Friday, March 2, 2012

The Way We See

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
- Elliott Erwitt

I have always loved the work of Elliot Erwitt. His images always catch a moment or situation that defines something to which every one of us can relate. He has produced so many iconic images that I would be hard pressed to name just one that stands out from all the rest. I encourage everyone to have a look at this and to explore whatever books are available on his work.

What I have quoted above applies directly to the craft of street shooting. If I were to go out looking to find an extraordinary situation or person to photograph, I would probably never come back with anything in my camera. Quite often the comments on my photos read something like 'Where do you find these characters?' I can't speak for the populous of Paris, or Madrid, or Hong Kong, but I can tell you that New York City is full of them. All it takes is an open mind, an open eye, and a willingness to take a risk. 

There is quite a difference between seeing and observing - I'm sure Sherlock Homes would agree. Seeing is absorbing the sights (or odors and sounds) around us that we experience every day as the same old ordinary stuff. Observing on the other hand, is, as Erwitt points out, finding something interesting or unusual in an ordinary place. It's the way we look at the world around us that is the defining parameter.

In the images below I will grant you that the models in the windows are far from ordinary (ahem). But pictures like this are in every window of Victoria's Secret stores in every city of the USA. The first image was shot on East 57th Street, the second on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan. Millions of people walk by the windows every day without a blink.

I was on one of my regular photo walks in New York feeling a little discouraged and thinking that I had not been able to find anything memorable. I walked past this gentleman in front of the windows and actually thought 'maybe a good shot, maybe not....' and walked right past it. That's a red flag for me. It means that I haven't really opened my eyes and mind. So I turned around quickly, picked the camera up to my eyes (which is an unusual motion for me when shooting street) and the gentleman, who was probably totally unaware of what was behind him, glared at me. Click, and I knew I had gotten the shot of the day.

Always looking for that juxtaposition of character and the surrounding environment takes a quick eye, and developing a quick eye takes practice. But sometimes a good shot may require some patience and persistence.  When I saw this window display and the reflection of people walking by and the building across the street in the window I was trying to get a good shot of it, but no matter what position I took, I couldn't' get it without someone being in the frame, so I stopped for a few minutes and put the camera down to take a beat. When I looked up, there was this grand lady standing in the perfect spot, with the exact counterpoint of posture and gesture to the image in the window behind her. And by the way, the glare she was giving me didn't hurt the image either.


  1. Gene, I absolutely love the second shot. The juxtaposition is perfect! That is an Elliott Erwitt style shot. The point you make is spot on. These types of storefronts and opportunities exist in just about every town and city. You need to find an interesting background, and then wait for something interesting to happen in front of it. That's al;so a Jay Maisel quote, and a method he uses in approaching his work.

  2. That´s two great photos you got on your walk. At the first I like the contrast between the old man and the young "bombshell" - at the second I like the old and young lady stands in the same position. Posters is a "great gift" for street photographers :-)

  3. I love the first shot, maybe because its a little more close up, but on the subject of interesting background yes sometimes you walk by and it just hits you, i was on my way to work when i caught this subject, i had to quickly stop get my camera out and take a picture, i think you seen it, but i will add the link as a little shameless self promotion hope you don't mind: