Museum (Pier 86 – W46th St & West Side Highway). Their Astronomy Nights are amazing. Looking at Jupiter from a flight deck after listening to a lecture about space travel? Yes!
DeWitt Clinton Dog Run (W52nd and 11th Ave). Being around dogs is such a joy! I do wish we had a dog run closer.
Marseille (W44th St and 9th Ave). Wonderful food in a beautiful room. It can make you think you’re in Paris when you can’t actually get to Paris.
Schmackary’s (W45th and 9th Ave). Best cookies ever!
Manhattan Plaza benches (W43rd St between 9/10th Ave). Nice place to sit, meet friends, make new friends and pet dogs.
Domus (W44th between 9/10th Ave). Wonderfully curated shop and lovely owners.
Manhattan Plaza Health Club Pool (W43rd St between 9/10th Ave). It’s a true joy to be there in the summer when the bubble is open. Great staff.
UT47 (W47th St between 9/10th Ave). A lovely and quiet place to have a coffee in a real mug. Nice decor.