Crossing The Line, Gleefully?

Utica Avenue, Brooklyn

So when does Street Photography become rude, crude, base and lewd? Hmmmm….I love this picture but in no way do I feel that it’s for everyone. Did I put it on social media? No….mostly because it got lost in the avalanche of summertime New York pictures. But, in all honesty, I don’t feel entirely comfortable blasting this one to thousands at once because, although it’s a definite street truth, totally accurate and a part of the landscape in some places, it can be considered to be grotesque for two reasons: one, there’s a child’s face in the juxtaposition and two, there’s a very clear image in the background that isn’t exactly flattering. But….who cares?? Street imagery isn’t perfect and it should include every last bit of truth and reality that can be crammed into the frame. I know, however, that the audience that will view this will not understand that, and that it could be considered to be an image that is racially insensitive. And, although there are many sights to behold in the Brooklyn summer sun that are just as provocative and bare, there are many whose ears will turn a brighter shade of pink. So….for social media, Instagram in particular, this one is a no go.

Chocolate Sleeps

This was recently posted to Instagram. This is Chocolate, and, the not-so-observant observer can see that she is relaxed. Her body language, most notably evident in her leg position, is aware, and unobstructed by grief. She is happy in the afternoon sun. I operate my camera almost exclusively with a wide angle lens (16mm, 24mm full frame equivalent) and so it’s pretty apparent that I’m lying down on the sidewalk alongside her, very close. An image like this requires complicity and permission, both of which are in clear view here.

So….this one is a true slice of life, on 6th and San Pedro in Skid Row, Downtown Los Angeles, California. You can’t shoot pictures like this one sans permission, not here….and yet, I had to staunchly defend this image. I cannot anticipate the vagaries of the poisonous atmosphere with which politically correct thinking has blanketed society. I feel that racism is in clear evidence on social media, and I see it in ways that affect me personally as a photographer. Had the woman in this image been a younger, white female I have no doubt that she would have received far more attention, and me support as a photographer. It’s a damning truth, and I can’t say it out loud to my adult audience but, when I speak to school aged kids between the ages of 12 and 15, they get it immediately and without all of the roundabout bullshit that I find many adults who view my images seem to be mired in.

How can anyone shoot genuine street photography and leave out everything that leaves a question? Social documentary/Street Photography should push the limits, seek to expose, enlighten and question….life is in evidence everywhere, and nothing and nobody deserves to be omitted.



How do I tell you about choices. You have them always, and make them with and without thought. Everything and everyone feels just right or not at all and you either go with it or not. It feels ok to wake up with the sun early, or with the sun late.

I sit down, and contemplate the beauty of skin in the light, and I think briefly about the pile of things that I’ve done wrong. I don’t reflect because really all I care about in this moment is just how I want to frame this unexpected beauty. I feel distracted by some small, nameless memory…a loss, a reflection, a missing piece….and I wonder as I make these pictures about light and movement and shades. I think about Jack Kerouac a bit and try hard to move fast so as not to lose these moments in the sun.

I remember what it was like before I had an understanding about what true regret feels like, and how it felt going to sleep at night with a weightless head. Always assuming that it would remain so.

How do I say that the decisions now can forever alter everything. Skin and the sun will never be the same, revised as each long day passes on the streets of whatever new city, and with my experiences I understand that I may return in a year or more and find that skin in an accelerated gestation between birth and old age, and find myself remembering its former purity.


Rene Outside

I don’t know. The question: why do I take these pictures? What is it for….I have trouble articulating why I do these things. The closest I can come to answering would be to say that it blows my mind, so many little unwritten stories, unseen and therefore invisible to most. Sometimes I find that these brief stories are analogous to a little window, like something out of a Madeleine L’Engle story….a magical aperture that allows a glimpse into a detail. A detail, a small occurrence, a bump on the road….or a face imbedded in a sea of many. This little window can illuminate a brief sequence of events that may be relatively insignificant but profoundly meaningful at the same time….if only to the one experiencing it. How many stories are out there…captivating and tragic and beautiful and absorbing, as each of our lives is. My intense, daily experiences are my own….and remain with me until I die. When that happens, they’ll die with me.

So why not tell a little story? A little big story of somebody else’s life, just a few pictures and words.

I found out that Rene was something of a regular visitor to the McDonald’s on Canal Street, stopping in to read his paper and drink coffee. I went back, and spoke to a guy who knew Rene when I showed my pictures….and he said he hadn’t seen him since the holidays, come to think of it. Robin said that he normally sees Rene in the subway at night as well….So whatever happened that day was more significant than I realized at the time.


Rene struggled to stay upright and balanced. My last picture of Rene.

Christmas Day….Assumption.

Rene In McDonald’s, Canal Street

I had agreed to meet someone to take some pictures on Christmas Day. I don’t generally prefer to wander with other people for the purpose of shooting street photos because I find that the distraction causes me to miss pictures. It was a very cold Christmas Day, and I went to the meeting place, the McDonald’s on Canal Street. Many people were packed into the place, taking refuge from the strangely penetrating cold air. I saw someone, hunched and swaying over a meal, and of course, I instantly assumed him to be homeless. I wondered if he was drunk, and sleeping in the relative warmth or just fatigued from a night in an edgy shelter situation….my assumptions were incorrect I learned later.

Rene tries to stay alert

He seemed to be struggling to stay awake, or conscious, or so my assumptions went. I felt that inexplicable drive to take his picture, and I crouched near him, despite being moderately embarrassed to be seen by others as I did so. Why did I feel this way? Because I hadn’t yet spoken to him, and I was uncomfortable taking his image in this situation without having first communicated with him. I thought that the picture was important enough to steal, and so I did. For whatever unknown reason, some people just hit me and once I lock on I don’t stop.

Rene’s Eyes

I roused him and asked if he needed something. I told him he was falling asleep in his sandwich. Can I get you something? He was slurred a bit, and seemed out of sync with the surrounding hustle and noise of the McDonald’s foot traffic. He was very disturbed by the constant cold draft of the entrance, and couldn’t make peace with the icy blasts that punctuated nearly every moment. His eyes were beautiful and warm and kaleidoscopic. Instantly engaging, and at odds with my initial assumptions. They were alert, and warm, and happy to see me. And it was Christmas Day….and his happiness at seeing me was irresistible.

hot coffee

He wanted hot coffee and I hustled to get it for him. My friend had by this time arrived, a fellow street photographer, and he gave him some fresh orange juice. It was a strange paradox, my assumptions of drunkenness, mental illness, or monumental fatigue caused by too many nights without shelter. I feel stupid now….as I sat, I realized that he didn’t smell of alcohol. His eyes told a different story. He was able to follow the conversation and, although his physical self behaved otherwise, his eyes conveyed no slouch, or sleepiness, or anything at all aside from a pleasant warmth at being the center of attention on a cold Christmas Day in the McDonald’s on Canal Street.return

We left to wander Chinatown. I told Rene I’d come back to check on him later in the afternoon….I figured he’d be long gone by the time I returned. I didn’t last long outside…perhaps two hours. The cold destroyed me that day….I could not get myself together. I apologized to my friend, because I just wanted to go home. My obligation to Rene and my cold fingers directed my footsteps, and I found myself back in the McDonald’s, and saw that Rene had never finished his orange juice, or his coffee, and was slumped insensible. This was odd, and after this picture, I roused him once more.

This McDonald’s and many others serve as a refuge for homeless people. The two women in the background, Jennetta and Christine, explained to me. They suggested that I help Rene to the shelter located on Lafayette Street. I hadn’t intended on doing anything of the kind until they made the suggestion, I admit. They were right, and I realized that it was Christmas and in no way appropriate to leave him in this condition. I guess I would’ve sat with him for an hour or two….but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take him to shelter. And I’m sorry to say that I should have figured that out on my own, and didn’t. Thanks to Jennetta and Christine, Rene did get help.

With my friend’s assistance, Rene made it out of the McDonald’s. It became clear immediately that he never was drunk, or fatigued, or just another shapeless homeless guy that we all skirt past every day in New York and Los Angeles and everywhere else. He told us, in strangely slurred speech, that he had an apartment. He was, however, entirely unable to control his movements, and lacked even enough basic balancing skill to remain upright without falling over. He dropped his orange juice on Canal Street, and, along with the juice, exploded in frustration and dismay when he did so. He nearly fell on his head and I knew that he may have had a stroke and been unable to communicate his condition, and that he had taken refuge in the McDonald’s because he was unable to help himself or speak sequentially long enough to interest someone in order to get help. And….all those assumptions that we all make, every day. Assumptions about each other that can blind us to the most obvious situations. Put Rene in a small town coffee shop on Christmas Day and I believe he would’ve been hospitalized far sooner. So many people saw Rene, including me, and concluded that he was a homeless person and therefore beyond reach or sympathy. So he had sat in the McDonald’s for many many hours, until management kicked us all out and I realized that it was time to call 911.

Once EMS arrived, we were able to coax him into allowing himself the luxury of being cared for. The EMT’s were two strong and comforting men, and we let him go. I took a few pictures….but I’m not sure if I’ll use them in this entry. There is one I’ll consider. I don’t generally take pictures of people who are injured on the street or involved in any way with EMS. It’s unfair to do so in my opinion….

I haven’t seen Rene since Christmas Day. I’ve checked the McDonald’s twice….I’m nearby as I write this, and I’m thinking that today, January 9, 2018 at 11:01 a.m. Eastern Standard Time that I’ll go back and check that McDonald’s, just to see. I told him I would. I hope I see him again.

I’ll keep checking until enough time passes and I give up….but every time I pass the place, as long as I’m in New York City, I’ll peek inside, just in case.

2018: Wishes.


Wish Number One: Serendipity. Are occurrences like these two standing together in this moment a gift from the heavens? Or just naturally occurring, serendipitous acts of randomness and nature? I don’t know. But this kind of serendipity and the ability to recognize it instantly is definitely at the heart of street photography. Did I tell the child to stand there? No. Luck? Another word for Serendipity with the addition of hard work. I often worry that pictures like this one are gifts from some higher power…but truthfully? They are a product of an environmental alchemy that produces true gold when the right basic elements come together….and I hope to be a witness.


Wish Number Two: simplicity in Street Photography. This image made me crazy when it happened in front of me. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I only wish I had been using RAW in my camera–this is JPEG, as are all of my early images.

Much of what I see on social media that attains popularity are images that are heavily influenced by the photographers who craft them. I use the word “craft” for a reason. Smoky condensation, rivulets of moisture, streetlights and random body parts inserted into images of the street can be termed pleasantries, but solid street photography, at its core and in the best of circumstances, should be the use of elements that naturally occur in public places, juxtaposed in order to create a narrative or make a simple but elegant statement of time and place, artistically, organically, and without pretext. Or with pretext if that’s part of what an individual artist needs to implement in order to make a point. Using subjects, clothing, facial expressions, signage and whatever else is at hand to create a sense of social irony or to make an individual artist statement makes a memorable image….So style is great! Style and artifice are two different colors, though…..Artifice makes me sad, and the acceptance that this artifice in Street Photography has gained in social media and in some photographic outlets makes me sadder.


Wish Number Three: visions.

They don’t always come. I got one here: I saw it in my mind, and scrambled to position myself to compose this image. I only wish the car at the top of the ramp had been a bit further advanced into the exit which would have bumped the narrative elements here: the blind men, guiding one another, in the crosshairs of the advancing automobile.

Unfortunately, these visions sometimes occur to me after I leave a scene. Sometimes I don’t see the picture I should’ve taken until after I’ve left it behind….sometimes I see it minutes later, sometimes hours! What frustrates me is the image that I know I could have, would have, should have nailed…..if only I’d seen it at the time!


Wish Number Four: that I’m able to gain the trust it takes to photograph someone on the street, in a completely impromptu and unpredictable circumstance. This is an intimate photo done on a very public, Downtown Los Angeles street (5th Street between Main and Spring). Trust is everything and I don’t often find it here in New York…or maybe it’s me. Maybe I don’t care enough to aggressively foster it. Maybe my heart has not been captivated……


Wish Number Five: truth. I wish that more popular street photography included on the fly, randomly occurring juxtaposed elements….I’m seeing lots of popular images on social media that are clearly concocted by the photographers who shoot the picture. Condensation, rivulets of moisture, random body parts thrust into a carefully composed scene that reeks of artifice don’t capture the essence of the genre–they are created to capture “likes” from average users. Hooks, like those found in hit songs, are used in images too. They create a big hit on social media, and get lots of attention. My pictures as well….I keep it simple and real and it’s always a natural occurrence but some of the images that I’ve created that have received many, many “likes” are images with a strong hook, and definitely not my best work or even what I would point to with any great pride. But….although they pleased the taste of many, unfortunately some of these do not represent the best that I have to offer. My random street shots with a strong hook are sometimes some of my best, but sometimes not. There are too many forcefully concocted, gimmicky images that fail to capture the essence of the times that we live in, and this is ultimately going to defeat the art of street photography if we’re not much more careful in what we choose to “like” or promote.


Wish Number Six: the ability to notice the “insignificant”, and the sensitivity not to overlook what matters most, even if only to please myself.


Wish Number Seven: bravery. In bold face….the willingness to feel afraid and jump in anyway. That goes for taking the pictures of course, but what I’m really referring to is the unwillingness to allow the tastes or prejudices or disapproval of other people to dictate or control what I photograph and what I choose to show. The courage not to hide my strongest images out of fear that a photography organization or publication will not feature or choose my work because I’ve got images like this one of Christine in my stash. I hope I never succumb to this subtle form of censorship commonly practiced, the kind of censorship that operates by attempting to shame or exclude work that is rough and hard to look at.


My last wish. I hope that I continue to love the people I run across, and that I continue to adore the act of photographing what I see. I hope, with all my heart, that I don’t give up because I became too discouraged by the everyday disappointments that we all encounter. I hope to be able to overlook and ignore what I find distasteful, and instead focus on the aspects of life and photography that capture my soul.

Once Upon A Time

Christmas, Always

A long time ago, when my family was still intact, we had a box. An old, time softened cardboard box that contained all of our Christmas decorations. Inside there were funny little wax covered bows in different colors, from the late 1960’s. They didn’t have hooks, instead they had strings that were looped to be hung on individual tree branches. Their waxy coating flaked away more and more each year, and they were ugly. But we hung them anyway, along with my favorites, the hand blown Polish Christmas balls with Santa Claus, snowmen, and various other similarly themed items whose exact likenesses escape me now. I loved them, the delicate glass balls, colored pale blue and faded red and pearly white, early seventies colors, not the deeply garish ones seen today. It was Christmas time, Christmas for everybody….warm blankets, heated living spaces, a refrigerator full of food, all of the expectations that electrical current running through a modern home brings. It never once occurred to me that these things were paid for by my father, who worked himself raw attending night school while at the same time working a full time day job. I had no knowledge of or experience with not having enough, even though, technically, we were not quite middle class. I couldn’t conceive of a life without Christmas. Or imagine people who didn’t have everything they needed, and as I got older I still never understood anything other than having what I needed. I never really got the picture until I started taking pictures.

The Church Of St. Mary The Virgin

The first time I was cold. I was headed toward Times Square. Underneath the scaffolding which obscured the beauty and nature of the structure was a sign placed on the sidewalk, and I noticed suddenly that there was an old church, and the sign was signaling its presence. I climbed the short flight of stone steps, and noted the worn metal of the door handles, the depth of color, the shadows and the quiet and I stepped inside.

The first thing is the smell….of old wood, and incense, and a damp, musty smell of old clothing. Incense imbedded in every surface, its presence and strength at once soothing and unsettling. The second thing is the sanctuary of the place. There are signs stating that all are welcome to seek respite. A long aisle down the center divides the old pews, and to the left in the darkness and tranquility of this church so close to the pandemonium of Times Square were a dozen people. A dozen or so, hunched and shapeless in the shadowy interior, all sleeping. Their breathing is the only sound when there is no service. As I walked forward, I saw that most were men. I saw that each man had a folded cloth or towel or sweatshirt folded and placed neatly on the back of the pew in front of him. Most were resting their heads on the pews, cushioned by whatever the person had to fold beneath his head. In this way people are able to sleep upright and retain some privacy. The posture also allows for some security and self preservation, as opposed to being in a lying down, less defensible position. It seemed that there was a sense of truce in the space…..sleeping unmolested in the relative warmth of the church, the men were completely wiped out. Not drunk……exhausted.

Shapeless clothing and layers of old jackets and hooded sweatshirts and suitcases obscuring a small and forgotten population of men that few know are there, trying to sleep after a night spent on guard, respite until the church doors are closed and locked before 7 pm, and then back out into the cold. Not everyone is blameless, and on my third visit I felt a small and menacing draft of fear at a near confrontation. The church workers silently refill candles and empty the locked donation boxes, and the silence of the place could easily serve to cloak the sounds of a breathless struggle.

Minor Tragedies

Once there were three little kittens, and a mommy and dad cat. Now there are two little kittens, and only a lone sentinel of a mother cat, enduring in her silence, as she guts it out on the corner in front of the Whole Foods in Union Square On 14th Street. Someone stole daddy cat, and one of the kittens is gone, and there’s no one who will say what happened. A young couple, both struggling with addiction, use signs and felines to capture the sensitivities of those passing, and receive donations to keep themselves drifting. I see them on very cold days, cat and kittens on display. I used to believe strongly in the sanctity of the bond between all homeless people and their pets….but in truth it’s not always in the best interests of the animals. Especially when used for panhandling, it has only recently occurred to me that it’s unfair. Love aside. Because love isn’t always enough, contrary to the prevailing notion that it can and will conquer all obstacles and differences and evils. It’s just woefully insufficient, if it’s really truly present at all.

A little tragedy occurred here. Framed within the kitten’s ears is the shape of a girl. The dark required a wide open lens, and depth of field shortcomings render her beauty invisible. She wore over-the-knee, medium heeled black boots and a short black dress that was modern and pretty, tastefully done as opposed to being bare and exposed. She carried three silver party balloons, and had natural, dark golden hair that was illuminated by health and youth and the streetlights nearby. She squatted suddenly as I photographed the kitten pictured here, and began what was an earnest, studied negotiation with the male partner of the young and very strung out owner of the cats, a woman in her twenties who sits most days with the animals and her sign, blankets and cat food and baskets full of belongings, in almost all weather conditions.

I changed positions, and found myself listening closely as she tried diplomacy and reserve, offering to first buy food for the animals…..gracefully transitioning to her real purpose, which was to buy one of the cats to give it a home, in exchange for money and food for the cat’s owners. Her offer was met with defensive anger, and utter refusal. Her sense of urgency and frustration was carefully camouflaged by her ability to maintain a neutral expression that I’ve learned to project myself when photographing the homeless pets of panhandlers in New York City.

She walked away with her balloons. I spoke with her….she wanted to argue but recognized the futility. As she disappeared into the night down 14th Street, I felt deeply the sadness and irony and nearly criminal neglect that this refusal revealed. The little cat that missed a life of comfort and love and security with someone’s beautiful daughter living on her own in New York City still inhabits the corner near Whole Foods, unaware of the missed veterinary care and holiday gift wrapping and scented candles and cupcakes that no doubt inhabit the life of the young woman that walked off empty handed that night.

Walking Home

Saturday Morning, East Village

Bare feet….icy sidewalks
Snowy evening a few hours back…..
Saturday morning.

When I saw her yesterday morning I jumped out of my skin… amazing future photo, tantalizing, hanging over me…..snow, ice, barefoot, perfectly unblemished white legs….she must be a little bit over the edge. I didn’t see her face. She walked fast, and I didn’t get it initially. Not the image….the story. I thought: wow, she’s high, she’s in some sort of fugue state…..she’s out of it. She carried her shoes, flat flat sandals, nothing special. She was fast, not quite loopy but with just enough of a peculiar abandon to give the impression of gentle lunacy. The kind that hurts no one but the sufferer, and allows for an occasional predatory encounter that can be very damaging to an ethereal feminine energy.

I followed. And I hoped to grab a moment that fit her. I thought I needed her face. I thought to display her fully in the photograph, to show her without holding back. I didn’t know if she was beautiful, or ordinary….she didn’t feel commonplace. No matter her facial contours, there was nothing ordinary about her.

Nothing ordinary because she was doing what she wanted to do, without thoughts of observational judgement, the temperature, the wisdom of being barefoot on a New York City street on a cold cold snowy morning. She was being observed surreptitiously by others in the neighborhood, young couples out for brunch, together in their ordinariness. She was looked over and noticed and smiled at, strange smiles, abstractions. She walked and walked and walked with me behind her, and she was like a white rabbit on a wooded trail it knows well, weaving through thickets, between leafy obstructions, over bramble and under vine.

We walked very fast, I wanted very much to see her face. I wanted to know…..was she an East Coast, New York City version of a Skid Row beauty, a tragedy unfolding before a spectacular disintegration of some kind…. I thought this as I tried to keep up.

She stopped very suddenly on 13th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. My street….and the ordinary crept a bit closer to us. She turned to a glass door, a renovated building like many that have changed the face of much of the East Village. I saw her….and I suddenly understood completely. A chunky jeweled, big stoned necklace, quality false gemstones, Barney’s or Bergdorf’s or Saks hung precariously and crookedly from her neck. Her black strapless dress was hanging too low on one side, and her white skin shone healthy and well cared for. I asked her for a portrait, and she laughed and smiled and said No! Not now….:)) And I understood….she was on her way home, and didn’t want to soil her shoes in the snow, and was in a pretty daze from the night before, the haze of whoever she had been with and just departed from left over to warm and numb her feet to the cold, icy and wet sidewalks, and to render the looks and smirks she received as she made her way back to her burrow meaningless.

She was on her way home from Somewhere Else, a little like Alice In Wonderland, and a little like the white rabbit of my first impression…..and now it was time for home, a hot shower, and brunch with a friend.

So nice to see that some things haven’t changed in the East Village.