One evening in late spring, I sat out on the fire escape I generously call “the patio” of my Lower East Side apartment. I live in a sixth-floor walkup, and there aren’t many high-rises around, so it offers some open air and a view. I can almost see the full length of Orchard Street and the old tenement buildings lining it, people passing by, and the sky above them. On this night, I watched the sun slowly slink down, and I noticed the clouds: it seemed like they were reaching, extending themselves to make up for the sun’s imminent disappearance, in one last grand gesture. They stretched out in new forms and shades (whispy and luminous; periwinkle and pink) and I thought to myself — Holy shit, this is beautiful. Sincerely.
After it got dark, I went inside. I opened Instagram, and there they were, all over, from the vantage point of everyone I knew in New York: slightly different angles of that same gorgeous sky, in photos good and bad, the worst with heavy filters making a cheap caricature of subtle beauty. My first thought was, How cliché, everyone and their obvious sunsets, la-di-da. But as I scrolled and tapped my way through it all, the sheer volume of pink-cloud-loving posts moved me.
It was all unplanned, but done in unison. No push notification had prepped them for some celestial happening that night. It’s romantic in a way, to think that all these people—in the midst of their busy days in the city, crossing streets on cell phones, with drink plans and expiring to-do lists—were compelled to stop, even if briefly, by Earth, the sun and clouds, just doing what they’ve always done. The sun rises and sets every single day of our lives (for me, it’s been 11,000+ days now). And on some of those days, it does so with enough nuance or grandeur that it can actually make people stop where they are, like, Whoa. Suddenly, human appreciation of nature becomes the unlikely catalyst for the ever-more-rare collective moment.
The Earth turns and turns, tireless and unassuming—but magnificent—and I like it when people notice. It’s there, giving us life, like endless love, but we can be such careless lovers. Just look at the things we often take for granted and nitpick. We shit-talk the snow and complain about the rain, just to fill some silence, but no stranger has mentioned the sunset last night to me in an elevator. I mean, where is the romance and poetry, the gratitude, in this elevator?
We talk about how some people today are so busy documenting things (like a concert, or life in general), that they forget to actually experience it, and I think that’s a valid concern. But I’m not convinced this applies to our affinity for photographing sunsets. Because sunset photos on social media work in a few ways. Sure, many of the photos we take and see are not that great, but a few do capture beautiful moments well, and people can see it and say to themselves, “That’s nice.” And even if most of the people posting and seeing these do not take it anywhere near the existential, it’s still a kind of rhythmic advertisement for Earth and nature. It’s almost like a film preview or an influencer in a sponsored post with their new jade roller: like, This is amazing, go out and see it, try it, I love it, I can’t live without it. There are certainly worse things to promote. So while sunsets are indeed totally cliché, I still “like” these photos, simply because: I appreciate you appreciating the sky.
Photos by Edith Young.