From the beginning of my interest in photography in the mid-80s and the Canon AE-1 that used to be my only go-to camera, I was naturally drawn to street photography. The oldest shot I remember was literally of the street with a photo of junk in the side of a street filled with mud, cigarettes, a syringe and a little blonde doll that had been discarded and probably floated to that position after rain. In the background were housing projects that were frequently in the news aimed at scaring suburban folks about the blight of urban living. If I ever find that roll, I can’t tell you how I’ll cry to see that shot. Decades later, the neighborhood has been gentrified and now has condos and townhomes but my memories are long and rich.
Searching for stories in a busy city isn’t very hard, but tuning into a deeper layer of what the city can offer takes time and patience. I like to look for interesting characters as much as I love textural content to capture.
Then there are the themes…
One of my “themes” in photography is what I call, ‘photo sniping’. You’re going down the street and either a professional or amateur photographer is taking a shot and you stop…and capture that action. Rarely have I had a double snipe where two people are taking shots.
When the timing is right, you might even have the subject look at you, instead of the correct camera. But whatever you do, don’t linger and steal too much of their energy.
I often look for clusters of action. In the color shot above, I had noticed the Paris Hilton lady walking with her tiny dog for a couple of blocks, yet never getting on the bike she was pushing along. As I pivoted the corner, she passed with the dog, with the two men consulting their phone maps and if you look, a lone shady guy who lurked just behind her in the shot. After I took a few snaps, he never stopped staring.
In the black and white shot from Los Angeles, my original focus was on the lady leaning on the light pole but the man in the foreground was too compelling to miss. In these modes, capture first and you’ll find hidden gems.
Light and shadow, color and shades are your friends in photography. Always be on the lookout for those friends as you scan your area. But as a life long activist for people who struggle, I also look for that solitary moment we’re wired to overlook and ignore and feel the spirit of the person who feels alone. I’m often overwhelmed with emotion when I see people living on the street and even more so, when they have additional hardship from disabilities. The street is filled with stories.
There are too many people in America without a net, without being woven into our society and we have ample resources to help if we try.
Life in the city isn’t always about suffering.
City life is busy,…very busy. Look for the characters….
The great street photographers left us a catalogue of techniques, styles and stories. Study them. Learn from them but always find your own voice and vision.
Sometimes, you’re just in the right place to sit and watch people…take in the spirits and ALWAYS be prepared for surprises.
Be in tune…and unafraid
Look out for those others ignore
I’m never dispassionate or too objective in my photography. On the contrary, I have spent hours looking at the faces of people I’ve photographed in candid moments and just let my soul be moved by the complexity of our world.
Meet, Gil. Gil is a homeless man with severe mental illness and lives on the corner next to a jail. He’s harmless and vulnerable and just a nod here and there and maybe a small food offering helps his days be less difficult. He is unable to carry on any form of conversation with you, but he’ll tell you his name if you ask.
I’m grateful to the spirits in our urban centers and have always been street savvy yet I learn new things all the time as I traverse our country. Each city has its beauty and each has its troubles. If you are a photographer, enjoy your time out there in the wild and don’t be afraid to capture the moments. Whatever you do, submit to the cacophony of the street and let it show you its secrets.