This is a quote from my early blog writing days in 2000:
I’m still taking my G2 to work on the train every day — but I’m pretty bored. What I really want to do is put the camera over my head, during a particularly crowded ride and snap away. That’s the only view that has the potential. Would need to use the f2.8 21mm. But I’m too chicken!!
Most of my shooting has been relatively secretive, from the hip. I know the feel of the camera enough to know when it’s focused properly on something — and I usually wait for some noise to distract people. But to put the camera above my head is to call attention to myself — plus I would be in a part of the car far from the door, and not that easy to make a quick getaway. Still, I’ve done crazier things, like the time I took the Rolliflex on the train on a tripod — set it up with a cable release in my pocket and snapped away. But that was just odd to most people. Many people have written to ask how I’ve managed to get some of the close subway stuff without people noticing. My answer is — very carefully. Walker Evans did it with the camera under his coat, often with an accomplice to distract people.
And on top of all that — it isn’t enough to simply get an overhead shot — people have to be arranged properly for it to work. You really want faces! You want people looking at you, or at each other. You don’t want to have the whole foreground blocked by the back of some guy (as it was today). You don’t want someone right on top of you blocking the frame! In short — you want to know your depth of field — and have people arranged so that they don’t completely null each other out.
And now if I shoot on the subway there’s no secret about it at all. Whether I ever did get a good overhead shot – not really, though I did eventually take them. People didn’t cooperate by being in just the right places. The point is, that within a few years I did most of my subway shooting with the 35mm camera to my eye. I learned to overcome my fears. And I learned to deal with whatever might happen as a result of taking the shot. It might be that a smile was needed. Or it might be that I would simply give an air of not caring. The idea of being near the door to make an escape doesn’t even occur to me anymore. If someone does give me a dirty look – I consider that it may be a better photo.
You can see the many dirty looks I got in one of the previous posts with the bus stop shot. Just about every person in that picture was annoyed. And people only got worse as this century went on. More suspicious. But my skin toughened.
One trick that I used was to tell myself: pretend that this is the last day of your life. If it were, would you feel so nervous about taking that picture? It’s sort of a Zen thing, and hard to describe, but if you can imagine the worst, then what happens is never that bad.
It’s a delicate balance because to be good at this sort of photography, the photographer needs to be sensitive and at the same time tough. Too tough, and you miss out on the little human moments that can be very subtle. Too sensitive and you can’t do the job.