Representing Others

It’s healthy to wonder why a picture should exist. Why was it made after all? 

Exploiting the population density of New York, we can easily photograph strangers and then share them with far more people than could ever fit on one block. On the likenesses of strangers a public photographer might be possessive. 

Representation of strangers in street photography can be hard to justify. Some would balk at the notion of having to, but it can be perilous in an age of societal self-awareness and soul searching to photograph people you don’t know in public without asking yourself why. Exploitation and cultural appropriation are valid enough concepts to invest some time exploring. And you should want to gain the insights into humanity and the photographic practice that asking pays. 

 Take the following photos. The first one I find of interest only for the quality of light and admire how the camera was able to digitally produce such a spot on exposure without any help from photo editing software aside from a white balance adjustment. But in the end it’s just a picture of a woman doing nothing interesting and bearing no unique qualities herself. It’s a yeah so what picture. 

The second picture is more interesting to me even if the light isn’t quite as dramatic. There is a connection between the woman and I. It’s slight, but it’s ambiguous and somehow calming.


The third picture falls into the category of the first. Perhaps slightly more interesting, but still just a picture of a random person. There’s no unique interaction. Even though the photo got a strong reaction from a roomful of talented and thoughtful photographers at the last NYCSPC meeting, it just feels lifeless.


The fourth picture should be another what’s the point, but for me it’s not. I think it’s a strong image. Even though it’s just a guy, it feels alive and excites me.


See, this is why making points with words about photography can’t always hold up to strict logic. It’s subjective, it’s a feeling thing. It’s like trying to name a mental illness… maybe it can be useful to give it names, but in the end who the hell knows what’s going on in there. There are comorbidities. 

 But anyway, let me take a stab at a loose prescription: 

 The subject should be in the midst of a moment that is bigger than the act of you photographing them. Or else there should be some connection between them and the camera that disarms the reader. These are two ways to make a street photo be more than just a photo of some random stranger for no reason. 

Halloween NYC 2017

I made the portrait of the child dressed as Pikachu minutes after learning that New York had just suffered its worst terrorist attack since 9/11. I had him stand in front of a Synagogue that looks like perhaps it was also rammed by a truck. I don’t know, seemed appropriate. His mom was a little freaked by my choice of ugly background, but they lived. God help us. 

So here’s a rough edit of the day I produced in the wee hours of the morning. It doesn’t reconcile the uneven tone… some pictures seem a product of my original intent going in, while others clearly reveal the influence of violence that had to be. (Maybe I have one concrete example now of where going shooting without any preconceived notions may benefit the process). 

Anyway, a flawed look at a seriously flawed Halloween below. Thanks for reading. 

Heart of the art, too

Street photography, I think many have pointed out, is recognizable more by its spirit than its environmental setting. Whether on a street, in a subway car, a grocery store, a beach, a forest, a corporate press conference—what really defines street photography is its spirit.

And what could the spirit of street photography be? The ambiguity of its intentions, or the dissonance of witnessing and not understanding, or the signifying that a moment irrelevant to the world at large and largely inconsequential is both immediate, real, and striking, even possibly significant in some abstract way.

But my thinking is biased… I think part of what elevates street over other types of photography and even other art such as painting is that it seems somehow less arbitrary, more real. Rather than creating fictions, street photos highlight that which really exists unto itself, subjects with separate intention and autonomy. To work in this genre is to edit from the world, to not create something from nothing but to find something: a true artifact that is capable of showing things beyond its author’s imagination. That’s why street is… easy to justify. Why did I take the picture? Because the thing was there at the same time I was. 

And what about manipulation? It’s sort of a contradiction of all those lyrical interpretations if I’m going and meddling with the end product isn’t it? It’s like raving about the all natural fresh veggies before nuking them in the microwave. 

The picture above is warped, manipulated in many ways, both by the camera’s software, the photo editor’s various ways of interpreting a photograph—from how it renders color to how it adjusts for optical shortcomings of the lens, and also by my extreme meddling with sliders in post. But I guess subtle and automatic lens corrections aren’t really on the same level as actively going nuclear with manual distortion correction controls. 

Still, why not warp if I think it adds to the picture? What if I had shot this with an 8mm fisheye and got distortion as extreme as I created with the distortion correction sliders? Is it a matter of poor sportsmanship?Bad taste? Low morals? Is a heavily manipulated or composited camera-produced image still photography? 

For me, I generally don’t manipulate heavy-handedly, certainly not like the case of the bus above. In time I’ve felt it’s just not worth the hassle of moving pixels around. And to that end, I just started to process my raw files with Capture One instead of Adobe as I find it requires much less time moving sliders and adjusting color. Less work=more pictures.

But I did make a handful of manipulated pictures back in 2014, the most significant of which is “Headed Uptown”, which I released into the world without a thought of whether it was okay to present a heavily composited photo without a disclaimer. I am still unsure about that, but since learning how many seem to feel strongly that compositing is a transgression, I now err on the side of disclosure so none of my friends feel had. 

I’ll be honest, this kind of picture doesn’t excite me much anymore anyway—it’s the Marvel Comics movie of street photos and I’d rather watch Taxi Driver. The black and white and even the square crop are highly unusual for me, even the fact that it’s composited is an aberration, but at the time it just kind of begged to be made. And I share it because at the end of the day it’s a striking image that gets a huge response compared to much of my straight work, and I’m not immune to those effects. Plus… on my business card there’s no easier way to signal my chops in 2x2 inches. Whatever helps the stuff that I really like be seen.

Still I think the points of street photography that relate more to my feelings in the third paragraph of this post probably encapsulate why I really can’t find a place in my portfolio for an image like “Headed Uptown” or any other manipulated photograph. It’s just not what hits the spot these days.

Using Format