Month: December 2012



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The Barefoot Homeless Man, the Cop, the Tourist, and Me

On November 20, I was walking around midtown Manhattan making street photographs. After walking all day, my feet were pretty tired, and I was kind of operating on auto pilot– not quite on my A game as far as getting shots. The light had faded anyway, and I was basically just killing time waiting for Sacha to get out of work so we could go to dinner. Crossing the street, I noticed a tall, thin guy who’s feet looked as if they were suffering much worse than mine. He was walking the cold pavement with no shoes. Instinctively, I snapped a photo “from the hip” without pausing to adjust my exposure, focus, or lift the camera to my eye to compose. A few minutes later, I realized that I could see the same man across the street, still walking barefoot, panhandling, and carrying a virginal white pair of leather Nike trainers in one hand. The shoes piqued my curiosity enough for me to cross back over the street to take a closer look. As I walked closer, I snapped another (equally marginal) photograph, but instead of steadying myself to take a more considered shot, I put my camera down, looked again, and decided to ask the guy if he was ok. “yeah, I’m fine,” he replied politely. I didn’t want to get into his business, but I suggested that he might want to put on the shoes as it was a cold evening. He just smiled benevolently at me and nodded. Right. “None of my business,” I thought to myself, and walked on.

The pictures I took of him are none too sharp, and will win no awards for innovative photographic technique, composition, compassion, newsworthiness, or any other qualities, human or photographic. I would never have considered posting these images if not for the fact that the man in question, recently identified in the press as Jeffrey Hillman, shortly thereafter became known as the world’s most famous barefoot homeless man, due to the magic of social media viral contagion and the spontaneous act of kindness performed by NYPD officer Larry DePrimo caught on Arizona tourist Jennifer Foster’s cell phone camera. After that happened I definitely held off on posting the images, if only because I didn’t want to be seen as less compassionate than a NYPD cop. And this made me think.

No matter how many years I do this, and how many thousands of images I make, I’ve often been conflicted with making pictures on the streets. Should I ask first, relegating myself to stiffly posed images that really don’t capture the essence of the situation that attracted me in the first place? Only photograph people like me? (Maybe the bald middle-aged downwardly mobile demographic is a little recognized niche market just waiting to be tapped!) Avoid photographing homeless or poor people for fear of being labeled exploitive? Avoid photographing the rich out of fear of being critical? Avoid photographing women for fear of being seen as creepy? Avoid photographing children out of fear of being mistaken for a pedophile? Maybe just sell all of my cameras, donate the proceeds to charity, tie on an apron and start cooking in homeless shelters? What’s a street photographer to do? For now on, the answer for me is to shoot first, and ask questions later, at least if I think I can get away with it.

Who is to say what is going on in the mind of another person? My fears may be a result of reading too much postmodern theory, and have nothing to do with the experience of someone else who may or may not ever notice, object, or care that I’m taking a picture. Even if I cannot come up with the compassion, the time, or the courage to directly intervene in the life of a passing stranger, maybe someone else seeing an image might be so inspired, or just smile at the recognition of a human moment to which they could relate. Do investment bankers worry about this kind of shit? Regardless, the consequence of NOT taking a picture is that the world will go on indifferently turning. The lucky tourist who took the suddenly viral image of the officer helping Mr. Hillman certainly did not let any interpretation of critical theory inhibit her shutter finger, and the resulting image managed to make millions of people feel a little bit better about humanity for a day or so. Until it was disclosed that Jeffrey is still homeless, and still wandering the streets of Manhattan sans shoes. An isolated act of kindness, or a photograph, can only do so much.

As it turns out, my initial instinct about Jeffrey that caused me to ask after his well-being, was right. He wasn’t going barefoot due to a lack of access to footwear, but because some inner demon only known to himself drove his actions. I have a feeling that it would have made little difference to him had I taken a moment to get a better shot. I’d like to think that his recent interest to photographers, and thus the general public, could make a positive difference in his life, but that’s a choice that Jeffery is going to have to make on his own. As for me, I’ll probably hang onto my cameras, but I am still thinking about putting on that apron at some point. If my photographs can’t change the world, maybe my secret soup recipes will help a bit.

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Going Large (Format) in the Big Apple

As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I spent the week before last in New York City, accompanying my lovely girlfriend Sacha on a business trip. I reveled in the idea of being a “trailing spouse”, which would give me a much-needed break from my routine; a chance to spend my nights in plush luxury and my days rambling about the city playing “flaneur” and taking the holiday atmosphere, art exhibitions, and street life, with only a trace of guilt as she worked her fingers to the bone, setting up her company’s new flagship 57th street store. Just as I was about to pull my aged Subaru from its leafy curbside resting place for the short ride to the Syracuse Amtrak station, my phone buzzed in my pocket, with Sacha wishing me a safe journey. “Are you going to bring the 8×10, she asked?” innocently enough. “Of course not,” I replied. “I don’t want to carry all that gear for a weekend trip. I’ll see you in about six hours, honey!”

Immediately upon pocketing my phone, I dashed back into the house to grab my recently acquired Burke & James 8×10 view camera, a gargantuan, wood and rusting metal relic from the days when getting the shot right meant capturing it on really big film. My plan had been to travel light, only bringing my compact Sony NEX 7 EVIL digital snapper to chronicle my wanderings. The Burke & James was, of course, set up on a tripod, film holders in another room, unloaded, changing back stashed someplace else, lens untested, and partially disassembled for cleaning on my workbench. I had no idea where I’d left my loupe and cable release, nor had I yet worked out which bag might accommodate the weighty burden of my new supersized system. Somehow in an adrenaline infused blur, I rushed around the apartment, assemble the necessary items, ripped out the dividers in a beat down Lowe Pro AW backpack, folded the camera, and stuffed everything inside. I hefted the bulging bag in one hand and balanced a massive old Bogen studio tripod in the other. A crucial component of my spinal column creaked in warning. Somewhere in Jamesville, a chiropractor cracked his knuckles in anticipation. This was not exactly a dream rig for inconspicuous street shooting, but now there was no time for rational thought to intervene. Knocking some paint off the wall with the tripod on the way out, I hurried back down the narrow apartment stairwell, heaved my burden into the back of the car, and headed for the train station.

The ride to New York was uneventful, and even though every seat on the train was full, I earned barely a dirty look from my fellow passengers for consuming nearly the entire baggage rack with my last minute pile of equipment. Everyone was looking forward to some turkey, giant helium cartoon balloons, and early holiday sales. Disembarking in Penn Station was another matter entirely. I managed to hold up everyone in the car as I struggled with my bags, then, slowly limping from the platform, took up the space of three with my wheeled suitcase, camera bag, laptop bag, tripod, and backpack. The straps slung across my chest cut into my neck, and the backpack straps nearly wrenched my arms from their sockets. The accumulated weight of the baggage compressed my lungs, preventing me from taking a full breath, and slowed my progress to a sorry limp as I blocked escalators and trailed a throng of frustrated travelers in my wake. I realized how old people with walkers must feel with impatient youngsters pushing past them as they struggle through their day’s errands. By the time I emerged into the fading afternoon light of 32nd street, I was already soaked with sweat under my heavy wool overcoat. It was 4:45 PM, the taxi line was at least a block long, and my hotel was on 55th. With the greasy microwaved salami panini I’d unwisely purchased in the dining car sitting like a rock in my stomach, I continued my shuffle up 5th avenue, heedless of the thick Friday rush hour pedestrian crush trying to navigate around me, and irrationally hoping that some enterprising taxi driver would take pity and offer a ride. Of course I already knew that taxi shift change time in Manhattan knows no pity. 15 blocks later, I did manage to flag down a miraculous cab to carry me the remaining few blocks, but by then my numb hands had already sent the memo that I’d incurred the irreversible wrath of my median and ulnar nerves. Naturally the hotel clerk didn’t have the slightest inkling about my reservation in Sacha’s room when I showed up at his desk, or maybe the unshaven, wild eyed guy dripping sweat onto his counter bore no resemblance to anyone he would be inclined to grant access to a lady client’s boudoir, at least without a healthy bribe. A couple of texts and a phone call to the lady in question setting his mind somewhat at ease, I finally found myself and my baggage in the refuge of Sacha’s beautifully made up room. I dumped my gear in a pile, where it sat untouched the next two days, and collapsed onto the plush bed in exhaustion.

By the time I had gathered the energy to venture onto the streets with the 8×10, the trip had been extended through Thanksgiving. I figured out that while Sacha’s light blue rolling airline carry-on bag did not quite project the machismo aura of Serious Fine Art Photographer I had subconsciously hoped to emanate, at least it was a perfect size to accommodate my camera’s bulk, and wouldn’t force me to carry the weight on my only partially recovered back. Knowing that I’d not be able to use such a bulky camera to capture spontaneous moments the way I could with my small digicam, I hoped instead to focus on individuals sitting quietly, in contrast to the chaos around them on the streets.

The first potential subject to attract my attention was a street vendor with a striking, sunblasted face, high cheekbones, and long black hair. He stood immobile on the curb with his back to the snarling rush hour traffic under the last rays of the sun that would find a route through Broadway’s concrete abyss that day, behind a folding table bearing a neatly arranged display of comic book hero pictures printed onto pieces of stamped metal. A steady stream of pedestrians arced around the protrusion of his display, parting ways between the cross walk and a paint crusted fire hydrant up the block that formed the natural shelter where he had located his stand. All around us rose the glass towers and flashing lights of Times Square, making our human ambitions seem puny. In spite of the visual grandeur of the scene before me, I couldn’t help but think of its ironic contrast with the images of street vendors I’d made in Bombay a few years previously. Tsering Norbu, however, remained outwardly impassive to both the scene’s poetic resonance and its potential significance to my photographic oeuvre. He proved much more interested in selling me a faux antique reproduction of Captain America Comic Book cover than he was in posing for a portrait. After some negotiation, we managed to work out an agreeable compromise involving a discounted price on a poster in exchange for an print of the resulting collaboration to him. Even without a solid working knowledge of English, he seemed to have absorbed more than enough of the the requisite understanding of the principles capitalism to achieve success in the Big Apple. I’m pleased to report that his picture also turned out to be the sharpest of the day, as he held stock still for the lens to burn his likeness onto the big film for my first ever 8×10″ street portrait. In fact, he stood so motionless that I instinctively knew a second exposure would not be necessary. I hope he will like the image.

The next person who got my attention was aspiring rapper Canibus, shilling his CDs amidst the tourist throngs in Times Square. Unlike Mr. Norbu, I don’t believe that Mr. Canibus has remained motionless for even a moment in his life, but there was something about his animated presence and the flash of metal from the grill behind his grin that I couldn’t resist trying to capture on film. He readily agreed to my proposal for a portrait, but when I tried to explain to him the sequence of events necessary for the production of a sharp picture with the big camera, there was something about the phrase, “Please hold still so I can focus,” that the street poet simply could not process, no matter how many times I uttered it, or how sincerely he desired his countenance memorialized onto sheet film. I wondered whether it was something about my tone may have reminded him of school days trauma, setting off a rection of unconscious rebellion. I could actually see his eyes lose their tracking on mine and dart off to every passing distraction, the moment the syllables FO-CUS emerged from my lips, but then I noticed that what most reliably distracted my subject’s attention was the proximity of passing middle-aged housefrau types, or at least their oversized purses, as I paused in my photographic efforts long enough to witness two of his failed attempts to seduce some negotiable currency from the tantalizing folds of their owners’ faux designer bags. I was therefore pleasantly surprised upon developing my film the other night to discover that the Photographic Gods had smiled upon me that day and rewarded my patience with a passably sharp image of my Times Square encounter with the charming hop hop artist.

Leaving Mr. Canubus to the pursuit of investors for his next recording venture, I shouldered my camera and made my way only a short way to see a lovely young woman sitting on the blocked off section of Broadway at a small round red table, ears stuffed with white buds connected to a fluorescent pink and blue cased iphone, calmly filling out a job application form, and completely oblivious to the sublimely crass din of Times Square that served as the backdrop for her serene concentration. I heaved the camera from my shoulder and stood to watch her for a moment. Should I interrupt her focus to ask her permission to make a photo? She seemed so lost in her task that I knew she might well never notice me taking the time to focus the view camera and make an exposure, but the possibility of her looking up to see me bent under the dark cloth with a massive lens trained upon her, of course made that notion a nonstarter. Still, it took me a while to get her attention. When I finally did, I asked her name, and if I could make her picture. She removed her earbuds, smiled, said OK, told me her name was Darlene, put the buds back into her ears, and went on with her writing. I took my time focusing that shot, and didn’t bother her to say good bye when I packed up my camera and continued on my way. I bet she got the job.

By now the light had faded and the blue reflections of twilight were illuminating the street with a dim glow. Common sense told me that the chance of getting good exposures of moving subjects with the unknown characteristics of an old leaf shutter lens, and the quirkiness of untested X-Ray film in low light conditions would be slim to none. I’d already had a long day walking the streets with my digital camera before setting off on this adventure. I was hungry, tired, and my shoulder was already aching from balancing the tripod, but a down a few blocks, over the generic din of Times Square, I could hear the sounds of angry shouting. Of course I had to investigate. A couple of blocks further, I came upon the groups of protesters described in a previous blog entry. At the time, for the sake of clarity I had neglected to mention that in addition to the pictures published in that post, I had also made a few exposures with my 8×10 view camera. These pictures were a pure act of faith, as I had no reason to believe that they would come out. The process of attempting to photograph an intense political protest in the dim of twilight with a bulky 8×10 view camera seemed too fraught with stupidity and potential technical failure to even bother with, but I was there with my camera. Why not try?

At the time, the list of reasons of why not to try seemed pretty long, in fact. I knew that I’d be vulnerable with my head under a dark cloth and my ass in the air, trying to focus on the dim ground glass on a bunch of pissed off and fired up protesters. A few test flicks of my 1960’s vintage Fujinar leaf shutter revealed that 1/100th of a second was firing at something more like 1/15th the best I could guess, and I had no idea how to compensate for the unknown and most probably highly variable shutter speed as the ancient lubricants bathing the tiny gears and springs of the aged mechanism thickened and clotted in the cold night air. Even from a distance I could see the flashes of other photographers bursting on the scene, and the red and blue wash of of police lights adding urgent splashes of contrasting color. I envisioned myself trying to get a decent shot of the situation through a phalanx of irritated police officers and pushy press photographers. Somehow, I kept moving forward as if pulled by an invisible string, and all obstacles parted before the gravitas of my great gray behemoth of a camera and it’s ponderous spike footed support, protruding before me like a spear. The sheer mass of the rig balanced over my shoulder, and the dangerous looking tripod spikes emphatically announcing my arrival simply commanded respect, or at least invoked people’s sense of self preservation, as protesters, press photographers, cops, and passersby alike parted ways to allow my undeviated passage to claim my desired position to capture a dramatic view of the noisy assembly. New friends emerged from the crowd to steadfastly guard my equipment and watch my back as I theatrically flourished my dark cloth over my head and bent down to compose the inverted view of the scene. Time seemed to pause as the old lens rendered the latest echo of an old fight onto the camera’s frosted glass. I took my best guess at the exposures, and slowly moved my camera closer to the shouting ranks of the protesters, taking my time exposing my few precious sheets of film as I advanced, until finally, on my last frame, I decided to rotate the back for a vertical portrait of a young Jewish man with large poetic looking eyes, standing in his traditional garb, quietly and seriously holding a sign denouncing the State of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. He was the island of calm in the storm that I had forgotten I was looking for. But suddenly he looked out at me and said, “Don’t take my photograph. I’m not important. Take a picture of the sign that I’m holding. That is the message I want to send.” The calm, serious tone of his voice emerging from amidst the din of his comrades’ shouting surprised me so much that I momentarily forgot that the glass camera back was still in my hands. I bumped it lightly against the corner of the focusing rail, and it instantly shattered into dagger shaped shards that I watched spiraling in slow motion to explode into tinier fragments on impact with the asphalt at my feet.

“Never mind, I responded. “I think I’ll just take a few digital shots instead.” I looked up to see a cop grinning broadly at the demise of my monster camera, but the gentle smile of the protester was scarcely perceptible as he stared out past me at the darkening street beyond.

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