photography

Its amazing to learn more about a person who has achieved incredible things.  Vivian Maier is, I think, quite possibly the best street portraitist who ever lived.  Better than Bresson you ask?  Undoubtedly!  Bresson was a fantastic street photographer who was able to find incredible symmetries.  But he is not known for his portraits.  Vivian made incredible street portraits, and I would put her against the best.

That said, I am not so interested in talking about why her work is of superior quality, you can be the judge of that.  What I am interested in here is the how.  She is the greatest street portraitist for a reason and I think some of the below characteristics came together to form the perfect storm of a woman primed to accomplish such feats.

She’s a foreigner.  She was a transplant from the southern French countryside with no family.  This otherness enabled objectivity, perspective and intrigue.  The eye of the traveler is one that ever wanders.

She’s not intimidating.  You need to be discreet to shoot in the street.  In a street photography workshop I attended, the best shooter of them all was a 4 foot tall Asian girl.  Just think of who would get angry at her for taking their photo?  People were probably delighted!  When I (a six foot tall caucasian) shoot people and am caught, I just look like a jerk.

She focused on using only one camera – the Rolleiflex with an 80mm lens.  Imagine… using the same camera and lens for 40 years.  Studio photographers can switch equipment with the coming and going of the tides.  Switching between this equipment has minimal impact on them.  It’s not about the tools.  Street photographers require the camera to be an appendage.  A tool that is a living, unconscious extension of themselves.  40-50 years with one camera and one lens brought this unconscious relationship to exist.  Her mind’s eye merged with the viewfinders.  She probably saw things as a 6×6 square format.

She was a tough cookie, who was anything but social.  Personal relationships probably got in the way of her photography.  But what liberation!  To not have to worry about other’s incisive opinions and  influences.  Her anti-social behavior gave her the ability to be an individual in a true sense.  Also, being in solitude allows one to focus.  From my own personal experience, I have tried going out with friends and even strangers to shoot on the street.  But it doesn’t work.  I am distracted from my goal.  To be a good street photographer, you need to be alone on the street.

She practiced her solitude daily and began to cherish it.  She felt the need to take photos for herself.   This was an intensely private joy she experienced.  In the immortal words of Joel Meyerowitz “you can make prints out of this and share this… but at a certain point if you’ve done it long enough… you don’t really have to.  It’s for you.  It’s just for you.”  She felt the need to take photos for herself.  The need for sharing simply wasn’t there.

And while she lacked family in the typical sense of the term, the photos made her family.  Vivian surrounded herself with intimate moments with strangers.  She got close and saw people for who they were; humans.  What is family but deep emotional connection with others?  This humanity is evident throughout her portraiture.  Those strangers caught in a strange land doing strange work, they were her brothers and sisters.

Would she have wanted everyone to know who she was and her history (forensic history at that!)?  An emphatic no.  But her life and work shows us the special sauce required to make a great street photographer.

Take heed my friends.

-J

I never really mentioned it, but I’ve changed some of the style of shooting I’ve done over the past couple of months.  Partly due to the desire for new projects, partly due to the shooting of medium format.  I have slowed down, caught less candid snapshots, and focused more on a series or body of work than I have in the past.

Previously, I would shoot anything came my way.  This usually made for a bunch of shots on a roll that seemed to be randomly thrown in there.  There was little rhyme or reason to it (the only consistency being black and white film most of the time, the locations and my style of shooting).

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Not to say that everything I am doing now has a strict rhyme or reason. But one thing that has been a marker of my recent work is the shooting of fewer portraits.  I always thought portraits were the best but now I want to get good shots of both portraits and landscapes.  So I have focused more on landscapes.

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Portraits are beautiful and I will always love a good one.  But I feel like it’s almost cheating a bit.  Landscapes are tougher to get a good photo out of because they require more interesting subject matter (in my humble opining).

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The ultimate goal of course is to be able to grab both great portraits, landscapes and potentially the combination thereof?

Cheers,

J

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Wow.  The Pentax system is really great.  Yea Yea Yea… I know the Hasselblad system uses those amazing Zeiss T* lenses… PHOOEY!

PHOOEY I SAY!  Who can purchase a Hasselblad camera and 5 lenses for $800???  That’s right.  I got the entire above system for a little over $800!!  Here’s what I got:

  • Pentax 67 Body (along with viewfinder).
  • 45mm f 4.5 lens (21mm equivalent)
  • 75mm f 4.5 lens (37mm equivalent)
  • 105mm f 2.4 lens (52mm equivalent)
  • 135mm Macro f4 lens (75mm equivalent)
  • 165mm f4 lens (82mm equivalent) with leaf shutter :-).

All in very good condition.  To do the same with a Hasselblad system would have cost me something like $4-5 thousand (and probably much more).

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This system is superb. The lenses are superb, the quality of the camera body is superb and it just feels good to hold. The 67 is notorious for it’s ‘thunder-clap’ of a mirror slap when you open the shutter and indeed it is there.

But something feels kinda nice about the sound. I don’t care if other people hear my shutter going off. It’s sounds like some nice metal mechanisms doing their thing, all in synchronized harmony. In terms of sound, it also beats the Fuji GW 690 series. The 67 is more of a ‘FLIP-THWACK’ kind of sound. The GW is a ‘THWINGGGGgggggg…”. I added the trailing thing to add emphasis because there are these springs inside the GW that just keep vibrating and you can hear the shutter trip awhile after.

But what about that vibrating mirror? Well, if you’re doing really critical work, you can use the MLU (mirror lock up, if you’ve got one). I used it rarely. But honestly, I wouldn’t get this camera for ultra-critical work. Maybe that’s just me and the work that I do. If I was shooting really critical stuff, I’d shoot with the RZ67 (but that comes with its own headaches). If I was shooting critical stuff but wanted a rangefinder, I’d probably opt for a Mamiya 7 or 6. The Fuji 690’s are great and that negative is amazing, but I’d take the quality of the Mamiyas (you’d have to pay for it though).

In terms of feel, I got a great example with little beading on the body. The body is solid as a rock – not sure what kind of metal it is but it is fully metal with the heft to accompany it. Other cameras are definitely lighter which you’d expect.

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If you want to get into Medium Format… then the Pentax 67 along with it’s wonderful lenses and range of accessories will do you well :-).

Happy (Medium Format) Shooting.

J

If I didn’t take photographs I simply wouldn’t pay as much visual attention to things as I do.  The things photography gives us is strange.

The man in the above image is ambling along at 3 miles per and this is what he looks like at 1/125th of a second.  Of course shutter speed determines the amount of motion blur you capture.  The longer the exposure, the more motion the film captures and hence the blur.  But not all of this pedestrian is blurred… his right foot and left hand are sharp!

Why?  Well for starters, the right foot is securely planted and the rest of his body moving around it.  So no motion for the right foot.  The left hand is another matter though as it is swinging.  My theory is that while his body is moving forward, his arm is swinging in the opposite direction, in effect cancelling each other out.  The hand is frozen for my shot because it decided to swing at just the right speed…

Another example of a frozen foot:

Examples like these are in many places in my portfolio.  I like capturing people walking, and sometimes it works well.  However, for the most part, I need to freeze the action!  To do that you must have faster shutter speeds but unfortunately in the subway, that is not possible for the most part.

So what to do?  Shoot amblers and strollers in the street in the daylight and shoot standers in the subway.  Or shoot with flash.  Flash is another way of doing it but I have yet to venture into this territory…

Or…. just shoot someone who doesn’t walk to fast :-):

Happy shooting!

J

Simplifying your life can really teach you what matters. Imagine everyone got rid of the dish washing machine, car, computer, television, espresso machine and alcohol cabinet. America’s obesity problems and alcoholism would probably decrease and thereby increase our standard of living! Easy peasy!

Well maybe throwing out your modern conveniences is not so easy. But simplifying your photos is! This is the first lesson in taking better pictures and the first thing that amateurs should focus on. So imagine yourself a stripper and take off all of the extraneous fluff until you get to the bare essentials.

Photography has often been referred to as an art of reduction, so here are some tips about things to avoid:

1) Don’t photograph crowds. Focus on one individual.

In shooting street photography, it is really tough to shoot crowds unless you can find some way of making the crowd form some kind of pattern (if everyone is wearing a uniform for example). Normally a crowd is filled with people wearing different colored clothing and this just gives you a hodge-podge that is not that appealing.

Focus on shooting one individual that stands out from the crowd. This brings focus to your photo.

2) Take out multiple and conflicting lines. Focus on one or two lines.

Too many lines, or too many conflicting lines can be confusing to the eye. Remember this is about “visual comfort”.

3) Take out color. Shoot black and white.

There’s a reason black and white photography is so popular. It strips out the unnecessary complications of color! Taking away color allows the eye to focus on facial features, patterns, lines and shade gradations in an easier way than color does.

4) Take out text/brands/logos.

I have written about this subject here. Text is a major focal point and a major distraction. Brands make photos seem like advertisements. Stay away!

5) Shoot fast aperture and shallow depth of field.

By having the background out of focus, it brings focus to that which is sharp. In the majority of cases this should be a face.

6) Stay away from crazy camera angles and shoot at the height of your subject’s face.

This is a comfortable perspective for the viewer as we normally see others at eye level (unless you’re 4 years old).

7) Make portraits.

Making images of buildings is overrated (and very difficult to be successful at). Everyone comes to NYC to look at buildings. Look at the people you’ve come across and photograph them.

So those are some simple starting rules for street photography. These practices work for me so read through them and see which ones suite your fancy. Then incorporate!

Happy Shooting!
J

What is the nature of a mirror? What is it’s essence? Mirrors reflect that which is outside of it. So its nature is “aboutness” or “otherness”.

A mirror is perhaps the greatest metaphor for consciousness. Our thoughts are about something else. They reflect the phenomena of the outside world. In fact, we build mighty maps of the outside world inside of our heads. We have mental maps of our kitchen, our bedroom and our office. When someone rearranges the furniture, the changes surprise us and our mental maps must adjust accordingly.

As a kid, I would lie in my bed at night trying to objectify my consciousness. Take my ego, put it into a glass container, stick it on the shelf and marvel at it from a distance. Introspection, looking back at oneself, was always fascinating. But I never really understood why. There was this strange reverberation I felt from these private mental games.

Where did this buzz come from? Using the metaphor of a mirror directly, one might say that introspection is the same as two mirrors facing one another. And everyone knows when a mirror faces another mirror… new corridors are opened up. Introspection is no different. Consciousness manifesting the reflection of itself creates infinite dimensions that we can explore. So in turn we have come to a different conclusion about the mind. Rather than being a flat mirror reflecting exterior phenomena and devoid of intrinsic essence, introspection is the action which turns the mind into an expansive universe with new spaces and regions. A fount of potential.

So how does this connect with photography? How did we get here? How many reflections did it take to get here? Let’s retrace our steps:

1. My mind recognized some reflective surfaces and told my arm to bring the camera to my eye and compose a shot.
2. Clicking the shutter allowed light to penetrate the emulsion of a 35mm wide film frame for a split second.
3. This exposed film was then subjected to chemicals which stopped its light gathering abilities and fixed the reflection of the light it absorbed in place.
4. The film was then scanned by a digital scanner and saved to my computer.
5. I uploaded the file to this website and now your eyes are absorbing the light from your LCD screens and your minds are simulating the reality of that fleeting moment I originally captured.

Phew! Each step is a new direction the reflection has taken and a further development from the original scene I saw. The original reality I witnessed moved from my mind to film to scanner to internet to your mind (and who knows what dirty places you will take it!).

So a photo is marked by reference just as consciousness is. Perhaps this is part of the reason we find photography so intriguing. When we look at our images, we get lost in a deep sea of reflections. Taking a photo of reflective surfaces only drives the point further.

Keep an eye out for interesting reflections… They will serve your photos well!

Happy (self-referential) shooting!

J

The natives used to call Coney Island Narrioch. This meant “Land without shadows.” While the Lenape language doesn’t feel like it rolls off of this caucasian’s tongue the meaning is pretty apt. The beach runs parallel to the direction of the sun and therefore there are few shadows throughout the day. If only the Lenape could see their beloved Island now… they would probably eat a corn dog.

Coney is a quilt of different races, creeds and colors. I’ve met Senegalese, Russians, Israelis, Turks, Chinese… you name it. People are fishing, fighting, dancing, biking and throwing frisbees. The variety of people doing their variety of things eating their variety of foods and partaking in the variety of festivities can be overwhelming. All of these reasons in full technicolor make this one of the best places for serendipitous photography.

So why didn’t I shoot in color with the two above shots? Well black and white is appropriate for all occasions. And shooting film you don’t have much of a choice. The portraits on the boardwalk are also nice in bNw. But I wanted to do something different than my normal portraiture that day… it was time to get wet and get color!!

After moving to NYC, there was little I could do with my underwater photo gear. The equipment I had was sitting there like a pile of raw gold… Lots of potential but no application. So how to mix underwater photography with my love of street work? Coney Island, the land lacking shadows, provided me the answer!

I rushed into the water with my camera in the large black housing. Most people were really struck by it (about the size of a basketball, pitch black and all aluminum). Lucky for me, many people were simply curious and wanted me to take their photo. I got to work with a kid I met in the water. Shooting on top of the water was fun an can get good results but the kid wanted me to get him all the way under so I happily obliged:

Wandering around in the water some more, I found a dad and his little girl on his back. They were making nice V shapes with their arms, trying to maintain balance.

There were others interested as well. A Russian couple and a some Puerto Ricans. I had such a great time I could have spent the whole day there wandering around in the waves… getting photos… But when I was on my way back, I found a kid having the time of his life just throwing water in the air.

His enthusiasm was infectious! There was never a person so happy to just create water droplets. On the other hand, his dad (on the left) was not so amused with this random guy with a camera in his hands wanting to document the joy.

It was a successful trip and one I will not doubt repeat in the future! I highly recommend you visit the land without shadows (camera in hand!).

Happy (wet) shooting!
J

P.S. – all photos in color on this page were shot with a digital camera – the Canon 7D. While I almost always stick with film, I just couldn’t lie to you.

Its amazing the things we can learn from kids.  We are so used to the notion that we have to be teaching them but in many ways they should be teaching us!  Intimidation is not in most kid’s vocabularies and that is to their benefit.  Because children are constantly taking on new tasks and learning completely new skills, they are used to going out of their comfort zone.  After being shot out of a womb everything is outside of your comfort zone, it’s a wonder babies don’t cry even more.

The other great thing that kids are constantly doing is working on the basics.  The fundamentals of whatever it is you are doing need to be second nature before any serious work can be done.  Even dyed in the wool professionals could use a basics refresher course every now and again (I think it would be a great exercise for a CEO to become a factory worker for a day).

One of my first photos with my Nikon FM and 50mm F2 lens.

This is why old film cameras are wonderful, not to mention cheap, photography tools.  They are very basic – aperture value, shutter speed, and metering the light are all that you need to worry about.  Once you have those three basic things  down packed – you can play with the more interesting things – composition, lighting, juxtaposition etc.  Cutting away all of the options of digital slr’s and point ‘n shoots really helps narrow your focus.  This is why I recommend basic film camera as a first street photography camera.

Oh and did I mention they are inexpensive???

Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, Zorki, Leica… the list of old camera options goes on and on…  Where to begin?

Well, if this is to be your first film camera, then I recommend shooting with an SLR that comes with a working light meter.  That second point is not trivial.  If a camera is automatic in any way and the meter doesn’t work, then the automatic modes will not work (and automatic exposure-only cameras won’t work period).  Also, for convenience’s sake, a working meter in the camera is very nice to have.  External light metering can be annoying… so trust me, the first thing you should check on any used camera is that the light meter works and is accurate.

So why choose an SLR?  SLR’s were made rugged and durable.  They typically are not that finicky or complex.  This is why they last a long time.  The other nice thing about them is that they have interchangeable lenses.  And brothers and sisters, lemme tell yah, there are some excellent used lenses on the market that are not that expensive!

The 50mm lens design is the standard for any camera company.  Millions of these pieces of glass were produced and I would go out on a limb to say that most photos were taken on a 50mm lens.  Because of the volume in production, the prices are low and the quality is high.

So here is my proposal for you – get a used SLR camera from the 70’s with a 50mm lens.  Budget conscious?  No worries! Any tight belted chap can afford this setup!  This combo can be had for around $150 or even less!

Some popular options:

  • Pentax K1000
  • Nikon FM, FE or F (my personal recommendation due to the lenses available)
  • Canon AE-1

Another option to go for would be a rangefinder design.  The reason I don’t recommend this as a first film camera is that the prices will typically be greater unless you go for very early designs.  If you go for very early designs, then a light meter will not be available to you.  Many people prefer rangefinders and I love them too, but for your first film camera, a good SLR cannot be beat.

If you are interested in a good discussion about the benefits of an SLR over a rangefinder then take a look at this youtube video

Any endeavor is overwhelming when you first set sail.  I certainly was intimidated by my first digital slr and again by my first film camera.  But after shooting many frames in both, it became so natural to pick up either, put them to my eye, adjust the settings and click.  Just keep shooting.  And everything will fall into place.

Happy shooting friends!

J