Secrets

N Train, past masters, social media and the XT3.

I am leaving some things behind. I am, at this time, so excited every time I go out with my camera that even on my most tired and strained, New York City-has-me-down kind of days, I am able to become completely ensnared by this photographic journey. I am very interested in making pictures of split seconds, of trying to convey a feeling, and a real sense of time, and how ephemeral it is, for all of us, in every place we find ourselves. In New York, I have many many people and places and things to play with. An unending canvas on which to make whatever points I please. But….it’s possible anywhere, anytime….with considered adaptations, any location can suit.

I will always seek to connect with people, always try to create images that I feel are my interpretation of classic Street Photography. But….I am changing. And I feel that there must be a new way to express this world we’re in….the minutiae, the second to second passage of time. Every footstep I take someone else’s foot has been there before me. But, for the moments that my feet connect with the particular patch of pavement, that section of Manhattan is mine. As soon as my foot loses connection with that spot, it ceases to be mine. It will become someone else’s spot, and as I go, I claim, for a minute amount of time, a succession of footsteps on pavement. Territory that is only transiently mine. And that’s time…everything and everyone is already in the past.

So…..how do you convey this in a picture? Here is a moment with a little girl on the N Train. This image is conventionally done, relatively anyway. But for every single action and position we take ourselves or observe others take, there is, everywhere you look, another action or position in close proximity. Contradicting and coinciding and synonymous all at once….how is it possible to present all of these conflicts and textures in one image?

One critical problem for me is having a tool, in this case a camera, that can satisfy all of my needs. It’s very tricky, finding a suitable middle ground, achieving a balance that fulfills all required elements. Image quality, speed and ease of use are big considerations. With the new work I am currently producing, speed and adaptability are key. Image quality is critical but I have to sacrifice a few megapixels to get the pictures that convey this ephemeral passage of seconds.

I’m still at work on these new images, and I love every single minute I spend working on them. I’m not sure yet about when I want to share them. Bringing original views can be difficult for artists….after all, all of this work will be on view, and retaining originality becomes impossible once people begin to imitate the work. I’m so grateful for past masters that retained their personal photographic style, relatively un-influenced and unaffected by the work of their peers, because everybody’s work was not on a daily feed thrust out into the void. They worked on their own, following their own footsteps, blazing a path through the woods with effort and vision. Now….well worn paths host many feet, and very few trails meander into the woods off these popular routes.

I am loving the process of making pictures. New camera in hand, I can honestly say that having the proper tool changes everything. It’s critical as well to separate the privilege and joy of making pictures from the display of them for immediate public consumption on Instagram.

Right now I’m happy to use a camera (Fujifilm XT3) that can keep pace with my ripping, tearing crazy thoughts, and allow me to appreciate the act of photography at its most basic.

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.

Fade

Janie in July, Geno’s Steaks, Philadelphia

Now it’s late August. I left Philadelphia July 30….and the intensity is gone, replaced by my day to day life in New York City. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and spent part of my adult life living in Center City Philadelphia. So going back this past July was a bittersweet and at times bitter and difficult journey. Janie was a big part of my experience there….she represents to me everything that’s right and wrong about the world I see on the streets as I walk incessantly with my camera. The complexities and contradictions, the necessity to understand all sides of a story to get a complete and honest picture. The rush to judge immediately without taking the time to allow all sides to weigh in.

Here’s the thing. I recently stumbled across a National Geographic short film about a pod of Orcas being studied and filmed by a photographer. The project is long term, and the short video begins by showing us a view of a lone stingray, cruising at a medium distance from the camera. The waters are a calm and a subdued blue, Heaven in the ocean waters. The calm and peace and beauty of the ray as it pulsed through the water was magical and timeless. Suddenly, an Orca appears in the frame. At first it appears as if the animal will do a close and curious pass, and nothing more. It moves along, surges past the beautiful and solitary stingray as it continues on its trajectory through the peaceful waters….and the viewer is tricked into believing that the Orca was just curious and is ready to allow the ray to continue along its life path. At the last moment, just when you think the Ray is safe, the Orca lashes with its tail, giving the ray a punishing blow to the weak, white and vulnerable underside. It’s such a shock to me, this sequence. I had an intense reaction, especially when I learned that the Ray may have been ascending to give birth, common behavior in this species I learned. The totally mismatched pairing is visually and conceptually stunning. The Orcas harassed and tossed the ray, slamming it until it was overwhelmed by disorientation, unable to even attempt to escape the area. The video stopped revealing the blows, and instead resorted to narration. After over an hour of what appeared to the researcher as some kind of display of strength and physical competence by the pod of Orcas, using the ray to project power to the nearby humans, the ray eventually lost its life, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. It was never able to give birth, and the mammals never consumed the ray. The knowledge that it fell to the deep was irreversible, and struck me painfully and harshly, especially after I had seen it swimming so beautifully, its mastery of the waters so clearly stated. It’s impossible not to correlate this occurrence with some of what I see and photograph, this completely random set of meetings and happenstance, whether it’s shooting a picture on the street or witnessing a car accident. Or watching Janie try to make her way through a crowd of people, or attempting finding a safe place to sleep. The difference is that Janie can sometimes fight back, in a way that a creature like the ray couldn’t manage. When Janie does display her coping mechanisms and adaptations made to stay alive in her state of being, she becomes even more of an outcast, teased by insinuating laughter, annoyance and disgust and revulsion mingling in equal parts.

Janie’s Suitcase

Rosary

Looking For A Spot

More Than A Feeling

Janie, 9th And Passyunk

Summertime in Philadelphia. I thought I’d never return….I hadn’t set foot since my son was three. That was twelve years ago, and when I returned it was like slipping on an old and comfortable robe, smelling of home, safety and familiarity mixing with the edgy reality of life in Center City, and all of it scented with freshly baked bread, and fried onions, and garlic and fresh grass and The Reading Terminal.

When I walked through my temporary neighborhood in South Philadelphia ( I was there for one month to circumvent an apartment situation in New York) I was surrounded by memory. It was profoundly absorbing, and I found that I was at first feeling very detached from the city. That initial feeling very soon disappeared, and in its place I found an intense feeling of security.

When I saw Janie one morning on 9th Street, seated on a red metal bench outside Cafe Crema near Geno’s Steaks in the Italian Market, I was immediately and completely captivated by her intensity and her state of lone solitude. She sat, eyes closed, holding a wooden rosary and locked in prayer.

Unknown

Alexandra In Washington Square, New York

It seems more and more these days, as I look at photography and art, I am struck by how ordinary it seems. I recently wandered into a gallery on Bowery, and was fascinated by a striking painting technique. I thought: what a genius…the artist had modeled the figures of his subjects with broad paint strokes, visualizing their limbs as hollow interiors, showing a 3D mastery of subject such as I had never seen. I asked the gallerist and….it seems he uses programs and software to do the visualization, and then……he copies. What had struck me as an individual and exceptional method of personal expression and virtuosity was simply a cheat. As people become accustomed to these over the top, stimulatory cheats, they become progressively more insensitive to natural gradations of subtlety. This issue is prevalent in photography as well….especially my beloved street photography. Simplicity is a keynote that, as time goes on and we march into the future, few people seem to grasp these days.

Mother’s Day

Heaven And Her Mother On Houston Street, NYC

When I met Heaven one day on Houston we immediately clicked. As much as you can with an almost five year old….I understood her immediately. She reminded me of myself, and of a few women I’ve met on Skid Row. She made me realize with extreme clarity that life really can be very unfair and completely impartial at the same time. She’s got what she’s got, and it’s just the reality of her life. She is just another little face in HRA, the welfare system in New York City. Which is the only way I can explain to myself why she is with her mother and stepfather, who were high and dealing drugs openly on the street. To me, her face was distinctive and stood out from most that I see every day. Unfortunately the brutality of social demographics and dismissive thinking by most of us judges her to be nondescript, like so many children who lack resources in neighborhoods all over the world. I mean, it’s the truth, isn’t it? She’s mixed race, and it’s a sad fact of life that children of color get overlooked and ignored and trapped and it happens constantly. As we sat on the sidewalk, me snapping a few pictures and listening to her baby rambles, we listened to her parents, bickering and hollering and arguing with others on the street as they transacted and interacted. Her mother was hard to communicate with, and was openly very high….At one point Heaven whispering to me that it was a little weird….

I was very happy to hang with Heaven. Her mother left her with me….we got ice cream. Anything goes with me….I roll with whatever happens. Was it strange that they just walked away, leaving her with me, as stranger? As I sat with her on Houston I looked for her mother and stepfather. They were gone. We waited, and they finally reappeared. Her stepfather accompanied us to Oddfellows, a too sweet, self important ice cream shop in its newest location on Houston Street. We went in, looking very out of place in the crowd of hipster/uptown downtowner clientele. After she finished her ice cream, her stepfather, in an oddly bold move, stole as many napkins as he could handle from one of the napkin dispensers in the shop. I tried to pretend that I didn’t see this…..but I’m not sure I pulled it off.

I don’t care what people think most of the time….but I was surprised and uncomfortable with his behavior. Heaven loves sprinkles and experienced great joy in Oddfellows, and a week later I returned with her.

She was wise…and knew her situation was not good. She smiled at me many times….and we hugged. I felt awful when I left. I had their contact information and I’ve seen them twice since that first time. It’s hard to stop thinking about Heaven, and what the odds will be for her. It’s harsh and raw and hurtful to say, but I know it well from my experiences in life….sometimes we’re bound to people that just don’t fit or support us. The feeling is like having a foot caught in a commercial fishing net as it’s dropped into the ocean to troll for fish. Once it’s pulled to the surface after the struggle has been long over, the continuing attempts to bargain for a better existence with those in our lives that we’re stuck with is a thing long forgotten.

Forgive me for saying….