The Candid Portrait: You Just Have To Ask

Provided you ask nicely, most people will gladly agree when you ask them to take their picture.
Provided you ask nicely, most people will gladly agree when you ask them to take their picture.

Afraid to talk to strangers?  Convinced that most people out there are not very nice?  Well, think again, because my experience is exactly the opposite.  Whenever I’m out an about with my camera, I do get my share of rejections when I ask to take someone’s photograph, but in most situations (and provided you ask nicely) people are extremely nice about it.  Show some sincerity and tell them why you would like to take their picture.  Never lie about it, and if necessary, offer to send them a copy of their photo.  Over the years I’ve come to realize that the pre-selfie generation doesn’t appear in too many photographs.  That you find them interesting and want to photograph them is quite flattering.  Think about it.  When was the last time someone stopped you on the street to say that you looked great and they wanted to take your photo?  OK, never in my case, so that’s why I’m convinced that it would be quite flattering if someone did.  I won’t hold my breath, though.

Print Is Dead, Long Live Print

While digital media is everywhere, there's still something cool about reading a newspaper at at a local eatery.
While digital media is everywhere, there’s still something cool about reading a newspaper at at a local eatery.

Don’t sound the trumpets yet about the disappearance of print newspapers, because as they say, their demise has been highly exaggerated.  Lately, and admittedly to my great surprise, I have noticed more and more people reading newspapers out in the open than usual.  Not sure what’s going on, but whether this is nostalgia or rejection of the latest technology fads, the truth is that the few remaining diehard paper readers out there have become a lot more noticeable than the iPad reading crowd.  After all, you don’t have to charge a newspaper at any time during the day, and you can buy years of newspapers before you break even with the cost of an iPad.  Whatever the reason, it does look like newspapers (and the trash they generate) will be around for a while.  How long will that be is anyone’s guess, but time does not appear to be on their side.

Photographers And The Evil Eye

While photographers are in love with their cameras, not everyone out on the street is happy to see them in action.
While photographers are in love with their cameras, not everyone out on the street is happy to see them in action.

Excuse me, would you mind if I took your picture?  Innocent enough, right?  Well, let’s face it, while photographers see themselves mostly as artist practicing their innocent trade, some people out there see them as the biggest nuisance they have had the misfortune of encountering on any particular day.  This “get away from me” reaction is perhaps the single-most feared reaction by anyone contemplating the genre of street photography.  I can tell you from personal experience that it is not a good feeling when someone gives you that evil eye, or worst still, when they start publicly (and loudly) chastising you for taking their picture, even when they were not the object of your photographic composition.  It does happens from time to time, but I’m glad to report that these reactions are more of the exception than the norm.  In fact, I would venture to say that most people don’t care at all, provided you are nice about it.  Don’t believe me?  Then take a look at the “Touching Strangers” project at Richard Renaldi’s site.  And here’s a great video describing this incredible personal project: Touching Strangers.  Wonderful stuff.

When Photographs Convey The Wrong Story

Looks can be deceiving, as this gentleman was one of the nicest people I met on this day.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.
Looks can be deceiving, as this gentleman was one of the nicest people I met on this day. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.

This kind of look is not foreign to photographers.  In fact, we confront it much too often these days, and it is usually followed by some kind of public, verbal admonition that is intended to make you feel like you have just committed a crime.  Certainly, and from this photograph, it would appear that I was the subject of one such admonition, but that was not the case.  The gentleman could not have been any nicer to me, even if he kept saying that I should donate my “nice camera” to charity and that “Charity” just happened to be his name.  Of course, you would be hard pressed to find his jovial personality from this portrait, but that is precisely the point: sometimes a photo does not convey the real story behind it.  Sure, some sort of reality is always revealed by a photo, but this visual first-impression is to a large extent fabricated by our brains rather than supported by the story behind the photograph.  The story behind this particular photograph is one of intensity, not anger; of surprise that after our initial conversation I would be interested in taking his photo.  I grant you that a smile would have been a bit more reassuring, but I’ve come to accept that people have very unique ways of expressing their feelings.  And while in most situations the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” still holds true, sometimes we do seem to need the thousand words to truly understand what the picture is all about.  So there it is, and in case you were wondering, no, I did not donate my camera to charity.

Sitting Pretty

The Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC is ideal for street and candid photography. Nikon D800, Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.

Chilling winters and street photography are not necessarily contradictory, but there’s no denying that as temperatures drop, candid street photography becomes a lot more problematic.  The photographers will definitely be out there, but the hurrying, bundled masses will not be hanging around for their convenience any time soon.  So I started wondering whether, if we took our trade indoors, it could still be considered street photography.  Look at the photo above.  If this young lady were sitting cross-legged  in an art gallery, would the photo classify as your garden variety street photography shot?  I hope so, because very soon I will be one of the many roaming photographers out there that will be shifting focus somewhat to where the people tend to hang out in winter: indoors.  This will no doubt lead to a series of challenges (like the mastering of natural and artificial light), but also to many new opportunities with under-photographed subjects.  So I’m kind of excited about the cold months ahead, but just as eager to see them go away.


The Anonymous Chef

Some of the most interesting faces you’ll ever see are to be found out there on the street, amongst everyday people.  Nikon D800, AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED.

If we asked any of our friends to name a famous chef, they will surely think of any of today’s TV personalities.  I guess this is a sign of the times, but the sad thing is that we really don’t know the names of any of those talented local chefs that make sure we are well fed at our local restaurants.  You can put my name down on that list of distracted customers who in most occasions don’t take the time to find out who is responsible for the fabulous meal I just enjoyed.  Case in point: the gentleman on this photograph.  For about twenty minutes I watched him deliver the food he had just prepared to a street vendor while explaining all the succulent items on the menu.  He cut quite a figure downtown in his bright white chef outfit and was a model of grace and good manners during our brief conversation.  The sad part of all this is that in my hurried life that day, I forgot to get his name.  I guess that I am now destined to remember him as this classy, anonymous chef who showed an incredible sense of pride in his trade and who graciously agreed during one of his busiest days to let me take his picture.  I just wish I had slowed down enough that day to get to know who he was.

Photography And Divine Intervention

While most people simply walk by street musicians, this harp player in Alexandria, VA drew a good crowd on a Sunday afternoon.

One of things that motivate a street photographer to get out every day with his or her camera is the eternal hope that something unexpected will happen while they roam city streets with their cameras.  Unlike studio photographers, street photographers can’t make anything happen and must rely on random and unpredictable human activity to generate those unforgettable photographic moments, and hopefully when they are “camera-ready” to capture them forever.  Of course, a little divine intervention doesn’t hurt either, as there is something to the old “being in the right place at the right time” that will always ring true.  This was the case on the photograph above, but with one little twist added to the equation.  That twist was patience, which is something that a lot of street photographers don’t seem to have in great supply.  They constantly move, survey, and explore in the hope that the evolving human scenario before them will soon generate the next great photograph in their lives.  What is missed sometimes in all this haste are the unexpected moments created by the very people you expected to do nothing.  Without warning, they move, they cry, they laugh, or they dance.  Suddenly, what five minutes ago was a scene inducing photographic depression is readily transformed into the photo opportunity of the day.  Magic?  Divine intervention?  Frankly, I’m not sure why this happens at the precise moment it does, but at least today I was glad I had the patience to wait for that unexpected moment.

Sculptures As Photography

Sculptures are very similar to photographs, in that they freeze in time expressions that help us define the human character.

I am really not much of a museum visitor, really.  That is, that while I would love to think of myself as an art connoisseur who jet-sets from the Guggenheim to the Prado and the Hermitage, perhaps a more apt description is that of a relatively ignorant admirer of art who is never sure of which art movement he’s looking at.  Ever seen someone with a camera scrambling to put his hands on a brochure at a museum?  Well, that was probably me.  But just like your garden-variety admirer of sunsets, or the architectural treasures in great cities like Rome, I have come to realize that the more I look at sculptures in museums, the more I am fascinated by those facial expressions that magically emerge from amorphous blocks of marble.  As in the real world, I tend to see melancholy, fear, sorrow, and happiness.  What’s more, I find these marble expressions inducing a certain hypnotic effect on my consciousness that make it almost painful to pull away when it’s time to move on.  These are the types of images that most travel photographers constantly look for.  They are the ones that make people stop and take notice, and if in the process we hear a quiet wiser of a voice saying “I couldn’t take my eyes off that photograph,” then we will know that the point where photography become art has been reached.  And that would be a good day.

Faces, Everywhere

I am fascinated by faces, specially those that for some unexplainable reason get a hold of your attention and don’t let go for a while.  Everywhere we go we see them, working behind a counter, passing by while we sit at an airport, or across the room while we are having lunch at the company’s cafeteria. What makes them interesting is not just the fact that they are all different, but rather that they all make us wonder about their lives and what lies behind those piercing eyes or that exotic look.  It is precisely in those situations where photography makes one of its greatest contribution: the capturing of a split moment expression forever.  Photography freezes time in order to give us time to absorb what otherwise would have been a lost moment in an endless continuum of frames passing before us at breathtaking speed.  It’s like magic.

Faces, Washington, DC

From time to time I will be including some photographs here of interesting people from the Washington, DC area.  All these shots are candid photos taken in demonstrations, museums, and in the many venues that make the nation’s capital such a big attraction.  What makes this type of photography so appealing is its very simplicity.  No one is posing or paying attention to the camera, and their expressions are as natural as they come.  To a large extent, these and other photos to come represent the people who catch our eye as we walk down the street because for some reason or another, they stand out from the crowd that surrounds them.  So, in some sense, this is my simple tribute to them and a thank you note for making that millisecond of life out there amongst the crowd such a memorable visual experience.