on the cover

From Kayaks to Drones: How New York Photographed 16 of the City’s Islands

Photograph by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao for New York Magazine.

New York City is an archipelago on the water, but it’s easy to forget just how many islands besides the major ones dot the harbor. New York’s August 19–September 1, 2019, cover story reveals the hidden histories, from buried bodies to heron sanctuaries, of 25 of New York’s islands, including the tourist destination Liberty Island, the forever-wild Pralls, and the tiny, abandoned landmasses like North Brother that attract urban explorers. The text is by Robert Sullivan, and the photographs of 16 islands are by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao.

New York editor-in-chief David Haskell says the idea for this project was, in a way, many decades in the making. “As a kid taking the Roosevelt Island tram, and then as an adult flying into JFK or taking the East River Ferry or driving up the FDR or spelunking the ruins of Governors Island, I’ve had a forever romance with the city’s smallest islands,” he says. “They’re so mysterious and alluring and each so specific, New York’s character actors.”

Shooting this portfolio took Liao 10 days of scouting and 25 days of shooting. Access turned out to be his greatest challenge. Setting foot on many of New York’s 30-odd islands is forbidden. Others require visitors’ permits from the Parks Department, and there’s no ready transportation to or from most of them. “The most difficult island to get to was Pralls,” says Liao. “I was in a kayak for 45 minutes.” That one, at least, he could visit — the Parks Department granted him five hours on the island — but because it’s covered in forest, Liao says getting around was its own challenge. Similarly, on Jamaica Bay’s Ruffle Bar, which is not accessible to the public and thus has no dock, Liao found himself (after dealing with the temperamental currents that surround the island) walking around the wetlands with his tripod. Even islands with straightforward transportation proved to have their own access-related challenges. On Liberty Island, Liao was allowed to set up his tripod in only two spots. “I didn’t expect the picture to turn out this good, because the situation was so bad,” he says. On Randalls Island, where he was free to set up as he pleased before an evening of fireworks, he found himself with no choice but to do without the tripod because “the whole bridge was vibrating.”

For islands where access is forbidden, Liao partnered with Hasselblad, the legendary camera company founded in 1941, to use drones and shoot from the air. Those shoots took place on two separate days — one above Hart, Columbia, and South Nonations islands, and a second over Roosevelt and Mill Rock islands. The primary heavy-lifting drone was DJI’s M600 Pro+ equipped with Hasselblad’s A6D camera, while two smaller drones, the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, were used for scouting and pre-visualizing before the bigger one went up. Some drone trips could begin on easily accessible land, but others, like those to the South Nonations islands, were so out of the way the crew had to take a boat out and launch from the harbor.

About the mixing of drone photography with images captured on the islands themselves, New York photography director Jody Quon says, “We wanted to give the reader a sense of the ‘surround sound’ of it all. The drone was really the thing that could complete it.” The results, Haskell agrees, made “pictures so surprising it was like seeing the islands for the first time.”

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Behind-the-scenes video courtesy of DJI and Hasselblad
How New York Photographed 16 of the City’s Islands