East Village photographer specializes in capturing the city before dawn’s early light

Daniel Root pulls out the Nikon to shoot Niagara on the corner of Avenue A and 7th Street.
Photo by Bob Krasner


There are photographers everywhere who love the light of day. Then there is East Village resident Daniel Root.

Many photographers’ preferences differ, though — some prefer bright sunny days, others live for overcast but bright times, a few prefer rain and fog, many wait for the golden hour before sunset and there are those who are up at the crack of dawn to capture images in first light of the morning.

By the time the sun is up, however, Root’s been done shooting for at least a half an hour. For almost five years he’s been wandering around lower Manhattan in the dark, capturing empty bars, restaurants and street scenes with just the street lights and whatever illumination is available.

Daniel Root at Empellon Al Pastor, St. Marks Place and Avenue A, 6:42 a.m.Photo by Bob Krasner
Vazac Bar as shot January 2019, 5:23 am, by Root from Avenue B. “It always has great overnight lighting. It looks like a perfect bar to me,” comments Root.Photo by Bob Krasner

Root came to NYC in the early 1980s and supported himself painting apartments until he got a job as a photo assistant, which he found to be a much more agreeable enterprise. One day he found himself surreptitiously shooting Madonna on the street as she filmed “Desperately Seeking Susan.”

Later, when showing the pics to a video director, he was asked if he had been hired to shoot the rising star. Not wanting to let the truth get in the way of a possible job, Root said yes, leading him into a career as a music photographer.

“I shot for MTV,” he recounts. “Frank Zappa, Isabella Rosselini, Cher, all kinds of people! I was the first photographer for ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ , which is how I ended up shooting LL Cool J in his grandmother’s house.”

He branched out into corporate, editorial and food photography , forming The Root Group in 1995 with his wife Rina, a graphic designer. All the time, though, he has worked on his more experimental personal images which have involved non-camera processes like photograms and materials such as wax, Japanese tissue paper, vinegar and aluminum.

Eventually the computer also became a tool, as it enabled him to blend over 500 different images into a single abstract image. That work was exhibited at NYU two years ago in a show that included a three foot by five foot print.

“I enjoy the corporate work,” Root explains. “But I didn’t want to lose the joy of photography, so I’ve continued with my personal art.”

Daniel Root demonstrating his technique for holding the camera steady for long exposures. 6:59 am.Photo by Bob Krasner
Daniel Root in front of the bar where it all started, the Vazac bar ( aka 7B and the Horseshoe Bar), 7:09 am.Photo by Bob Krasner
Root shot this one this month in Chinatown, at Forsyth and Grand at 5:41 am.Photo by Bob Krasner

His most recent project came about as a result of the loss of his dog, who passed away in 2016.

“I used to walk her every morning along the East River, and I realized that I wasn’t walking anymore,” he muses.

He began to explore the vistas of empty bars before sunrise, starting with the Vazac (aka 7B and the Horseshoe Bar) at the corner of Avenue B and 7th Street, a spot he has revisited many times.

“It always has great overnight lighting and it looks like the perfect bar to me,” he says.

For almost three years, he photographed every bar in walking distance, always finishing up before sunrise. Not wanting to abandon the project for lack of subject matter, he expanded his scope to include restaurants, shops, street scenes and interesting buildings. For almost five years he has posted images daily on Instagram, often including some history of the location.

“A follower wanted to know what he was looking at, so I began to do some research,” says Root. “Sometimes there’s a lot to say about a place and sometimes not. Researching the addresses gives you a sense of history.”

Root mostly shoots with a Sony RX100, a versatile, small camera that allows him to use long exposures without a tripod and also to not call too much attention to himself. While he manages to avoid trouble while alone on the street in those deserted hours of the morning, sometimes it sneaks up on him.

“I was pressed up against a window doing a long exposure when a man screamed in my ear,” Root recalls. “It turned out that he had just been released from Bellevue, but luckily all he wanted was a hug.”

While some might find it a challenge to shoot without the benefit of daylight, Root sees it differently. “The unifying light of daytime is less interesting to me,” he explains. “At night, the spots of the light, the different color temperatures, the intensity, makes it more interesting.” He continues, “I find it easier to photograph in the pre-dawn hours because it’s quiet and I notice things that I never noticed before.”

Root has found that his dimly lit sojourns have been not only productive visually and physically, but he’s gained something else from the experience as well. ” I feel more connected to the city now – downtown in particular. I have a much greater sense of place.”

Daniel Root’s pre-dawn images can be seen on Instagram at @danielrootphotography, personal work at rootrootroot.com and corporate imagery at rootgroupnyc.com.

Daniel heading home, 7:07 am.Photo by Bob Krasner

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