Assault Portraits

Prince Street at Broadway, New York City

34th Street at 7th Avenue, New York City

November 2018

Both portraits were done within a few days of each other. I guess I’m not exactly predictable, even as I walk down the street I often find myself losing interest and following an intense whim. Both of these pictures were sudden occurrences, impulses followed before moving on to the next happenstance. It’s all right there in front of every one of us each day, time after time seeing something different, or seeing the same things differently.

Assault portraits? Why this title….the man, who’s name I don’t recall, is someone I stumbled on late one afternoon, catching him in a state of pure, bewildered anguish. Although he attracted a sympathetic eye, bystanders kept a wary distance and, except for a few generous donors, he was left alone.

What’s interesting here is him and me. Because, two days before, I had been seriously assaulted on the street, randomly beaten in the face for no reason as I walked down Avenue A. My camera was tucked away, invisible, and so there was no photography happening at the time–just a strange instance of one woman taking out her anger on a stranger. Although I never got the telltale black eye or bruised face, I experienced great swelling and now have a damaged right eye with permanently altered vision.

As I did his portraits, I asked him to go into the nearby subway station where he could warm up. This day was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving and it was becoming bitterly cold in New York City. He told me he couldn’t go into any of the nearby subway stations because he fights with people….and the attendants will call the police. I was initially interested in photographing his hands, and I thought that his propensity to start fights could explain why his hands looked so worn down and disturbingly strong….almost like a character from a comic book franchise. They really were unique and, unfortunately in this instance, I was not walking with my full frame A7riii, and didn’t really produce the amazing picture of his hands that I’d hoped to.

As we did these pictures, and he admitted that his violent impulses impacted his ability to find and maintain shelter for the past 14 years, his anguish and despair over his inability to find his way out of his life became overwhelming. I felt that it was ironic that our paths should cross, considering my recent experience. He said, moments after this picture, that he just wanted to crush someone’s skull. I moved away, and, on this frenetically busy corner just before Thanksgiving, he registered my sudden apprehension and quickly assured me that he didn’t mean me. I decided to tell him a bit about the unprovoked attack on my face suffered at the hands of a woman I’d never seen before two nights ago, and as I did I realized suddenly that he was responsible for dispensing his own random assaults on innocent bystanders. I thought it was almost comical, this particular portrait subject and photographer meeting on the corner of Prince Street and Broadway. He registered genuine disbelief after learning about what had happened to me, and was shocked and angry on my behalf. He couldn’t understand why the woman had hit me….. and counseled me to be very, very careful on my way home.

Saul Leiter

Solitaire (subway platform at Grand Central Station, NYC)

Even though I never gave a moment’s thought to Saul Leiter, I have him to thank for the above image.

R Train Portrait Near Prospect Park

This one, too…and this:

And this, too…and many more in this series that I’m not going to show at this time.

Before Saul Leiter, I thought about: Helen Levitt:

….and still do, because her work is a huge personal influence and she is one of the greatest artists ever to walk the streets with a camera. I think of Salgado (who doesn’t??):

One of the most memorable portraits I’ve seen…Salgado.

I love many many photographers…Levitt and Salgado are only two, two that come to mind in the moments as I write this.

But what about Leiter?

I never gave him a second of my time. I never once thought about him or his work or where he lived. I dismissed him immediately, as I had heard from another photographer that his influence was strong in some circles, and because I didn’t respond to the lifeless imitations I assumed that I’d dislike the original article.

Out of bored, rainy-day-in-New -York-City curiosity I threw the name “Saul Leiter” into Google and I came up with this:

Saul Leiter, East Village

And this:

Saul Leiter

Along with these beauties:

Saul Leiter

How many times have I seen this condensation picture on Instagram? More times than I can count…but only the utterly unique vision, and innovative camera work of the creator is present in the beauty and subtlety of the original work.

Saul Leiter

I generally dislike umbrellas in Street Photography…and now I understand why there are so many of these images. Red umbrellas abound…but are there any with the sensitivity in these images? They are imitations of the genius present in the above work. I understand the desire to emulate these beautiful pictures–pictures, not “shots”–but they are impossible to recreate. It’s simply not enough to pick up a camera, and deliberately seek to take photographs like anyone else’s. These images came to him on a whim, an idea held aloft by a whisper, impossible to articulate. Just like we hope for every day, as we go into the world and search for an epiphany in a picture, and hope we are prepared to capture its uniquely beautiful character, as it will be almost gone before we register its presence. An image like this is an inimitable combination of the photographer’s heart, and insight, and vision…and point of view.

Leiter’s Umbrellas

Leiter was not attached to that often cited attribute of modern photography known as “sharpness” (I am guilty of this myself…) He didn’t post his vision on social media. He did these beautiful works on his own, in a time when his thoughts on color photography were at odds with the prevailing opinions and expressions in Street Photography. Black and white was the fashion, and color was looked upon dismissively and disdainfully.

Saul Leiter

I wonder this: if there had been Instagram or Flickr or any other social media outlets during the time (1940’s through to the 1970-80’s) that Leiter was most actively creating his work, would he have continued? Would he have felt discouraged by his lack of “likes”, because his work was not fitting in with the popular trending ideas about color photography produced by other street photographers? Would he have begun to believe that he and his pictures were completely without value, and would he have stopped making his pictures?

Could Leiter have conceived of how many times his work would be mercilessly copied once he was unearthed? No…and quite honestly he may not have cared about it at the time….until he realized that other people were actively profiting from his original images, while he sat unable to pay his bills. Thankful we should all be that social media had not yet been created, and that Saul was left alone, ignored, and able to produce his outstanding works of art unfettered by the need to please, or influenced in any way by popular thought.

“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way.”

Saul Leiter

I know that I dismissed him….until I left my preconceptions behind and took a look at the original, inspired and inspiring work of Saul Leiter. And it has changed me forever, in my approach and in my understanding of creative self expression and originality.

I believe that it’s critical to find our own vision and voice, and resist the many temptations that seeing the work of other artists on a daily basis present to us. My thoughts and deficits and emotions are working together, however dysfunctional they may be, to create a new series of pictures that I feel are representative of what’s going on around me and in my head. Although my pictures are nothing like Leiter’s, I hope to be able to retain some semblance of originality in this tidal wave of pictures, of influences and influencers. There will never be another Saul Leiter. He forged ahead, mostly broke, selling off his possessions periodically to pay his bills, taking his photographs and living in a tiny apartment in the East Village. He didn’t care about what you or me or anybody else thought about anything he did artistically on his own time. He didn’t post on social media, and he most certainly did not copy his style or images from works that preceded him or from other photographers of his time. He was a true artist, and worth far more than he ever got paid.

Documentary about Saul:

A beautiful film, worth watching. A scene from the movie I found to be especially poignant was the short view of him holding his most current camera….not a Nikon or Leica or Canon or Sony A7riii….this legend sat, holding a camera that most camera aficionados would loudly deride.

Forget about YouTube and Instagram for an hour or so, and give the work of Saul Leiter some time. And, if you do, remember that he didn’t give a shit about “likes”. And go out, and seek a vision, your own and not someone else’s…..forget the falsehood that is social media and follow your heart, and your own path will reveal itself.

Saul in his East Village Apartment….111 East 10th Street


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:

Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.


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.


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… 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.


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:

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.


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


Looking For A Spot