NYC and the Street Photograph

            When any street photographer gets on her hands and knees to pray in the morning, she points in one direction – New York City. There sometimes seems to be just as many photographers roaming the streets of the City as there are hotdog vendors or lost tourists. But why? One might think the infamous characters living in Los Angeles or the historic architecture of a city like Boston or Philadelphia might attract street photographers in droves, and one would be right; where there is a city, there are photographers out on the streets. But New York City stands out as the Mecca-metropolis of public photography. The legacy of New York has kept it in the forefront of the street photography scene since the very beginning.

            Photography was still a relatively new medium in 1893 when Alfred Stieglitz was carrying his 4x5 camera through the streets of New York City. Stieglitz, the lodestar of modern photography at the time, raised up everyday street scenes as fine art, bucking the painterly tradition many photographers saw as the only true artistic photographic style. Stieglitz and his circle, from Paul Strand to Lewis Hine, made the street scene an acceptable and powerful form of art through exhibitions at Stieglitz’s gallery 291 and his photo publication Camera Work. Stieglitz made New York the first home of street photography, beginning a legacy that draws photographers even today.

            Sparked by the work of Stieglitz, a whole school of photography grew out of New York City streets – the New York school of photography was the driving force of documentary photography in America from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s. One of the earliest followers of the New York school, Weegee cemented his spot as a street photography legend photographing breaking news on the streets of New York with iconic hard flash and equally heavy subject matter. Diane Arbus would borrow from Weegee’s style in the 60’s, as she toured New York making portraits of the lesser-seen population. Around the same time, Bruce Davidson brought the aesthetics of New York street photographers into use with longer form stories in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, following the plight of young New York City gang members and the residents of East Harlem. Breaking from earlier street photography conventions, the controversial Bruce Gilden used his “smell the street” style to capture the gritty characters and grimy situations of Manhattan and Coney Island in the 80’s and 90’s. His wide angle lens, hand-held strobe, and abrupt demeanor might not make Gilden the most pleasant photographer to meet on the street, but his photographs have undoubtedly become part of the New York street photographer mythos. And the legend continues today, as hundreds of street pictures are posted every day to social media, sending the streets of New York all over the world in seconds. Work from the likes of New York Street Photography Collective, through the power of the Internet, might be doing more to spread the legacy of street photography in NYC than any prior movement. New York will not soon lose its title as the street photographer’s Mecca, and the metaphor might only grow truer with time.

This is not meant to be an all-encompassing history of street photography in New York City. Rather, it is a look at some of the reasons why New York City is my first thought when I hear “street photography.” The accompanying photographs, taken by me in July 2017, are also not meant to emulate any photographer mentioned above. I simply wanted to try my hand at capturing street scenes in the place where capturing street scenes was invented and perfected.

 
 

Final Project, Spring 2017

As I looked back at the assignments I completed this semester, I could see a few overarching themes. The biggest one, I thought, was that of creating a sense time and space. In my window project, I felt that I captured the essence of a long car ride, and in my home project, I sought to document my family through scenes of our sometimes cluttered house. I wanted to continue this theme with my final, but with a place I didn’t know as well as my own home or a friend’s car. To discover a new place and record this process photographically would allow me to explore the ways in which one can create a setting through pictures. I wanted the project to have a sense of discovery as I myself discovered this new place, and discovered a whole new way to take photos. I used a 6x12 Noblex medium format film camera, lugging it over my shoulder as I rode my bike from RIT’s campus to a neighborhood right over the Henrietta-Chili border. I think the panorama aids in giving the final images a cinematic and story-like quality, while also bringing to mind the idea of capturing a landscape, even though most of the photos are not traditional landscapes. The “grand” format of 6x12 also serves to illustrate the celebration of the suburbs that I wanted this project to convey. The place I chose to document, a small suburban neighborhood, interested me as a subject because I know how interesting suburbs can be. It sometimes confuses me how many people my age only ever dream of leaving the suburbs. I love the suburbs, especially neighborhoods that were not developed all at once. These communities grew as the nation grew, and a surprising amount of history exists behind their weathered picket fences and fading lawn ornaments. Yards, backyards, open garages, driveways, and front porches all reveal something about who lives in a house, and that in turn reveals something more about the community as a whole.

The inspiration I took while making this body of work includes a few well known photographers, and some that have yet to become widely popular. I think I keep William Eggleston in the back of mind whenever I shoot, but for this project specifically I would like to capture the mundane details as he did - things that speak about the place in such a subtle matter that it’s sometimes hard to notice. A lesser known photographer I drew inspiration from is Patrick McCormack, who I found through Instagram. I think he is master of light at night, shooting wide scenes, city streets, and suburban towns devoid of people but still capturing the feel of the place. I wanted to borrow McCormack’s use of form and simple composition in my photos. Another photographer I found through Instagram is Neil Ta, who for many projects works in panorama. His panoramas work better than most because he fills the whole frame and everything in the frame has a compositional purpose. This, I feel, is the hardest thing to do when shooting in such a wide format.

The process of making these images was the highlight of my second semester as a freshman at RIT. I love to ride bikes, not for sport or to work out, but just to explore the place where I currently reside. It is the best way to see what a community is like and who lives there. I was not trapped behind a car window, nor was I walking for hours a day to cover the ground I needed to. Pedaling slowly down the streets of my chosen neighborhood, I took in as much information as I could, hoping always to spot something interesting. When I did, I would hop off my bike and setup my tripod, mount my camera, check my exposure, and finally frame my subject. This procedure admittedly took some time at the beginning but eventually became second nature. Because of the wide format, one roll of medium format film only allowed me 6 exposures, so I only ever made one frame from each subject. I took my time and made sure everything was how I wanted it before I hit the shutter. I would take anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to setup and take one shot, sometimes drawing a quizzical look from a neighbor or a bashful wave from a kid walking home from the bus stop. Only one person ever stopped to talk to me and ask about what I was doing.

I was kneeling on the ground, setting up my tripod and camera to take a photo of a large patch of dandelions and a John Deere tractor in someone’s lawn. As I looked up to make sure the sun would not hit the lens and create glare, I saw the owner of the yard looking at me from his porch. I looked from him to the sign reading “NO TRESPASSING – Violators will be shot, survivors will be shot again” hanging on his gate. I picked up my camera and moved it to the side of the street before looking at the man again, now noticing he was older, perhaps in his late sixties. From across his front yard I made a motion asking him if I could proceed with my photo, and he assented with a nod. I made my picture, packed up my camera, and walked up to the man’s porch to thank him and hopefully smooth anything out if he had hard feelings. I told him I liked the how the colors of the dandelions in the grass matched the paint on the tractor (this was before I ditched the idea of using color film). As he shook my hand, he said in a smoker’s voice, “Well, you might like it, but the county has been trying to get me to move that thing for years.”

I laughed and asked his name. Gary, he said, without adding a last name. He asked if I was from RIT, and I said I was indeed, a photojournalism student. He said he used to see photo kids taking pictures on his dead-end street all the time years ago, but not so much anymore. I shrugged and said I like to photograph neighborhoods. He asked if I wanted a “cup of joe” or some “pop,” and I said I could go for a coffee.

Gary walked down from his porch and into his garage. I hesitantly followed.  His garage looked a lot like my dad’s; tools scattered around oil stained counters and flea-market memorabilia hung up on the walls. He made me a cup of instant coffee using the hot water from an old Keurig. He sat and talked as he smoked cigarettes and I drank coffee. He said he had lived in that neighborhood since he was born, only moving once, just across the street. He didn’t go to high school, but enlisted and served as a radio operator in Vietnam. He worked in a mechanic’s shop after the war. We talked about antiquing and America’s current political situation. We had been talking for about half an hour when I asked Gary if I could take his portrait. He said, “No, I don’t have pictures taken of me. Even my family knows not to put me in any pictures, not even at Christmas or when we go to the beach.” I said that was fine, I understood. I thanked Gary for the coffee and said I had to get back to campus, I was already late for a class. I left my name and phone number so he could call me about some old cameras he had laying around, he wished me luck with my pictures, and I rode home.

This photo did not make it into my final project as it hung in the Photo Arts II walkthrough, but I think it deserves a spot here.

Talking with Gary made me think about my project a little deeper than I had originally expected to. Here was a man who no one would ever photograph, at least without his permission, and here I am, a photographer, trying to make a story. If I could have, I would have made my final project about Gary – he is an extremely intelligent man who only finished 8th grade, enlisted in the Army, and now collected old tractors. But I could tell it would be a fool’s errand to sell him on the idea of me photographing him for an extended amount of time. So my photos of the neighborhood where Gary lived took on a new meaning, if only just to me. I think they represent Gary and many of the people who live in that neighborhood, those who didn’t have the opportunities that others take for granted. They are people that work with their hands, people I hope appreciate the physical, methodical process with which I made this project. The photos show a place where people live with no pretensions, because that’s the only way they know how to live. Gary wasn’t ashamed to say he didn’t go to high school 50 years ago, just as he isn’t ashamed to have a tractor in his front yard now. People in the suburbs live their lives without trying to meet anyone’s standards or fulfill any expectations. They live how they want to and how it suits them, and are usually quite kind and respectful on top of it all. I hope my photos here do Gary’s neighborhood justice, and that his tractor hasn’t moved an inch when I see him again.

Coming Home, Quiet Corners

I knew from the start that I was going to take many, many photos during my visit home over spring break. What I did not know was what my photos would be about. So many aspects of my home are interesting and important to me that I found it hard to think of a focus before I arrived back in New Jersey. So I covered all bases and shot just about everything. What I found when I came back to school was that the most compelling images I made were not of the people I saw or the different places I went, but the simple photos of the interior of my house. The ideas I had about these images starting growing right as I was shooting them and came to full fruition when I went back for another look.

The concept of this project was born in boredom. For two days out of my seven day break, I was home alone with nothing to do and no transportation to go anywhere - even if I did have plans. Besides reading and watching movies, I took pictures wherever the best light was in my house. I thought back to Uta Barth and how she can create such compelling and beautiful photos all from inside her own home.  At first I just shot to shoot, but I started to notice that certain parts of my house spoke a lot about the people that live there, and these places were usually corners. Corners of my house are where things collect and as more and more things start to occupy a corner, the more character can be drawn from the space. These photos turned out to have the most character out of all the images I shot over break.

Aesthetically, all of my images are very similar. I tried to keep the corner straight and as close to perfectly vertical as I could get for the wider shots. These wider shots serve as an overview of a part of my house, and the people who use that specific room the most. The tighter shots are all horizontal and focus on a detail of a matching overview shot to display a specific aspect of the corner, to show something I thought was particularly interesting or important. All the shots are shot with the best light that hits that part of my house, as I had a whole two days to see when the light was just right in each spot. As for the printing and display of my photos, I chose to display the wide and detail shot pairs together to show that each corner contains so many different little pieces. The photos together show a more complete view of each corner than if they were presented separate. I chose to also print the photos in a mini-booklet, with the pairs on opposite pages. I wanted to call back to wallet-sized family photos, because I really believe that these images represent the people that live in my house - my family. If I wanted to I could carry my own representation of home in my back pocket.

These images of my home represent my family and home better than group photos or posed portraits. Instead of seeing what my mom, dad, and sister look like, you see my mom’s clean kitchen and my sister’s cluttered room and the living room where my dad watches the news and grades papers. The photos tell countless other stories about my family through what is in these small spaces, places where things and memories and feelings collect. One just has to look close.

First Assignment, Second Semester, 500 Images

Coming back from a long break where I admittedly used my camera a lot less than I should have, shooting, having an assignment that required 500 images was something that definitely helped me get back in the swing of creating meaningful photographs. The assignment, given by my professor Angela Kelly, was "Windows." I think shooting those 500 images through and around windows made me think more about how to use light and form than I have previously. As for the window images themselves, I thought through a few different concepts and ideas before settling on something that I believed was interesting and engaging – shooting the majority of my images from inside a car. The aesthetics of my images are very much so derived from my concept, and the main focus of taking pictures through car windows helped me keep a consistent mood and feel throughout my project. The technical aspect of my project was not complicated, but did require some ingenuity and improvisation. All together, I feel the images I produced convey most of the feelings and ideas I wanted them to from the beginning.

I came upon the concept for my project while simply thinking what every-day spaces have windows. Houses, buildings, etc., I thought, could become boring. Shooting in a car, on the other hand, was something I had never done before. There were many possibilities for me to create photos I had never created before. As I shot and started to edit my images, I focused in on specific ideas I had about driving and being in a car. I remembered long car trips as a small child, looking out the window and sometimes just seeing scenery blur by, while other times picking out split second stories of people and places framed by the car window. These specific memories are what drove the rest of my project. I wanted my images to convey the feelings one experiences when all he or she has to do on a long car trip is look out the window and display all the beauty that exists in the world that passes by.

To create the feelings and express the ideas I wanted to in these images, I chose very specific styles that I think best align with my thoughts. The first style is that of a blurring out all the imagery outside the window while keeping the interior of the car in sharp focus. In this way, the world outside the car become distorted but recognizable, as most places look when going by at a high speed. While this first style came mostly from my own ideas about places and movement, for the second style represented in my images I drew heavy inspiration from the photos of Alex and Rebecca Webb. What initially brought me to their photographs were their own scenes shot from within cars, but I also found that their other photos had almost the opposite aesthetic nature as the blurry photos I had been taking. They perfectly and intricately frame moments in a very distinct way. I felt this style, shot from inside a car and using the car itself as a framing device, could represent the short moments glimpsed when an interesting person or place is spotted out the window. I chose to display images of the two styles together to make a more comprehensive and diverse presentation.

Achieving the types of photos I wanted did not take much complicated technical skill, but I did have to work around a few obstacles. To create the blurry pictures, I fixed my camera on a tripod inside the car and used a shutter release to take many images as the car went down the road. As the tripod still moved and bounced around a slight amount during the ½ to 3 second exposures, it was difficult to reduce all camera shake. As for the sharp images through the car windows, I used a faster shutter speed and a relatively deep depth of field to keep as much in focus as possible as I quickly shot pictures as people passed by. I tried to emulate the photos of Alec and Rebecca Webb as much as possible while still trying to make it apparent that I was in a car.

This assignment really opened my eyes to shooting in new situations and environments. Hopefully the images convey the ideas about driving, time, and motion that I think are really interesting and thought provoking. 

New Semester, New Website, New Blog

As I start my second semester at RIT, I think a personal website has become something I need. In all honesty I have put off making a website for some time, mostly because it is a daunting and sometimes expensive process. But to further my education and career, it must be done. And so here it is! Along with this website, I hope to regularly update this blog with not just the photos I am taking but also the projects I am pursuing and the places I am going. I would appreciate any feedback at all on the layout of my website and blog, and I will continue to update and improve both to the best of my abilities.