On September 17, 2016, Michael Appleton was enjoying a Saturday evening dinner party on a friend’s West Village roof deck when he saw emergency vehicles racing past on the street below.
He soon learned that there had been an explosion in Chelsea and that Mayor Bill de Blasio was on his way to the scene. Appleton, the mayor’s director of photography, knew immediately that his quiet night off had come to an end.
Appleton rushed north to West 23rd Street with his camera, arriving at roughly the same time as the mayor. “It was tense. We didn’t know what had happened,” Appleton recalled recently.
Inside the security perimeter, amid investigators and paramedics, his adrenaline pumping, Appleton got to work. One striking image captured by Appleton conveys the profound urgency and uncertainty of the moment: de Blasio, midstride, approaching the scene, framed by the flashing lights of police vehicles and fire trucks, intently surveying the area.
Appleton, who covered Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and the 2004 Haitian coup as a photojournalist, was no stranger to crisis situations, but his role on the mayor’s staff afforded him a new perspective. “This was different because I’m kind of in the bubble with the mayor, behind the scenes,” he said. “I had covered similar things, but I’d never been on the inside like that, so that was pretty intense.”
The next day, Appleton returned to the scene and photographed de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo examining the twisted remains of the dumpster where a suspect allegedly placed a bomb that exploded and injured over 30 people.
Appleton, 39, tall and bearded, joined the mayor’s office in 2015 after stints as a freelance photographer for the New York Times, Associated Press, and other outlets, and four years as a staff photographer with the New York Daily News.
Though he’s no longer a journalist, the Maine native views his new task as fundamentally similar. “We’re not really censored or anything like that,” Appleton said. “It’s all about communicating what the city is doing, and what the mayor is doing, and what the mayor’s office is doing, and doing that in a compelling way so people tune in.”
Appleton and the two other photographers on the mayor’s staff, at least one of whom is usually on call for unexpected assignments like the Chelsea bombing, are also responsible for photographing the first lady and documenting city initiatives, but their work centers largely on one man. Appleton said de Blasio makes for a good subject from a photographer’s perspective.
“The biggest advantage to photographing the mayor is that he’s really tall,” he said. “This helps a ton, because in a crowd, he stands out. It makes my job a lot easier.”
“He’s not known for being a retail politician, but I feel like he’s very comfortable in front of the camera and being around people and interacting, so that helps,” Appleton continued. “He’s natural with people. I’ve been around politicians that aren’t so comfortable.”
Appleton took some of his favorite shots of the mayor last January during Winter Storm Jonas. One photo, which the Mayoral Photography Office included in its online “Pictures of the Year 2016” collection, shows de Blasio standing on a temporary sand berm at Coney Island, snow falling from a white sky onto a stark landscape. “It kind of had all the elements I look for in a photo,” Appleton said, adding, “The mayor actually said he liked it as well.”
Later that evening, Appleton accompanied de Blasio to the West Side Highway to meet with members of the NYPD Highway Patrol. “It was at night, it was super windy, so it was hard shooting conditions and the light wasn’t great, but with the lights on the cars I was able to capture it,” he said. “It was freezing. It was on the West Side Highway, so of course it’s just screaming wind. I’m worried my camera is going to break because it’s so wet. And the photo kind of captures the reality of what that was, and the fact that the mayor went out there and greeted the Highway Patrol guys. It was pretty cool.”
For Appleton, documenting the life of the city has meant photographing everything from children on the first day of school to a shot of the skyline from a Navy helicopter high above New York Harbor during Fleet Week. He and the other mayoral photographers, Ed Reed and Edwin Torres, often work long hours on nights and weekends, but each assignment brings with it new challenges and opportunities.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Appleton said. “Things keep coming.”