Exploring NYC, Part 3: Faces of the City
Over the last few years, I have taken an interest in a form of photography dubbed "street photography." Unlike other photographic disciplines with obvious sounding names (wedding photography / newborn photography), the name "street" does not convey a clear meaning of the art form.
Street photography might be more aptly dubbed "genuine photography" - the goal is to capture everyday scenes and interactions in a new and fresh way to highlight the beauty in our routine life. When I am shooting the streets, I am looking for genuine interactions; faces, reactions, expressions, moods, and emotions that are genuine and not prompted by the presence of a camera.
Think about it.... when someone holds up a camera to your face, the first natural reaction is to smile and say cheese. But does that smile truly express your emotions and feelings in that moment? Unlikely.
As a street photographer, I want to capture the subject's emotions and state of being without having the camera enter the equation and effect the expression. In order to do that, I often need to be stealthy and discrete.
A large camera is off-putting. People don't want a stranger shoving a camera in their face. Which is why I use a Leica rangefinder (specifically, the M10) for my street shooting. The small and discrete nature of this camera lets me attract less attention, thereby increasing the odds of going unnoticed by my subject.
Philosophically, I want every picture I take to be a flattering one. I try to avoid any photograph that could embarrass or humiliate my subject. For instance, I don't photograph the homeless or disabled persons, with few exceptions.
Ideally, when I am taking street photographs, I am invisible. The person never knows that I took their photograph, or if they do, they are not embarrassed. If someone sees me taking their photograph, I will smile and wave, showing that I'm not a threat. Sometimes I'll tell someone they were beautiful and interesting to me. Surprisingly, most people respond very well to this, and I have never had anyone get mad because I took their photograph.
As a photographer, I find street photography offers a unique challenge over some of the other photographic disciplines. When I am making landscape images, I often plan the photo, sometimes to a scientific extreme. But as a street shooter, I take whatever I get and roll with the punches.
If it is sunny outside, I have to work with that. If it's raining, I work with that.
The impromptu and impulsive nature of this type of shooting means I often "follow my nose" - if the light looks particularly good one direction, I'll walk that way. I walked 14 miles in New York one day without having any real plan - I just wandered Manhattan looking for things that caught my eye.
I remain hyper aware of the location of the sun and will switch to another side of the street if the shadows and light is better there. My head is on a swivel, constantly looking for that sparkle.
"Sparkle" - that is what I am looking for as I walk. Sparkle is the photograph. Sparkle is the emotion, the color, the contrast, the shadow, the expression...the thing that pushes me to take the photograph.
As a street photographer, I am instinctive. When I see sparkle, I shoot. If I wait too long and think about it, I have lost that moment of sparkle.
When someone looks at one of my images and comments "I never would have seen that" or "how did you catch that," I know they see the sparkle. They are looking at the print and see the sparkle that pushed me to create the image in the first place.
Street photography can also be about story telling. Not every image has a story, but sometimes the story is the sparkle. For instance, take this pro-Tibet rally I saw in New York. Thousands of people were marching across Manhattan to the site of the Chinese Consulate peacefully carrying signs and flags supporting Tibet.
At one point, their march passes in front of the McDonald's restaurant near Times Square. I immediately saw a story, and began photographing that story.
I was moved at the juxtaposition of American consumerism and the protected right of speech. Here are some people peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to free speech in front of one of America's biggest corporations. To me, this captures the essence of what makes America an incredible country -- there are so many places in the world where this scene would not be allowed, and the combination of the two created an emotional sparkle.
Street photography often involves people, but there are some images I'll photograph without humans that still tell a human story. Usually, I try to convey human interaction with the environment in the non-people prints. These images may be more abstract and invoke the idea of people without clearly showing any in the scene. Sometimes they capture an irony or something so familiar that we stop noticing its existence.
In some ways, everything I just described about street photography makes it sound like there is a good amount of "pray and spray"- but the art is anything other than. Pray and spray is a phrase used to describe what happens when I photographer just holds down the shutter and aims the camera recklessly in the hope of capturing a good shot.
Look carefully at my photographs and you'll see that isn't possible. Scroll down and look at the three images below (then come back).
Notice anything in them? Only the subject is in focus. Everything else has a smooth soft blur. That blur, which is referred to as bokeh (a Japanese word), is where the art comes into play. As a photographer, I drew your eyes to the subject- to a pre-determined spot - by precisely choosing what area of the print will be in focus. Don't believe me? Scroll down and look again.
Each of those photographs has a super thin area of the image in focus. Now consider that the camera I use is a manual focus system - there is nothing automated or automagic about it. If I do a poor job of quickly focusing the lens, then my photograph is missed. I usually get one chance - a split second - to turn the focus ring on my Leica lenses to capture that sparkle.
I won't lie - it's hard. I miss more than I catch. But the more I go out and shoot, the better I get. I have a lot of close misses - photographs I'd love another chance to take. But that's not how this works.
In some ways, the thrill of getting it right is my drug.
I'm addicted to the elation that comes from seeing a perfectly focused shot with the story I wanted captured. That feeling drives me back to the streets, looking for my next fix.