Speaking of street photography…
When I first began doing “street photography” I used to take my camera to work with me each day (Canonet) – and it was a pretty long walk, about five miles. One day, I was about a half block behind this guy who was gargling with a small bottle of Scope (right hand).
It struck me that he would have to find a spot to spit it out, and with that in mind I ran up behind him, paused, and clicked just as he spit the mouthwash out in the sewer. No, not a beautiful thing to watch, but I did manage to get “the moment,” – first by being curious about him, and second by wondering what was going to happen next. It was the beginning for me of many years of trying to anticipate what people were going to do next. And now – having divided the store front up into so many categories I am putting things like this which are important to me – in the store. I’ll file this under, “people spitting.” But even if you weren’t sure what was going on – I think the posture would draw you in at first. And maybe you’d skip by it, but maybe you’d study it a bit, and eventually see the small bottle of scope in his right hand, and have one of those a-ha moments yourself. At any rate – for better or worse – that’s the state of mind you get into when you photograph people on the street. Sometimes it’s the usual stuff – mostly it’s the usual stuff – but once in a while it moves a bit beyond the usual.
I like to wonder about things like this. Was he late for a big meeting. Was he going to make a presentation. Had he just had a drink and was trying to get rid of the smell. And someone else might look at it, and flip by as fast as they can because the whole thing is sort of gritty. How you get from that to beauty infrared shots of the park; that’s easy – I have a pretty esoteric range of things that interest me.
For example, I’m a confirmed atheist – but one of my favorite things to watch on Sunday morning are the t.v. preachers even though they have all assured me that there’s no way I can go to heaven because I haven’t accepted Jesus as my personal savior. Which is true. I’ve accepted photography as my personal savior. I wonder where the good and bad photographers go after they die. I have a feeling that they end up in one of Dante’s circles of hell – not near the center rings, but on the outside with the pagans who didn’t have a chance to accept the one-God deal since there wasn’t one God in their day. Or maybe you go in the circle with the painters and poets. I think that’s the place to be anyway. Heaven, as far as I can figure has had to turn away some pretty interesting people.
Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007.
The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
4 minutes later:
the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made…. How many other things are we missing?
The photo workshop finished around 12 at the Metropolitan in the Dendur Wing. I think it went pretty well, but I learned a few things. The main thing was that even with only five people, it was hard to connect to the needs of all five people at once, as they were all somewhat different.
I thought that the one-on-one lessons I’ve done so far were more productive for the students since they could be catered exactly to their needs and it was easier for me to make a better connection in a short time with a single student. Since I’m really not trying to teach technique, so much as the why of shooting, it is difficult to do with five students. So going forward, that’s what I’m going to do: offer one-on-one lessons. As I say, these can be more easily catered to the individual needs of the student.
As far as street shooting goes, although having Park Avenue completely free of traffic – it was only open to pedestrians and bikes today – this is almost impossible to do with five students and needs to be done in a more intensive way. Basically, what I found was that street shooting is not something that comes naturally, and as I was sitting there at the end of the session, I was talking about how I felt when I first began shooting on the street. I remember how difficult it was for me and how nervous it made me. That is going to be natural for anyone who is halfway sensitive. And it’s not something that can be learned in a 3-hour workshop, at least not with more than one person.
But I do think there are some rules and exercises that can be developed, just as you would need to learn techniques for other art forms. For example, I noticed a tendency of some of the participants to want to shoot from the hip. There are times and places for that – but it certainly isn’t necessary on Park Avenue with bikes and rollerbladers speeding by. For me, it is a fallback position – when you are actually in a situation that may be dangerous to photograph.
In general, you should be able to photograph people with the camera to your eye before they notice that you’ve taken the shot. And if they do notice, you should be able to deal with that too. Sometimes, you just chat with them. Sometimes, you ignore them and continue on your way.
Another thing I noticed was that at least one participant was deleting images from the camera. I would never do this for two reasons: 1) while you’re deleting the image something else may be happening. In other words, part of the street photography mindset is that you are almost always “on.” Things that are happening are rare enough that you just want to kick yourself if you miss something because you were looking at the image on the back of the camera. It totally breaks whatever flow you have. 2) If you are going to delete images, at least wait until you have a bit of temporal distance. Don’t do it when that day when you are editing the images on your computer. Unless they are obviously impossible to use (all black, or all white, or just so damned blurred that you know you’ll never print it). But keep in mind that even mundane images may have historical value in ten years.
That’s what I learned from the session.
I’ll post a few shots of my own, and I asked the participants to send their best – or in some cases their worst shots for me to post. Street shooting is definitely an entirely different skill than other forms of photography – something that since I’ve been doing it for so long – I discovered only by watching the group take a crack at it. Definitely a good idea that I didn’t do what I was originally planning and go into the subway.
Oh – as far as the Aspire One netbook – useless as far as viewing goes for a group in the sun. It’ll be fine for me to offload images onto and browse through indoors – but outdoors – couldn’t see a thing. The screen (as Markus warned me) had too much glare.
Jacob told me ahead of time he wasn’t interested in street photography. He was currently working on a project
photographing various museums and how people interacted with them.
I think that Craig probably took the most shots. You can see the rest of
what he did on flickr.
moments. The parents were only concerned that the baby might be
woken up; but they were perfectly happy to have this troupe photographing them.
I’ve been looking for some time for a poem about New York that I really liked. I found several, one by Whitman – but this is one that made me chuckle, besides capturing the spirit of the city.
I WANT NEW YORK by Ogden Nash
I think those people are utterly unreliable
Who say they’d be happy on a desert island with a copy of the Biable
And Hamlet (by Shakespeare) and Don Quixote (by Cervantes)
And poems by Homer and Virgil and perhaps a thing or two of Dante’s.
And furthermore, I have a feeling that if they were marooned till the
Very few of us would notice that they were gone.
Hardware Store Clerk (Jerome Avenue) main responsibilities, stocking lightbulbs / Age 15 Manager was a racist and it was the first time I was exposed to someone who used all the bad words for other ethnic groups. He ran for local council and won.
Jewelry Store (Gunhill Road) main responsibilities: opening glass cases for young women. Gift wrapping small jewelry boxes (15) Like a bull in a china shop. Worst pairing of an employee and an object to sell. I am many things, but dainty isn’t one of them. I did learn to wrap packages well, which still comes in handy once a year.
Summer Camp Photography Counselor (Camp Ella Fohs) age 15. I liked working with the kids, but my boss was overbearing and I wanted to come home. I called my father to ask if I could quit the job, and he said it wouldn’t be right. I would have to stick it out no matter what. It would build character.
My mind blanks on what I was doing when I was 17 and 18, but I’m sure I was either back at the jewelry store or the hardware store.
When I went away to college in my third year (first two were at Lehman college) I refused to work at all. My father paid for tuition, but I made spending money by gambling and at one point stealing food from the cafeteria every day. I did best playing chess for money.
In another life, I was a philosophy major. In one of our first classes, the professor asked the class to define a seat. At first this seemed like a silly thing to do, and pretty easy. It soon became a process of deconstruction. It was clear that a seat (or maybe it was a chair) might have a back on it, but it might not. It could have any number of legs, or no legs at all. There had to be something to sit on, but you couldn’t define a chair just because you could sit on it, since you could sit on any number of things that weren’t chairs.
And yes, although no one could arrive at a good definition that included the properties needed to call something a chair, we all knew a chair when we saw it. Though we held one class at the professor’s house, and he had one blow-up chair that was sort of like a plastic balloon with a deep indentation for your rear end.
One conclusion we reached was that it wasn’t possible to define a chair by accumulating necessary properties, and we also couldn’t define it by how it was used. The best we could come up with was that the chair could usually be known by the label we put on it. In other words, a chair by any other name might not be a chair.
I have to admit, that I didn’t stay in the philosophy department very long after that. Although I already had nearly enough credits for a degree in philosophy, I switched to English literature and somehow managed to graduate eventually with a degree in Philosophy and English Literature.
Logic could only get you so far. It was fine for making logical things, but I got more useful knowledge from reading novels. Even back then, both sides of the brain were at war with each other. I think that I finally ended up as a photographer because it is part science, and part art. Most people have either a dominant right brain, or a dominant left brain. But when both are equally strong – you may very well end up as a photographer. It would be fascinating to do a study of photographers and see if this turns out to be true.
I do see, as I look around, that a lot of photographers have day jobs which involved computer programming. That may be a clue.
Remember the other day I was talking about the tops of skyscrapers – and how they were the most interesting part of the building…
I wanted to tell you that I received my photograph of the top of the Empire State Building today and really love it…its awesome! I love this view because it focuses on the top of the building and the tower, which for some reason—at least for me—provides a sense of height you couldn’t get from a photograph of the entire edifice.
I also wanted to let you know that I really enjoy perusing your website.All of your photographs are lovely—your work is great.
Thank you so much for making this print. It will make a lovely addition to my apartment and bring a little bit of the Big Apple into my Boston home.