November 2020….Refusing help, navigating the stairwell, and seeking fresh air outside her apartment.
Ginette, East Village, New York City January 2020
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 January 2020 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, a marker of death and boundaries 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Here’s an image by 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.
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, 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.
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.
Looking For A Spot
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 singularity, a kind of enforced solitude, at once mutually agreeable and tremendously melancholy. She sat, eyes closed, holding a wooden rosary and locked in prayer.
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.