In honor of David Kennerly's story on his Seinfield coverage, this month's Nuts and Bolts is about photography in New York City. New York City photography is just what you would expect from the TV series.
Mayor Giuliani just had a show of his photographs in a major New York gallery, the Leica Gallery. At the opening, the police had to block off the street to hold back the demonstrators (artists demanding to be able to sell their work on the street). The Mayor's security staff was checking invitations against their list of people who had called into the RSVP and security system. As to be expected, their printed list did not match all the people who had called in, and people who had replied to an answering service were being turned away - but not without a little verbal abuse from both sides. Nonetheless, the gallery was jammed.
Sarah Boxer, a reviewer for the New York Times, wrote a piece on the Mayor's photography and the photography of cab driver David Bradford. (Bradford shoots from his cab window and exhibits his photographs in the cab.) In a review which is as representative of "Big City/Bad City/Damn Fine City" style as the photographs she is reviewing, Ms. Boxer says, " ...it's arguable that a man with one hand on the shutter and the other on the wheel is far more of a danger to the city than a man with one hand on the shutter and the other on the city." The money from the sale of the Mayor's pictures will go to benefit New Yorkers for Children. Thirty pictures have already been sold. I imagine more will be sold by the time you read this. A book of David Bradford's pictures, "Drive By Shootings," will be published next year by Konemann. Thanks to Sarah Boxer's descriptions of wonderful and surreal images, I hope it's sooner, rather than later.
Jane Livingston, who left her position as chief curator of the Corcoran Gallery to freelance, has written several books, among them "The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963" (ISBN #1556702396). I was browsing through bookstores on the web and came across this description of the book, "...refers to a loosely defined group of photographers who lived and worked in New York City." It's a wonderful book, but it's certainly not about a group of like-minded photographers who produced similar work. It's not like the Impressionists hanging out in Paris. Awhile back, in a burst of youthful enthusiasm, I once said to one of the photographers mentioned in the book that we had a mutual friend in one of the other photographers. "I've heard of him, but I never met him," was the reply.
Bruce Gilden is, among other things, a New York street photographer (Facing New York; Publisher, Kuen; ISBN #094879707X). He is widely exhibited (Museum of Modern Art, Biblioteque Nationale, Victoria and Albert, etc.) has worked in some really nasty places and is one of the toughest photographers I have ever met. I should also say that he is to my mind one of the best street photographers -- period, no qualifications, no democratic consideration of any other opinions. We were swapping testosterone tales one day, and he said New York City was the toughest place to work he had ever known. He said that he had taken more physical abuse in New York than anywhere else. From him, this is an amazing statement. It set me to thinking.
Working outside of New York, people have gone after me because they thought I was a spy or they didn't like Americans, but I've only been attacked for taking pictures once. An old man whose son had just been killed kicked mud on me when I took his picture. When members of his family heard about this, they insisted I come to dinner at their house. And they didn't have enough food for themselves.
On the streets of my town, the Big Apple, I take abuse all the time. Which takes us to this month's techy tips -- how to work on the streets.
There are no hard and fast rules about what cameras to use. Most photographers choose to work on the streets with a small, quick handling camera. The Leica is perhaps the most popular choice, but hardly the only one.
There is an understandable tendency to want to use a camera with auto exposure and auto focusing in the belief that it will help you work quickly. It depends on how quick you want to be. What seems to attract the attention (and sometimes the wrath) of your subjects is holding your camera to your eye. Manually presetting both the exposure and focus allows you to minimize the time the camera is at the eye. Camera up, shoot, camera down. That attracts much less attention than camera up, frame the subject to autofocus on the most important element, if necessary reframe to get a good TTL meter reading, reframe to the best composition, shoot, camera down.
It takes no skill to preset your camera's exposure out of doors. It takes surprisingly little practice to prejudge distance. Burk Uzzle used to have little rivet heads around the lens mount on his camera so he could set distance by "Braille." Here is another system. Find a "focus substitute," an object approximately the same distance from you as your actual subject. Guess the focus to the substitute and set it by scale. Check the guess focus and refocus if you have guessed wrong. Turn and shoot the actual subject. After awhile you won't guess wrong and you won't need a substitute subject.
(Memory Lane for the Mature Photographer: Remember when we use to guess focus our 4X5's all the time -- and they had less depth-of-field.)
Use a lens whose frame you know. By sticking to just one or two relatively normal fixed focal-lengths you can predict the framing they produce before you lift the camera to your eye.
If you are uncomfortable pointing your camera at strangers, don't sneak pictures with a relatively long lens. Working far from a subject with a long lens you can only shoot from one point of view. Working up close with a wide angle lens allows you to change the picture significantly by simply taking a few steps. If you are uncomfortable, or feel that you are making your subject uncomfortable, stare at something beyond the subject and maintain that head position as you raise the camera to your eye and take their picture. I have no idea why, but most people don't think they are important or interesting enough to have their picture taken, and totally accept the fact that you are fascinated by the blank wall behind them.
In those few situations where it is important people don't realize you are photographing, you can remove the pentaprism from an SLR, hold the camera at waist level and shoot without raising the camera to your eye. If you think anybody cares, you can pretend to check some dial or clean the camera. But the truth is, once the camera isn't at your eye, most people don't react as if you were taking a picture. (I found this out shooting on the street with an old twin-lens Rollei. Nobody reacted if the camera wasn't at my eye and I wasn't staring at them.) I have also learned to shoot blind from the hip (waist, lap, stomach) with a non reflex camera. Truth is, the framing "errors" often produce pictures that are more exciting than my carefully considered and conventional framing.
But I must confess to feeling uncomfortable "sneaking" pictures. I think people justifiably object more to an attempt to spy or deceive than to being photographed. No one has ever given me any trouble when I was shooting on the street with an old Speed Graphic. Indeed, they've asked if I would take their pictures. These became "posed pictures," but they were not without their charm. And they became less "posed" if I stuck around for awhile.
Of course, there is one fall back position
for the street photographer. When someone sees you taking their picture
and seems quite displeased, wave enthusiastically, smile the grin of the
demented and yell "Thanks!!!" This usually leaves them surprised and stunned
enough for you to briskly exit the scene.
The Leica Gallery (which has exhibited
both Mayor Giuliani and Bruce Gilden) can be checked out on the web at
The New York Times on the web is http://www.nytimes.com
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