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.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Manhattan Diaspora

Manhattan Diaspora is the title of a documentary project I pursued beginning in 1992. I had recently been 'downsized' from my job as systems analyst with a New York commercial financial institution and was looking to explore the possibilities of working as a freelance photographer. I was on one of my self motivated photo walks in Manhattan and happened to find myself in front of a synagogue on Rivington Street. As I read the inscription on the side of the building, memories suddenly came flooding back. The building was the First Roumanian American Congregation. 

That particular congregation had particular historical significance. It was the synagogue in which both Jan Peerce (his original name was Jacob Pincus Perelmuth) and Richard Tucker (Rubin Ticker) sang as cantors before going on to establish famous careers at New York's Metropolitan Opera. It was also the synagogue from which Edward G. Robinson was bar mitzva'd, where George Burns was a member, and where Red Buttons sang in the choir. The building was first constructed as a Protestant church in the 1860's but was bought in 1902 by the Roumanian American Congregation. 

As I stood in front of the building I remembered my father listening to old recordings of Yossele Rosenblatt, who was also a famous cantor at the synagogue, and telling me about the community in that neighborhood. The gates were locked to protect the building from graffiti vandals, so I noted the times of daily services and made plans to return. About a week later I was at the building again about a half hour before the evening services were to begin. Rabbi Jacob Spiegel (the spiritual leader of the congregation) saw me casing the building and asked what I was doing. I told him my story and he invited me in to complete the minyan (a group of ten men needed to perform certain religious rituals). I asked if he would allow me to take photographs. He hesitated for a few seconds and then agreed. I suspect his motivation was to entice me into the building for the evening service, no matter what the cost. 

Every time I walked the neighborhood to gather material for the project, which became far more extensive than covering just the religious community of the area, I made an effort to either begin or end the visit with a stop at the synagogue to do some photography. I became a familiar face to the members of the very small, but very regular congregation, and the rabbi helped to facilitate other opportunities to pursue the project. Every time I entered the building, he encouraged me to put down the camera and join him in the prayers of the hour.

I made the trip to the synagogue  on this particular day because I had asked Rabbi Spiegel to allow me to photograph the torah being read. There is an established order of ascendants to the bema which is proscribed by ritual and must follow the established order of the first person being a member of the tribe of Kohan (priests) and the second being a Levite (religious helpers). At that particular service the congregant who usually assumed the responsibility of the Levite was absent, and the rabbi knew there were no other members of his congregation who were Levites. As I stood sheepishly in the corner, hiding behind my very small Leica M6 camera, the rabbi caught my eye and smiled as he asked me if I was a Levite (I knew that I was). Other members of the cast of characters relieved me of my camera and draped a tallis over my shoulders. I ascended to the torah and said the blessings (remembered quite clearly from my bar mitzvah some thirty eight years earlier) the person holding the camera tried desperately to figure out how to work it and get some pictures of the 'photographer' at the torah. I wanted to help him, but the rabbi - understanding that this was his golden moment - took my arm and held me there to complete the ritual. 

Alas, no photos of the photographer wearing a tallis and saying the blessings over the torah. 

In this image the two men on the right of the image are the rabbi's sons, and the child being held is the rabbi's grandson (he had not yet reached the age of three at which time his hair was cut for the first time). All the services for the congregation were held in the basement chapel. The main sanctuary, which at it's peak glory was quite grand, had long since fallen into disrepair. The building collapsed before planned renovations could begin, and the location is now an empty lot on Rivington Street.

See this blog post for another in the series of Manhattan Diaspora stories. The entire portfolio of the work can be seen in several galleries at my website

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Photography Forever?

“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”
- Aaron Siskind

It's that loving that gets to me. When I'm out on the street looking around me, it's the magnetism of the people with whom I identify that draws me to them. I return home after a time shooting on the street  and review my images - always asking myself 'what was it about this person, this scene, this situation that made me want to take the picture?' If I can't answer that, the image usually doesn't make the cut. When I can answer, the next question is 'did I get what it was that attracted me in a way that I can show other people?' If I can say 'yes' to that, I set to work.

I mention this in this blog because of the thoughts triggered by the quote by Aaron Siskind. It's how I always worked, but never articulated in this way. Occasionally I look back at the work I shot twenty years ago on film (some of my long term projects can be seen on my website here), I'm referring to  Manhattan Diaspora and I Hear A Voice Calling. In each collection every image brings back a memory of that moment when I shot it - I can sense the sounds and feel the atmosphere of the situation. Those little things like a twist of the lip, a hand gesture, a body position that speak volumes about the unfolding drama. The story is in the characters, but the lines of the dialogue are in the details.
It's the same with my street work. I don't take shots of some of my subjects because of the sensationalism (their unfortunate situation, the expression on their faces ....). I do it because eighteen years ago, when I was at my bottom because of my addictions, I was a hair's breadth away from being there myself. I knew then how it felt to be filled with anxiety and despair. I see  people who look sad or unhappy, and many who are just existing on the streets. It's such a common occurrence that most people just pass by without a glance because they've become completely inured to  it. But make an esthetically beautiful image that draws the viewer's eye into and around it to notice all the little details, and the message can come through. Make a compellingly beautiful image, and the observer will be compelled to receive the message.

I was walking across Canal Street when I saw this fellow digging through a trash can. He acted like he had struck gold in there, having found a container of partially eaten food and a cigarette butt burned only half way. In a moment his life turned from desperation into what promised to be a temporary respite from hunger. He had a reason to smile at me, and had a twinkle in his eye.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

To Crop Or Not To Crop

In a perfect world every photo I take would be perfectly framed and composed. All the elements of the photo that I want to be there would be, and anything that I didn't want in the image wouldn't be. Unfortunately that rarely happens. I would love to be able to tell you that every image I shoot is exactly the way I planned it. But .....

I crop. Some photographers say they never do, and if that is true then some wonderful images must wind up on the cutting room floor because of unwanted elements in the frame. I crop because of the way I shoot - holding the camera at chest level and shooting without lifting it to my eye. My images very often have a slight tilt to them, and if it works for the shot, I include that. But it often doesn't work, so I straighten the shot.  Sometimes the main subject is not placed exactly in the frame where I want it to be, so I crop and adjust it to get the composition just right. I usually shoot with a very wide angle lens so I get enough space around the image to have room to do this. I don't think cropping is any different than dodging and burning, or adjusting contrast. It's another tool in the kit. 

In this image I wanted to create a feeling of depth and motion to move the eye through the shot. That's created by the diagonal line that runs from the lower right corner to the other side of the image. The vertical lines of the main subject interrupt the flow of that line, and say 'Here I am. Look at me'. In the original image they were off center. I always try to maintain the proportions of the 35mm negative in the crop. Some people like square images, I like the opportunity to use the frame to create the feeling of dimension. The three characters in the center of the image are in focus, and the outer edges are not with an increase in blur as the background recedes. It gives the image depth. That's the way I saw this image when I shot it. It's not what I got in the camera - so I cropped it. The moment was gone in a second. No chance to check the LCD to see if I got it right and reshoot it if I didn't. 

And by the way, when I was shooting film, a long time ago in a galaxy far away, there was absolutely no way to tell if I got the shot until I got home, loaded the film onto the spool, developed it, and made a contact sheet. Should I have not made a print because I didn't get it right within the frame?