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"STREET PHOTOGRAPHY: AN HOUR TO KILL ON CHRISTMAS EVE"
PHOTO BY GENGHIS
Street photography is a creative effort that demands that the practitioner seek out and interact with his subject matter. Unlike oil painting art where the artist is stationary and tethered to his or her canvas in-studio, street photography is an artistic discipline that requires that the artist actively look for suitable subject matter in the real world in order to render that raw material into coherent compositions. The challenges are daunting, as this subject matter is part and parcel of the haphazard chaos and visual disorganization that constitutes one's environs. It has long been debated as to whether street photography is an art at all, since photography is the realistic documentation of what simply is there, unformed by the photographic artist's mind. In this sense, photography is not an art that parallels a painter's creative process. The painter creates something out of nothing. The photographer on the other hand, creates aesthetically pleasing or interesting images by the act of isolation. It is this ability to see an artistic composition by mentally isolating the components of an image, from the rest of the surrounding world that makes the street photographer a true artist. The placement of image elements, and the juxtapositioning of elements to make them interact in certain ways, are the street photographer's specialty. Another facet of street photography that makes creative composing difficult, is that people, who are featured heavily in street photography---are moving targets. A person who is visualized as part of an overall composition in the pre-shutter release phase of taking a picture---may not be in the same spot by the time that the street photographer's index finger reaches the shutter release button. The search for subjects is an interesting process, and I would like to elaborate on such a search.
In this case, the time frame when I undertook this search consisted of an hour I had to spare on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, my wife and I had to work a half a day. Our plan was for my wife to call me and confirm that she would be able to leave work at noon, and we would then rendezvous at our usual meeting place in the East Village of NYC. My wife works as a supervisor of technical services in the glaucoma service of an eye hospital, and as often happens in hospitals an emergency arose which delayed my wife's departure. This delay provided me with an hour to kill. I decided to use it to take pictures. I work at an ophthalmologist's office in the West Village as the practice manager. My duties there also include technical work, surgical coordination and retinal photography, besides the administrative tasks that are basic to my job. I left my office and walked to University Place and 9th Street, where I encountered the subject matter for my first picture, "Tree View." All of the images I will discuss will be shown in the sequential order in which I found them on my walk. I did want to convey a seasonal flavor to this series, the day being Christmas Eve.
"Tree View" is one of those images where I wanted to juxtapose the key element used to convey such flavor---the Chtistmas trees on sale---with a person or persons to add additional interest. So often, a street photography of single element, whether it be the Christmas trees by themselves, or the person without the trees---is far less interesting than the melding of the two elements in a picture. In the case of "Tree View" I stood there and framed the composition as I spotted the woman further down the block walking toward me. The Christmas trees would anchor the left side of the image, while the woman would dominate the right side of the photo. My exposure was already preset, as was the focus. I preset focus to seven feet using the distance scale of the focusing ring of the lens. As I've explained in previous articles, having the exposure and focus preset frees one up to concentrate on framing and execution of the exposure. One cannot be fooling around with focus and exposure at the last second in street photography. These parameters must be decided upon in advance to expedite the capture of transient scenes that may change dramatically in a few seconds' time. As soon as I had the image framed the way I visualized the picture, I waited for the woman to reach the plane of the second closest Christmas tree when I made the exposure.
"JOY TO THE WORLD"
Halfway down the block on University Place from the Christmas trees is a lingerie store where I composed "Joy To The World." The mannequin costumed with Santa Claus themed clothes definitely conveyed a Christmas flavor. However, I wanted more contextual interest and what provided this wasn't a person, but a dog. I framed the composition so that the mannequin would dominate the foreground on the left side of the image, while the dog would be on the right side of the picture receded in the background. A street photo with two or more competing or complementray elements will always be more interesting than a picture with just a single element. In this picture, the dog seems to be looking at the mannequin in the window.
Exposure was quite low by the window. This necessitated a 1/15th second at f/4 exposure. All of my pictures are taken with an older generation Nikon digital SLR (a D1x) with a 20mm f/4 pancake Nikkor. I shoot exclusively with manual exposure and manual focusing.
Christmas Eve 2009 saw New York City recovering from a huge snow storm that crippled the northeastern U.S. I wanted an image that highlighted the mounds of snow and slush left to melt in the aftermath of the storm. I found this one block from where I took "Joy To The World." This was still on University Place. I was walking in an uptown direction on this historic street in the West Village.
The resulting vertical formatted image is "Slush Fund." I used a vertical format with the snow filling the bottom of the image,
gradually diminishing in width and leading the eye toward the top of the picture---to take advantage of the slight amount of wide angle distortion that would make the snow look disproportionately large compared to the man walking in the right background. I left the man purposely near the top right of the image to accentuate his proportionately miniscule size in the photograph. I overexposed this image by a stop and half to compensate for the way that snow fools a camera's built in meter by that much. Without that compensation, the image would've turned out underexposed.
Three blocks further at the intersection of University Place and 14th Street, I had the opportunity to capture this dramatic photograph which I call "Collision Course." This busy intersection is notorious for fender benders and gridlock. As I arrived at this corner, the SUV ran a red light and consequently, the bus driver had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting the smaller vehicle. I preset focus to seven feet and framed this picture by getting close to the bus. By that time, the SUV had to stop because of traffic in front of it. Safely crossing streets in New York City is an art unto itself, honed by a lifetime of studying traffic patterns and New York City's drivers' habits. Fortunately, I was able to safely cross 14th Street to reach Union Square park where my one hour street photo search would continue. Before I did cross though, I took "Silly Season."
It's not hard to see why I titled this picture "Silly Season." The laughing man was there when the bus cleared the intersection. He just suddenly appeared from behind the bus and I had just enough time to react and frame the picture with him about four feet away on the left side of the frame, and a man with his back to me on the right side of the frame. I felt it was important to contrast the laughing man's ebullient mood as well as his direction facing the camera, with the apparent passivity of the man on the right, who was facing away from the camera. This is a contextual contrast of demeanors and directions that creates more interest in the photo.
There is some element of motion blur as the laughing man was in the act of moving past me as I made the exposure. It is this type of spontaneous, fast-moving street dynamic that makes street photography so interesting to do. The less time a street photographer has to make the exposure, the more exciting the process is. This is what it's all about to me in street photography, the risk of losing pictures due to time constraint, and conversely the successful capture of said pictures when one's technique is up to par for the situation. Spontaneity is an invaluable attribute in street photography.
When I entered the park after crossing 14th Street, I took "Game Stop." I feel that there are times when motion blur enhances a street photograph, as if to validate its authenticity---its street cred, so to speak---in contrast to controlled situation photos such as studio shots and still lifes where motion blur does not usually occur and is indeed, unwanted. Motion blur is not only acceptable in street photography, its is actually desirable in some instances. "Game Stop" is a case where motion blur---caused by the man's moving suddenly in conjunction with a 1/30th second shutter speed---makes for a more effective street photo. Note that I positioned the man in the extreme top-right of the image to create an interesting tension in the image.
Directly behind the chess player was an area of Union Square Park where vendors set up to sell their wares every Christmastime. It was in this vending area where I shot "Shopping Ghost." This vending area consists of a series of vendors' tents that form aisles in between the rows of tents, that create high contrast areas of shadow and shafts of insinuating bright sunlight. It was here that I saw the potential for a picture like "Ghost Shopper" where a single shopper with bright sunlight shining on her, would stand out like a white ghost compared with fellow shoppers darkened by the surrounding shadows. I find this picture extremely exciting and interesting because of the spontaneity of the situation. To maximize this effect, I kept exposure commensurate with the darker areas of the scene. Astute viewers will note the motion blur of the woman basking in the bright light, as she was briskly moving past me when I made the exposure. The motion blur was also caused by the 1/15th second shutter speed necessitated by the dark surroundings.
"Buddhy Call" is a picture of a vendor with his wares in one of those tents. What I thought would be interesting about this picture is the contextual difference between the human element, the vendor, and his contrast with the other key component of the image---his artificial life forms, the statues. A comingling and contrast between concepts are an often recurrent underlying theme in street photography. Street photography should make an effort to make people think. It is this realm of street photography that transcends mere beauty in photography, which is the presentation of concepts by the photographer, and the understanding of these concepts by the viewer. It is an exchange when made successfully by both parties, that makes street photography appreciated.
"BABY IT'S COLD OUTSIDE"
Street photography can reveal profound sociological concepts, but there is nothing really deep about "Baby It's Cold Outside." It's simply a picture of a vendor using babies as a conduit to influence consumeristic parents to spend some cash at Christmas---or friends or relatives of those parents who wish to give the ideal gifts to parents. I suppose that a hundred years from now, viewers who see this photograph will find it amusing but interesting as it represents an artifact of New York merchandising trends of the distant past. It's a seller's gimick, pure and simple---insignificant and kitschy in the present, but perhaps fascinating in the future.
After taking "Baby It's Cold Outside" the time was drawing near when I had to go and meet my wife. I came upon this woman and her dog on the outskirts of the park, and I exposed "RCA." The dog had its face turned up at the woman, like the dog in those iconic RCA ads of years past. I used a vertical format and tightly squeezed the dog and the woman into the frame of the composition by shooting close at five feet from them. The picture would not have been nearly as effective if the dog didn't have his head turned up, creating an intimate feel---enhanced by the tightly framed composition. After I took this photograph I crossed 14th Street.
After I crossed the street, I took the last photograph of this series, which I call "Kobayashi Scenario." I'll leave it to you to figure out the oblique reference hidden in the title. This is one of the ubiquitous hot dog vendors in NYC. The hot dog vending business can be a deadly serious business. There have been murders between vendors over territorial rights in New York, believe it or not. In any case, this was the last image that time allowed---almost exactly one hour from the time I had after leaving my office. My wife's delay at the hospital afforded me this slice of time to take some street photos. Street photography is about the intersection of serendipity, fortuitous seeing and one's technique. Unlike the inspiration that allows an oil painter to create art on his canvas' cloth out of the whole cloth of his or her imagination however, we street photographers depend on the real world for the raw materials for our art. The world is our canvas, our cameras our brushes and people our paint pigments.
To achieve our artistic goals we street photographers must get out and about, as I did when I had an hour to kill on Chistmas Eve. Always have your camera with you when you maneuver around our canvas. Later.