Version

Little Bit, 34th Street, March 2021
My first sight of Little Bit after weeks of searching.

I have never really given much thought as to how my images may be perceived by others, as I generally work completely from instinct and hope that I’m somehow reflecting the time accurately. I feel immense pleasure when I manage to get a few that do justice, but I have a lot of failures. What do I photograph and what do I leave out? All of it is important to depict scenes and complex, intricate lives with total transparency and urgency. But when telling stories sometimes you have to leave a lot out that matters. Why? And what to leave out? Is it ok to eliminate information or images that are just too hard to look at, too personal? Is the subject matter too polarizing? Will someone get upset, will the work be categorized as too difficult, thereby increasing the likelihood that fewer people will be exposed to the images and story? I find that there’s tremendous urgency in these images, because more people are finding themselves lost on the street, and many of them seem to be there because of an inability to be diagnosed or treated for mental illness and developmental disabilities.

How do I say that Little Bit gave up smoking K2 for nearly two joyous months only to completely relapse, that she now has a room in a managed living situation and doesn’t have to sleep on the street, but that her intense addiction is jeopardizing her placement? That her mental illness is intensifying and preventing family from even the most basic knowledge of her status and location? That the abscess on her leg may end her life and result in another amputation because she is terrified of the hospital? That when she does go to the hospital she is often left feeling degraded by condescending attitudes and dismissive, callous commentary by hospital staff about her lifestyle, staff that should understand the mental health complexities and resulting disabilities that incapacitate so many people living on the street? Do people really want to know about the episodes of copious, uncontrollable vomiting in public places that K2 ingestion causes? The horrible weight loss? The head lice, chronic and entrenched, whose activity on her scalp elicit horrifying hallucinations brought on by the combination of heroin, meth and K2? I’m debating even now as I write this….should I clean this up?

Should I say that we are all responsible for the mental health crisis in the United States and the travesty on our streets is because we don’t really want to know? We have completely discarded a segment of the population that is unable to exhibit basic self care, grappling blindly with disability that cripples insight and the execution of the most simple life plan.

Little Bit has a family that cares about her deeply, loves her and misses her. She does not have to be outdoors, or in a shelter. She is the victim of a society that does not truly understand the depth of despair that she suffers each day as a result of mental illness, or the desperation of families unable to secure basic services to help children and adolescents at risk. Early interventions that should be easily accessible to all people regardless of income are in fact nonexistent, or very nearly so.

34th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.

I believe more people want to feel and understand these multi-layered stories and that the number of people who want more are vastly underestimated. That’s a problem, a really huge one, because we desperately need our media to reflect the reality of our times. It’s hard for photographers to be simultaneously politically correct, honest, unbiased and fearless if we have to worry about keeping things palatable and suited to a general audience, a vast miscalculation that undermines the viewer’s ability to gain a more complex, layered appreciation of life in the United States and elsewhere. A general audience that has a genuine desire for knowledge and wants very much to be allowed to make up their own minds about what they see and how to feel about what is presented.

I’m often completely immersed in the visual juxtapositions, elements of physicality in the images that bring meaningful clarity and irony or humor or dissonance together in some way. Whatever I’m thinking or seeing at the time. What’s right in front of me, immediate and compelling. I never think about how to sell or market my images, and that’s a problem. I don’t consider anything other than the mechanics involved with creating the images. Lately I find that I’m saving pictures, waiting longer periods before showing them, hanging on and retaining privacy in order to better understand what it is that I’m trying to say.

Images from Little Bit’s world.

34th Street and 7th Avenue
6th Avenue near 32nd Street
Hidden stairway near the downtown platform at 34th street where Little Bit sometimes hides from the city.
8th Avenue
Friend under the scaffolding on a rainy day.
Dollar Pizza on 31st Street
Looking for Little Bit near her hidden perch in the subway.
Little Bit, 34th Street, New York City, September 2020

I think that I’m able to photograph people because, for whatever reason, they are a version of themselves in the moment that is accepted gratefully, carefully and completely noted and preserved in a picture. Whether it’s a beautiful image or a rough one….it works for us both similarly I think. Particular people seem to bring about my best work because of the way they make me feel about myself as I’m working. Some of my worst pictures happened because I felt bad about myself in the circumstances I was in while attempting to make photographs. Huge fails that stay with me for absurdly long periods.

Piece of Little Bit’s collection, 34th Street

Who I am when I’m with the people I photograph stays with me and is hugely beneficial on days when I don’t like myself or I’m burdened with something I can’t change….or I don’t make a picture that’s everything it could have been.

What version of someone do I find when immersed in a long term essay or series? I don’t like describing my work in this somewhat detached manner, it’s so much more than a photo “project” and I never think in these terms, but I do find the unfortunate necessity to speak at times using these terms. It’s not really possible for me to identify my work or images in this manner, and describing my pictures as a project is not really satisfying or accurate.

Versions of Little Bit…..who she is and how she is being summarized when she is photographed is never the same twice.

The nature of the person I encounter has changed over the few years I’ve been photographing Little Bit. She is her best version sometimes and on the days when she is far from her best she is increasingly unknown, unseen and impossible to reach.

I think more and more about the people I’ve seen around 34th Street who were once solidly fixed to a spot, but who have since disappeared. Something will remind me of a face and I’ll have the memory briefly and then I move on, forgetting completely as I move down 34th Street looking for a picture.

Ginette

Ginette, December 2019
November 2019…..Ginette in her apartment on Avenue A, in the East Village of New York City. Ginette has lived in the same apartment for forty-six years. The apartment exists in a state of suspended animation, as it has no modern fixtures and is typical of many rent controlled apartments in older walk-up buildings. Old pipes, dysfunctional heating, poorly maintained plumbing and rodent, cockroach and bedbug infestation characterizes the experience of day to day life in Ginette’s apartment. She has been collecting odd bits of other people’s lives from the streets and at times the garbage, filling her space, each bit of detritus meaningful and weighted by memory and association. I used to come upon her at night, with her little dog Vanille, as she carefully picked through neighborhood trash, gathering discarded food for Vanille, and cast off treasures for her apartment which has become a museum of her life.
One of my first pic of Ginette and Vanille on Avenue A, September 2017. Vanille died suddenly in early 2019.

December 2019….Severe pain sets an insurmountable hurdle, limiting Ginette’s ability to participate in life outside her apartment. Chronic pancreatitis, arthritis, lifelong hip deformity and degenerative spinal disorder have made free and natural movement impossible. On this morning, a film crew focusing on my work with Ginette was in the apartment, and she graciously allowed us to work to document her experience. Her plan to go make her way downstairs to sit on a bench outside her building to watch the parade of life in the East Village had to be postponed because she was unable to get on her feet.
November 2019

Morning brings bright light, a signal that it’s time to begin the arduous process of getting out of bed, and time to weigh the prospects of perhaps making her way down two steep flights of stairs to break into the daily stream of the neighborhood below her window.

Collection
December 2019….When Ginette was able to cook for herself she used a hot plate on top of her ancient refrigerator, always afraid of the potential the rudimentary plate had to overheat and start a fire. Frozen green beans and hotdogs will slowly warm up while Ginette sits in a little chair nearby. Ginette’s refrigerator is in very poor condition, full of mold and bugs, and barely able to preserve food. She has insisted on keeping it and has refused offers from her landlord to replace it.
December 2019…contemplating descent, moving slowly but purposefully to reach the stairwell. Once Ginette is dressed she is not easily deterred from reaching the street below. The memory of people and sound and the potential interactions she will have galvanize and energize her. Simple neighborly exchanges on the days she is able summon her body’s resolve to bull her way to the outside light up her face and animate her expression.
December 2019…..Ginette sits outside a cafe for dogs and people on the street below her apartment. The ability to do some shopping without help allows her to preserve her memories of independence and self sufficiency.
Ginette sparkles once outside her apartment, and greets every passerby with intense happiness.
December 2019

Ginette slowly makes her way down 12th street to a medical appointment a few blocks from her apartment. She has insisted on complete independence, refusing offers of help from passerby who are startled by the sight of her cane and bare feet on a frigid morning. She removed her shoes because she was having heart palpitations, and she thought that the rough shock of the frozen pavement beneath her feet would distract her from the discomfort of the palpitations.

Memories stored in an old address book. Everything touched in Ginette’s apartment seems pressed and softened by handling. Paper is worn and smoothed from being held many hundreds of times, kept in spots that haven’t been cleaned in many years. Pictures of Ginette at her seventieth birthday party, snaps taken as she rifled through the contents of a garbage can, pictures with dogs that accompanied her on her journeys throughout the East Village over the years but who passed away long ago.
Ginette at forty-nine years with Charlie in 1986.
November 2019….Ginette holds a picture of herself taken when she was in her late forties.
November 2020…. Big changes in the year 2020 as Ginette’s health has significantly deteriorated. After a summer spent in a nursing home, and intervention by Adult Protection Services, she clings to her life inside her apartment, desperate to avoid a court order that will remove her. After workmen partially destroyed her collection and personal possessions, she struggles to care for herself physically. Because of haphazardly done repairs to the ceiling in her apartment, an onslaught of bugs—cockroaches and bedbugs—infested her apartment after years of being held in check. Dust and ancient pieces of crumbled ceiling plaster, some of it pulverized into a fine particulate, covered almost everything in a filthy, powdered grime.
November 2020, a few days before her apartment was partially destroyed by workmen.
A workman stands in Ginette’s apartment, after painting over the area that was repaired.
Ginette sits after returning to her apartment after a day spent downstairs on a bench outside her building as she waited for workmen to replace a piece of the ceiling that was collapsing. Without proper protection for her living space, they left the apartment in an untenable state. Some items were missing and presumably discarded, others were destroyed during the repair. Pictures hung crookedly, papers were torn and deeply damaged by soot and dust and plaster as well as decades old detritus that had built up in the walls, detritus from rodents and bugs and years of neglect.
Television and phone were damaged and left on the floor. The apartment was left with no phone or cable service, the floor covered with pieces of the ceiling.
Devastated by the condition that workmen left her apartment in and without electricity, except for one working bulb left dangling from the ceiling.
In a state of disarray after returning home, Ginette is mute as she sits on the edge of her bed. To outside observers, her apartment has always been a mess, but in fact it had been very deliberately arranged in the manner of a finely tuned hoarder, each object bearing witness to an important moment in life, and held with patient reverence.
Delicate…..November 2020
Ginette and Leo….Leo has lived in the building in a tiny, dilapidated ground floor apartment for over thirty years. Ginette’s phone is a lifeline to Leo, who will come upstairs at any hour to assist her. It wasn’t always this way….they haven’t always been friends, moody and silent interludes lasting for years have pockmarked their friendship. Leo understands well the need to forgive and truly forget meaningless trivia, but Ginette sometimes gets mired in past misunderstanding and recollection, making it difficult for Leo to help her.
Leo helps Ginette lower herself into a chair he has placed in the sun for her to sit in just outside their building.
Helping hands assist after leaving an appointment. Ginette cancels most of her medical appointments because her lack of mobility and pain can be too much for her to face when the calendar says it’s time for her to get dressed and make preparations to visit the doctor. Once dressed and out of bed, small distractions can interrupt any resolve and momentum present and cause her to suddenly give up and forfeit another opportunity for medical care.
Leo physically supports Ginette as she rises from a seated position in the chair outside and readies herself for the climb back up the two steep flights of stairs to her bed.
Portrait of Leo in November 2020
Aging in the era of COVID-19 in general isolation and poverty has presented intense stress and despair.
September 2020….Ginette shortly after her return from a nursing home she had been involuntarily placed in for the duration of the summer. A social worker found her to be unable to care for herself and the temporary placement was ordered. She improved physically despite being upset by the upheaval, and once a little bit better, she was discharged and returned home. Finding herself without any follow up care or in-home support, and unable to perform basic, unassisted self care such as bathing, Ginette finds that her lack of mobility on her own presents serious obstacles obstructing independence.
Painkillers and alcohol sometimes mix to clear Ginette’s chronic pain, a deadly combination that force the few who care about her welfare to contemplate creative ways to hinder her, such as hiding the bottles or pouring the contents into the drain while she sleeps.
December 2020….Besides a rudimentary shower located in the living area, the only source of water in the apartment is an antiquated faucet and sink. Its slow trickle of tepid water is used for basic grooming and bathing, and dish washing and storage.
Ginette’s apartment is entirely unrenovated and is exactly as it was when she moved in over forty-six years ago. The rudimentary shower is located in the living area and is set two feet above the floor. The water flows weakly, and is lukewarm and erratic. Ginette manages to shower once a month because the effort required to climb up and into the stall is too great. She feels most at ease showering when someone is present and within earshot should she fall or otherwise become incapacitated.
After showering.
Memories

Ginette is a prolific writer and storyteller, and loves to read aloud her exploits as an adult and her feelings regarding her past life and childhood with an abusive parent. Her writing is characterized by her penchant for relating traumatic events with an irreverent and humorous irony, without euphemism or apology.

January 2021….Lost in memory one night after finding an old journal.
Determined to exit her apartment one temperate winter day, Ginette rises from the walker she uses as a chair to struggle into her jacket. She will make her way slowly to the door, picking her way through papers and objects and boxes placed haphazardly on the floor. She is full of laughter and anticipation on the days that she’s able to exit.

November 2020….Refusing help, precariously and stubbornly navigating the stairwell alone, and seeking the air of the city, alive with the smells of New York and any interactive experiences she can provoke outside.

December 2020….Every day is a miracle.

Once outside, Ginette’s running commentary includes all, from young children and their mothers walking little dogs to elderly people from the neighborhood….any and all who pass by her roost on the street.
Lunch outside.

Life indoors, forgotten.

Mask

Ginette, East Village, New York City January 2020

January.

In Ginette’s apartment I think about the air. It’s on my mind in every moment, as each second passes, sentimental and weighted with her tenacity. When I’m photographing her it’s there, when I’m maneuvering along the narrow path that cuts through the debris that lovingly intersects every attempt at movement, and as I evaluate my breathing status as it relates to my asthma . How long do I have before I need to launch myself with difficulty into the little hallway for a mask break outside her apartment, the door partially disabled by the blockade formed by bags of cat food and memories? It’s always there, this consideration and awareness, calculated ruminations, the air that surrounds me impartial but deadly in its potential to wreak havoc on my airways. These days I don’t get any mask breaks, however.

I stand outside the door for a few minutes, desperately wiping my nose under my respirator, a mask worn before masks had to be worn to protect me from the air in her apartment. I talk to Ginette through the door, and listen to her recount a memory of her mother and Switzerland that I know by heart, one that she relives with the same intensity as the first telling. When I’m ready, I step through the door, and feel the carpet beneath my feet, decades old and stiffened with time and a density of grime that would defy logic under a microscope.

Portrait of Ginette in November 2019 in her apartment, 199 Avenue A, East Village NYC

I think about the air. Close, stifling, heavy with mold and a moisture that can be felt as a luster on the skin, lilting wisps of cat hair and cobwebs floating somehow without current to guide in the absence of ventilation, dense pockets of potent decay that startle even through my respirator. Markers of long dead things in the layers of detritus that test the limits of my curiosity and force me to consider every footstep. Innumerable exhalations that lend weight and credence to lifelong laments, an unwavering and unrelenting recount of childhood and adolescent misery as I race to record each precious sight.

After spending time with Ginette, photographing her in the marshes of misery and memory, I had to wade through my own mixed emotions about the intricacy involved with such a clear intrusion. Sometimes I found myself treading as softly as possible, speaking at times and at others remaining silent….a balancing act intended to preserve my right to persist, lingering at times beyond welcome so that I could catch that one image that will accurately reflect and portray everything that I was witness to in her world.

Every minute that I spent photographing, composing, moving through challenging lighting and deep emotion, I was also calculating and measuring and evaluating my own breathing status. My respirator never really fit correctly, the bandaids I used to tape it securely to my chin were never adequately fastened to my skin. For every minute I took joy in the photographic work, I was risking hours of intense discomfort caused by allergic asthma resulting from everything that had taken up residence in Ginette’s world. I would exit at the end of these sessions, tearing my mask off, wiping my face, racing down the cramped, moldy stairwell to the street. I held my breath till I reached the door to the outside world, respirator-free, bursting through my worry about my breathing, relief to be outside. Out on the street. Joyous inhalation. Freedom from my mask.

January 2020

Predators

Avenue A And 12th Street, East Village, New York City

I left my camera at home and went to the gym after midnight for a workout. My gym is 24 hours and I love going late at night because there are few people in the place and I don’t have to be polite. I generally don’t carry my camera when I go for three reasons: I just don’t feel like it after having carried the thing all day, I’m in desperate need of a break from everyone and everything and, of course, I don’t want it to get stolen. Walking back sometimes by myself at 2 a.m. is pushing the safety limit as it’s on this route that I was physically assaulted last year. Since there’s usually zero photographic interest in anything I see I don’t usually miss the weight of bag and camera on this trip.

But this night was different. I left the gym and made my way home along the relatively quiet streets, a few late night bars along the way so that I didn’t feel isolated. I stopped at a red light at 12th street and Avenue A. As I waited I turned my head and saw a young woman seated on one of two benches placed outside the NY Deli on the corner. She was under a bit of light, and at her feet was a small collection of garbage. The deli is open 24 hours, selling sandwiches and smoothies, snacks, cigarettes….the usual fare. People are in and out under the bright lights near the entrance but this woman was just around the corner on the furthest bench from the doorway. I saw that she was in a stupor–the familiar opioid-induced state of completely suspended animation that I unfortunately observe every day on the street.

It was a strikingly sad image and I immediately knew that it was important for me and that I wasn’t going to have an easy time walking away. I castigated myself endlessly in those moments for having left my camera at home. Because, no matter what the risk or how tired and in need of a break I am I know this: never, ever leave the camera at home. It’s just not worth the agony of endless, obsessive recrimination that comes with having no camera and an image in front of me. I guess it’s not healthy to be this obsessed with taking pictures but the truth is that I am.

And so I stood, observing the scene, trying to tell myself that it was not that important and that absolution was granted, and that I could just return home and forget about this visual tragedy…but as I did, I was creating the image I wanted to make in my mind. I decided on shallow depth of field, focus on her feet and the trash, wide angle lens, fade up to her face, indistinct features that would be somewhat privacy-protective in the final image. I could make my point about the scene and not have a sharp focus on her face.

Two blocks home and I was back with my camera….and I saw that the scene had changed. She was not alone and now had a man next to her, equally vaporized by whatever they had bought in good faith. I was disappointed by the loss of the previous narrative…and then I realized that the image before me was more important than I had at first understood. I felt that this couple, who were clearly not homeless or otherwise a stereotypical depiction of addiction were more powerful because of their ordinary appearance. People who are going to work, on the subway, in the supermarket, in a restaurant….people that are neighbors and friends and sisters and sons. Regular everyday people who went out to buy drugs at night, got sandwiches, and then were overcome by the unexpected power of whatever it was that they ingested as they sat with their late meal. Her hands were beautifully manicured and his accessories were carefully chosen. For me, this is street photography…pictures of life. Pictures of exactly what I see and how what I see is translated by my feelings into an image.

It wasn’t easy to do this one, as the shutter speed had to be very slow and I needed to focus very specifically as the aperture would be bigger. I had a few ideas but needed to be careful as I didn’t want to get harassed as I worked by someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t understand what I was doing. As I worked I observed. As the few people who passed observed the couple, I was interested to see that most had a bemused or sneering expression. The woman was slumped and completely out. The man never moved. A trash truck pulled up at the intersection, stopping at the red light. They hit their powerful horn, yelling and shouting coarse, teasing commands to wake up. This angered me and I walked after the truck, saw that they stopped at a 7/11 for snacks and decided that I had something to say to these guys. I know that I should let these things go and that I need to use better judgment at times, say less, shut my mouth. I ignored common sense and allowed my anger to guide me as I walked the block ahead, and waited by the truck. When they emerged I asked the man I knew had shouted why…why be so cruel? Do you understand that this is a disease? Why bother being mean at 3 a.m.? After an initial denial he expressed his distaste, incredulity and dismay at the sight, especially at the male who was passed out and vulnerable. He said that they should wake up! He told me that he could see vomit and that it was ridiculous. I hadn’t noticed the fact that she had been sick as I was hyper-focused on my task. His vantage point allowed for a more subjective view. And he apologized for his behavior. And then…I understood. They didn’t have the ability as working men to tolerate the sight of another man in a vulnerable state, a state of complete inertia, and they reacted viscerally.

As I walked back towards the couple I realized that there was another woman very close by. She was extremely thin, a little on the tall side, mid thirties. I had seen her earlier as I worked, another woman on the street who was obviously an addict looking for bits and pieces to collect to sell. She was touching door handles, trying to gain access to locked apartment buildings, silently looking to exploit any openings found on her ramble through the neighborhood. I realized she was headed back to the couple and it hit me that she was going to rob them, and that my presence earlier with my camera had prevented her from actively fleecing the two. She walked back and so did I. We reached the deli and she turned to look my way. I watched her as she approached the bench, and I knew that she was going to find the handbag the stuporous woman had wedged between her body and that of her boyfriend. It was this ongoing and bizarre little silent tragedy, unraveling in front of me close to 3 a.m. on a warm summer night two days ago. I saw for the first time that the woman on the bench had been sick and that the truck drivers had not been mistaken. I realized suddenly that they may not be in an average stupor, commonly observed every single day all over the city. I told her to stay away and leave them because it was time to call for help. She was a clever mimic, seemingly concerned but trying to get close enough to take their belongings. I made my call, and told her repeatedly that she had to leave them alone until help arrived. Someone in a passing car offered water, and the would-be thief entered the intersection to take the bottle, using the gift of water as an excuse to get close to the couple. It was unnerving, her persistence and stealth. I told her no water! They’re sick and can’t have any fluids until they’re in the care of EMS. We could hear approaching sirens and, as the first police car pulled up to the corner, she disappeared into the night.

I know now that there were three predators that night. The taunting men, who focused on the man as he appeared on his half of the bench in a state of complete helplessness. The gaunt woman, intent and purposefully targeting the possessions on the female side of that sorrowful bench. And me with my camera, focused on the image and the vision, the story in the picture that will be forever unknown. The families of those in the picture who will never know about their loved ones on this night, their calamity, the stories that happened around them during these minutes. The families that may be unaware of this disease of addiction until entirely too late, a surprise overdose that nobody saw coming.

All of this intersected in one little picture on one night buried in a city full of sleeping people. As I walked home, the couple safely surrounded by EMS workers and police, I wondered for the first time how many people suffered this same loss of control and consciousness. How many does this same thing really happen to, everyday? People in their homes, in front of a television set, in a bathroom, a darkened bedroom, a studio apartment…..unseen. For every public overdose that may or may not result in the administration of Narcan–people either eventually getting up and making their way back to their lives after a near overdose– there are hundreds of people who are struggling to keep this disease a secret.

This picture is a secret revealing a secret. I’m not sure about this picture because of the nature of the personal tragedy of the situation. I felt compelled to make this image and I think that the narrative is important despite the loss of privacy and the nature of the exploitation involved in creating the picture. Documentary photography is documentary photography, whether it’s done in a plague-or-famine-ravaged landscape depicting starving people without clothes in an impoverished country far far away, a war zone, or a city street in an affluent community in the United States.

–Suzanne Stein

Rules

Testaments

34th Street And 9th Avenue

Kolkata In New York City, 59th And Lexington Avenue

And Birds, 58th And Lexington Ave, New York City

Someone suggested that I be featured in a popular photo blog last Spring. A letter of introduction was written, and a glowing recommendation was given. The response was strange….when confronted by the suggestion, all this young male blogger could say was that there were images of the homeless in my work and that it made him uncomfortable to have this type of imagery in his blog. Now I take many many pictures and they are most definitely not all of destitution and disaster. I found his reaction to be strangely disturbing….a few recent homeless pictures in New York City was enough to turn this situation into a corner? Most of my New York work is nothing at all like my project done in Los Angeles on Skid Row….a project that’s really not a project…. more like a calling, a lifetime that I hope to spend photographing the people of those streets. How can anyone considering modern photography leave out realism? In any case, so much of my recent work could certainly be categorized as “respectably” leaving out any references to homelessness so why categorize an entire body of work based on a facet or two? Very unsettling….that images of this reality are so distasteful to many young photo editors and bloggers that they just turn away….instead focusing their attention on pictures that capture the light side, or on images of poverty that are sanitized, color corrected and gentrified, and that fail to highlight the very real dirt and grit and ignorance that define many lives. It seemed that documentary images of poverty and extreme difficulties were acceptable if they came from Mexico or Africa or Syria…..but similarly disturbing images coming from the “First World” were somehow labeled incorrectly. The distaste runs so hard and deep and impermeable that disturbing imagery is easily and routinely dismissed by simply labeling it exploitation. At its heart, this dismissal is, I believe, a direct result of a culture immersed in its smartphone and less connected to what’s going on in the immediate surroundings. It enables a lack of sensitivity that can define and decide which images attain credibility and which ones are ignored. So…..I sent him an email, detailing and introducing myself and my work. And….he just completely ignored me.

And what happened after? I began to question myself. I thought maybe I should just stop shooting these pictures, or, at the very least, continue shooting them but don’t post them publicly. I was disgusted by this characterization of my efforts, and couldn’t believe that it mattered. But I realize that it does matter in today’s world.

So I walked past, along with everyone else. I submerged my impulse to walk over, to do a portrait or a street picture….held myself at bay, focused on other things and people…..and I stayed off the ground. Occasionally I succumbed but mostly I ignored. I needed to focus elsewhere. Which I do anyway, depending on my mood and the immediate vibe and circumstances I find myself in. But this was different. I stopped believing in the people in the business of photography. I began to realize that popularity was important in a way that was intensely disappointing. That it affected art, and exposure, and perceived achievement.

Then…..somehow I stopped caring. I realized that my perception of art and life and what’s important hadn’t changed, and that no matter what I wasn’t about to stop shooting exactly what I see. I went to J’Ouvert in Crown Heights and shot what I saw. I went to Philadelphia and shot what I saw. And I really felt that no matter what, I couldn’t walk past some electric scene or person without picking up my camera and it didn’t matter if it offended or made someone turn away. What mattered was that it was REAL. Real to me, in front of my face, obvious and beautifully in the moment. Why I picked up a camera in the first place.

It’s got to be about everything all at once. Everybody and everyone and everything all of the time, everyday.

No matter what.

Time

Reveries On 5th Avenue, New York City, October 2018

This picture leaves out a great deal. It’s missing some pretty important physical characteristics to be perfectly honest. In fact, it’s a complete departure for me as a street photographer. I say that because I am always after a character….I chase characters sometimes. I will often focus on hands, or demeanor as it affects posture, or an emotional state as it reflects in idiosyncratic movements that can make a general statement about time, place, context. I’m usually trying to weave the person into a background and create a realistic and concretely presented narrative in a picture. I love realism, and I always hope that the pictures I create accurately reflect what’s going on in front of me. And I say all this afterward….because I don’t typically think it through while I’m trying to do these things. I will try very hard in the moments but it’s only later that I understand myself what I was doing. It’s all intuition in the moment. Composition is something that I work at, but sometimes miss in the process, only later seeing my mishaps as I review my images.

I’m becoming more and more aware of transience, and of transitions. Transience in the ephemeral sense of the word….and of the world. Sometimes I look back on my own pictures of a place, or remember a picture as I pass by the very spot where it was taken here in New York City and I feel odd. It’s like the event that transpired over a few seconds never existed at all. And I realize that there is so much to look at, to perceive, that my “decisive moment” (quoting Cartier-Bresson of course!) could be entirely missed by someone standing right next to me. Decisions and moments as perceived by individuals vary….

Here are some very memorable photographic decisions that illustrate perfectly recorded fractions, instants of time:

http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/12018/29-quotes-by-photographer-henri-cartier-bresson/

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Robert Doisneau

https://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/paris/articles/paris-through-a-lens-an-introduction-to-robert-doisneau/

I know that I am in constant sensory overload as I live my life currently in New York City. Sometimes I worry that there is too much going on in life here to be able to distill these constantly changing transitions into a photograph. I don’t think that one dimensional images always make me feel that I’m doing my best to recreate in a single image what I’m thinking and seeing. There is perspective, subjective and objective….but where is the picture that just is. Devoid of my personal experiences and perspective….where is that picture and how do I create it? I really want to present all of these transiently displayed nanoseconds that are gone in a flash and seem to happen all at once in the same spot, separated by seconds. I think that, for me, the way I shoot Street Photography changes moment to moment. I think that it is time to transition into a more dimensional approach to representation of our world….a newer way of trying to create a picture of time and place.

Three Women, 3 Phones

14th Street at 5th Avenue….all at once, in almost the same place, I see these simple occurrences. Minute and commonplace, they replace the weight of the “decisive moment” with the rapidity and ephemeral nature of iCloud lives lived, like spirits appearing and disappearing, rapidly and without much meaning.

Bus Stop, Flatiron

Portrait On 1st Avenue

I am tired of “life on the street” pictures….but these portraits were of people I see often at or near the intersection of 14th and 1st Avenue in the East Village. It’s a miracle to me that they are still standing. Winter is coming, and I wonder who will be left at this intersection when Spring arrives.

Friends

A moment after the struggle in her face reflected in the previous portrait, a friend stops on his way elsewhere….and disappears just as fast.

I’m not interested in taking the same picture again and again. I’m interested in reflecting my current thoughts about time and all of these events and positions and faces and minute bits on the sidewalks, bursts of color and movements ricocheting around me at all times.

In the picture at the top of this post, I have a woman lost in a dream. I was lucky to catch her at night….because, had it been daytime, I would have focused instead on her insanely long braids, dark brown and hanging down the front of her body to her waistline. I decided to leave those braids and her otherwise obvious appearance as a tourist out of the image in favor of the transience of her expression….I would have normally become steeped in the physical nature of her character, and I would have missed completely the emotion and mystery of her thoughts and mood. The picture caught her few seconds of thought, and then she was again in motion, lost in the contemplation of a tourist map as she and her husband tried valiantly to navigate through Manhattan back to the sanctuary of their hotel room.

Platform

R Train Platform, Downtown, NYC

Modern street photography for me is always going to be pretty basic. What are people doing? What are the narrative elements, modern narrative pieces that sharply describe life Now? What are the images that, in my estimation, best define us Now? If I Google “New York City 1930’s”, I get black and white pictures, images that show me some of what it looked like back then. Here’s one of a streetcar from the Todd Webb Archive:

http://www.toddwebbarchive.com/

Here’s an image by Stanley Kubrick:

Riding the Subway with Stanley Kubrick

Below is one of mine, from June of 2018:

Again, the above image is from the Todd Webb Archive. Here is a recent one of mine:

Crown Heights, Brooklyn, September 2018

All of these images are pretty clearly time stamped….cell phones have replaced newspapers and it’s obvious that we dress differently in 2018.

This is it….the heart of the matter, at least for me: what does it really look like? Not: what do I want it appear to be…what does it really, truly look like. These next two are mine:

Philadelphia, July 2018

St. Mark’s Place, New York City, August 2018

How do we shoot Street pictures without falling into the stasis that is old school street style? What exactly is it that we’re trying to accomplish? Shooting pictures to get likes and comments on social media is becoming a serious exercise in irrelevant bullshit. So…are we seriously dedicated to shooting pictures that reflect our modern social landscape? To do so we must forge ahead, simultaneously crafting an individual, modern take on photographic expressions while paying homage to the classic protocols that should still define the pursuit of social documentary photography. For me, this means attempting to showcase what’s really out there…as opposed to trying to keep it too old school, or rely on what I refer to as gimmickry to spur engagement with the images. Using modern hooks to achieve a resonance: telling the story of our times without trying to be Bresson or Winogrand or Maier or Gottfried or Levitt or Frank or Davidson…a long long list to be sure! And too many to name.

The Panhandler

34th Street

Because….people are different now. Approach and style must change along with the progression of time. Our lives have dramatically changed, and trying to take great street pictures is harder than it was decades ago. I’m sure many would disagree with me, but for me, a great street picture incorporates narrative of some kind, and to accomplish this you must have people living their lives in public view. Images that rely on shadow and superficial juxtapositions of visual elements can be very good…but lack emotion and impact other than to showcase a degree of inventive use of surroundings and photographic techniques. In some respects, this trending style of street photography is a reflection of our changing character in my opinion. Engagement with each other has begun to minimize with our growing dependence on a WiFi connection…it’s starkly apparent everywhere you turn. And this detachment, and lack of real time interaction is in evidence in many images of the street. The photographer, at a safe distance from his or her subjects, presents a detached and impersonal scene, and while these images have a time and place, are much easier to manage as they require little to no interaction and pose virtually no risk for the image maker.

Bus Stop, 3rd Avenue

Sometimes I do think that I need to do more “big scenes”….and I do some, here and there….but I love to be close, on a wide angle lens, and it’s the crafting of pictures like this one that personally motivate me.

Another change that I find to be pretty dismal and uninteresting is the changing style of building architecture. It’s very different, larger and with a great deal less immediate interface with the street. Smoother, glass fronted surfaces are impersonal, lacking character and individuality. Signage is less idiosyncratic, seemingly almost automated in appearance, looking as if computer generated as opposed to man made and crafted. I have images that I feel are ruined by this new style and color of facades, as in this recent picture from Madison Avenue around 83rd Street:

I tried mightily, significantly desaturating some of these colors but nothing I did could offset the distracting elements posed by this backdrop, despite how much I liked the older couple pictured.

People are living more and more through their smartphones, even doing their food shopping online….and, when outside, generally going from place to place with a specific purpose. Time spent outside with neighbors because apartments and homes lack air conditioning as they often did years ago, or children playing outside at all hours while their parents socialized generated many incredible moments to be photographed by these past craftsmen and women. In many places in the world there sadly seems to be much more quality time being spent indoors, locked to a computer screen or television. And when our recent evolutionary move as a first world people towards the ever present, maddening oblivion of smart phone immersion is added to the equation, shooting meaningful street photography becomes much, much more difficult. And so visits to countries and cultures that are less affected by modern inventions seems to be an important outlet for many photographers, and one that allows us to actually find people to photograph in settings that are picturesque, and encourage interactions that are engaging to record. Additionally, there is often a fear of the camera in public places in the up to the nanosecond modern world we inhabit as photographers, and the camera’s ability to record a likeness on a whim without permission of the people in the frame has become a tremendously difficult-to-navigate distrust, and with good reason. This is a direct result of the mushroom cloud that is social media, and the sometimes irresponsible and insensitive abuse of some photographers who do post images that are best discarded. Where will this picture be seen? In what context? The almost guaranteed assurance that images will be posted online is a definite barrier that must be skillfully addressed by photographers as they try to take pictures in public places. It requires patience and a willingness to interact with subjects, something that’s not embraced by all photographers. Although I interact constantly, there are times when it’s not appropriate or possible or desirable…and even I don’t want to be bothered. But personal responsibility and culpability is important to acknowledge and accept, and sometimes does elude me when I just want to take a bizarre picture of a street truth.

Of course, one can always shoot random pictures in major cities, because sometimes the absence of meaningful content is playful, and anonymity combined with the risk of an angry response is probably part of the fun:

And I love the process of making pictures as in the example above. Random pictures that don’t have much depth or meaning are always a joy, but my preference is to try to find some narration in the everyday, lately a frustratingly elusive proposition.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach, February of 2016

I had been a photographer for about 8 months when I took this one. I had almost forgotten about it…until I found myself in a Rizzoli bookstore on Broadway in the Flatiron neighborhood in New York City, looking through the newly published photobook of another photographer. Unfortunately, to my great dismay, I saw this photograph. It wasn’t mine….but it was. In fact, it was a nearly identical copy of the one I had been so proud of, so exact that it took me a beat to realize that it didn’t come off my SD card, somehow mysteriously and inexplicably printed in someone else’s publication. Plagiarism and copying is rampant on social media, and I remembered that the photographer who had so cleverly copied my picture had unfollowed me when I was still in Los Angeles. I know how difficult it is to execute a photo like this one, because the tumbler rotates so quickly as he traverses the length of the assembled bodies that achieving the exact positioning relative to the signage and general background is not a random occurrence. I wonder how many shots it took for him to duplicate my image–did he have to return several times, trying to capture the light (golden hour), the crowd, the general ambiance? An amazing replica, to be sure. And one that makes me feel like a parallel universe Cinderella, one that missed the party entirely. A strange feeling, and one laced with equal parts frustration, pride, disbelief and resignation. That last feeling is the worst, overlaid with a sort of dull surprise replacing the heated anger I would’ve felt a year ago. It’s happened before, and so I am learning how to try to process these occurrences without losing my temper.

When we post our hard won images to our websites and, most especially, social media platforms we are taking a massive risk. Images are routinely used without permission and therefore without compensation for the creator. The worst thing by far in my estimation, however, is plagiarism. Why? Because Plagiarism is theft. To me, it’s just as much a crime, albeit an intellectual one, as it would be if another photographer stuck his or her hand in my bag and pinched my Sony 35mm f 1.4 as I stand on a crowded subway platform.

As I write this, I’m on the 4 train. I will ride to Utica Avenue in Crown Heights so that I can walk with my camera through the crowds at the West Indian festival and parade. I know that in a crowded place on a special day that any images I manage to craft will be nearly impossible to duplicate. I am also aware that there will be someone somewhere that may try, no matter how preposterous it may seem, or how difficult or unlikely or productive. I was slow to realize that there’s no significant downside to doing so. It surprised me for a long time, this lack of respect for the work of others. Because that’s what it is, ultimately: a total lack of respect in the absence of personal responsibility and culpability in the universe that social media immersion has created. It ranges from demeaning and aggressive commentary to outright bullying. Plagiarism and theft of all kinds are not only tacitly accepted, these behaviors are strangely and surprisingly encouraged by the complex set of furtive etiquettes that govern people as they forage online for entertainment and stimulation. There is an odd defense of this habit of theft as well, the idea that once you post an artistic endeavor online, there’s an implied complicity on your part as artist–you’ve posted it or displayed it so therefore you’ve lost your rights. In speaking openly about clear instances of outright duplication I have noted an almost abusive form of chastisement for doing so, commentary completely devoid of the obvious problems associated with copyright, ethical behavior, and respect for ourselves as artists.

It’s critical that we use social media carefully, that we develop the ability to separate playful, artistic abandon from the tension and stress resulting from the inherent competition that a “likes” based system encourages. The resulting desperation from this handicapped system of encouragement from outside, anonymous sources just reinforces this total lack of self reliance, and breeds sameness, and uniformity. Devoid of the professional ethic of the working artist, we find ourselves lost in a jumble of ridiculous commentary, ruinous and frustrating instances of plagiarism that never help us to grow as photographers, and desperately childlike behaviors that reduce us all as creators.