Meet the Woman Risking It All for the Perfect Shot
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s giving you views you’d never get any other way.
As any photographer knows, every location presents trials — light, frame, aperture, just for starters — but Lucinda Grange has taken on a different set of challenges, and honed unusual skills for negotiating her most difficult shoots, skills more typically associated with mountain goats, or spiders.
Six years ago, Grange persuaded a friend to see a dentist inside the Chrysler Building so she could get past security and climb the stairs to the roof for a jaw-dropping shot of her perched on a brutalist eagle a thousand feet above midtown Manhattan. In 2013, she propelled herself up the Williamsburg Bridge for a self-portrait peering up from the girders. And just last month, Grange went full-on amphibian to wade through knee-deep water in an abandoned Brooklyn aqueduct in search of the perfect photo. I know, I was there.
“I am up for my green card, so I am concentrating on shooting in locations where I have permission to shoot now,” she said, ducking through a graffiti-sprayed underpass as we walked underground for at least a half-mile. (When I’d asked the previous week where she’d be taking me, her only response was “high and low.”)
To those quick to label her a thrill-seeker, Grange briskly pushes back. “I use photography as a means of self-expression,” she says. “I believe that a person is defined by their actions and choices, and is therefore defined by the environments they choose to put themselves in — and I challenge them to reconsider those environments.” Her chosen habitat is constantly shifting, and yields surprising rewards: Times Square sign hangers framed from the top down, a ballerina pirouetting from the ladder of a West Side water tower, a shot of lower Manhattan taken across the East River, from Governors Island.
“Lucinda has found a niche and she’s soaring,” says Jain Lemos, photo editor and executive with the New York–based YPA Foundation, formerly the Young Photographers’ Alliance. “I see these shots becoming iconic for a spell, and look forward to viewing more of her lofty perspectives.”
I’ve been climbing since I was a little girl.
But while the public and certain editors love Grange’s derring-do, other photographers and critics dismiss her as just another urban explorer with a Nikon and a modicum of talent. To them, she embodies a typical “Urbex” working in a tired genre — and legally ambiguous locations — that’s become overexposed in the Instagram era.
“Most of these images are taken by illegal means,” says one photo editor familiar with Grange’s work. “I’ve heard of at least two photographers dying. Not many people would want to go on record praising this genre of photography.” Just this past November, a 26-year-old Chinese “daredevil” known for posting social videos of his stunts slipped to his death from a 62-story building. Grange has been arrested once, in Northern England, and admits to a couple of narrow escapes since moving to New York.
Grange is undeterred. Growing up in the U.K., near Newcastle, the child of factory workers felt the pangs of exploration first, climbing around Yorkshire’s derelict, overgrown quarries. At 17, she picked up a camera when her grandfather died and left the family his Nikon D70.
She joined a local camera club, and began to climb “bigger things” — from chimneys to bridges and skyscrapers. When Grange headed off to college, she decided to pursue photography over mechanical design engineering. Her grandfather’s camera now sits on a shelf in her tidy one-bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens.
While at college, she worked part time at a bar, using the money to “go on cheap weekends away and climb things or go underground,” Grange tells me over a hearty English breakfast of beans, eggs and toast before setting out on a shoot. “Not many people would climb the Brooklyn Bridge, but lots would want to see the view. By sharing my work, I’m able to take people with me — if only in their minds.”
Grange made her first visit to New York in 2011 after handing in her final assignment at the Cleveland College of Art and Design in Hartlepool, U.K. From there, she spent three months in southern Mali, where she took her graduation photo, clad in a cap and gown she had carried with her and hanging onto a rock face above the hills of sub-Saharan Africa.
Travel soon became as indispensable as her tripod. Selected by the Independent and Young Photographers’ Alliance in Britain as a 2013 rising photographer for her portrait of a woman tucked between an arch of Notre Dame Cathedral, Grange went on to Egypt, Brazil, London and back to New York, where she shot the Chrysler Building photograph for a 2014 book Outside the Lines.
When photographer Micah Beree, a former studio assistant and archivist of Annie Leibovitz, first saw Grange’s work, he assumed a man had taken the photos. “I’ve seen the others’ pictures on the Chrysler Building with the eagle heads and thought, ‘Yeah, we’ve seen that; Annie did that.’ But everybody else had their model behind the eagles and Grange is sitting dead on top,” he tells OZY. “For me, a proper photo has proper exposure, a confident use of depth of field and paints with light. She has all of that, but she also pushed the limits. To me, that is impressive.”
Once settled in New York full time, Grange started her “Backward in High Heels” project, a collection of images of female artists performing in high spaces. Inspired by a quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (“Sure, he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did … backward and in high heels”), she set out to take photographs that “make the viewer reconsider the mental and physical capabilities of women.” What about her own? “I’ve been climbing since I was a little girl,” she says, “so I know the limits of my capabilities.”
Grange’s current obsession is “Inside Out New York,” a collection of photos for which she plans to scour the city’s hidden spaces for “views that the tourists and even most New Yorkers never see.” She’s set her sights on places like the power station beneath Grand Central Terminal, the engine room of the Staten Island Ferry and the safe at Tiffany & Co. and will soon start testing her moxie again.
“Sometimes it’s not about the conquest,” she muses. “Sometimes it’s about an unfamiliar environment, and the fun you can make of it.”