Yesterday, I decided to have a little fun with my Leica. After all, with the cold, flu-inducing weather refusing to leave us alone for the season, it occurred to me that what I needed was a little lighthearted photo day. My goal: to do a little tribute to the famous Leica photographer Ralph Gibson. This name may not mean much to those who are not Leica fanatics photographers, but to those who are, Mr. Gibson is somewhat of a Dalai Lama figure in the Leica community. When he talks, people listen. And his talking is mostly done through the lens of a Leica camera.
But why Ralph Gibson? The answer is that contrary to just about everyone I have come in contact with in the photographic community, Mr. Gibson is known (among many other things) for mastering the “vertical” photographic style. The world may be busy taking photos with a horizontal orientation (which admittedly allows for lots of forgiving cropping), but Mr. Gibson is a master of the vertical world, and has been for as long, long time. Easy? Not really. After a day of shooting only vertically to see what this would feel like, all I can say is that not only is this approach ergonomically hard, but it is also compositionally challenging. At the end of the day I felt I had gone through an entire paradigm change in my approach to photography. My photographic world had stopped revolving around avoiding people from walking into my scene and was now obsessed with a somewhat unfamilial vertical line along a much narrower visual alley.
The funny thing is that this approach to photography is also kind of liberating. Verticality, I realized, tends to exclude the superfluous, or at least most of it. It also reduces dramatically those distracting elements that force photographers to use the cropping tool to the point of overheating. But mastering this vertical approach to composition is definitely hard work. Shooting with a Leica rangefinder while trying to keep both eyes open as you manually focus is a challenge in and of itself, not to mention that your eyes tend to see a lot more horizontally than vertically when on a natural state (blame it on the eyebrows or something). That Mr. Gibson’s trained photographic eyes appear to live easily on that up-and-down, rangefinder plane is nothing short of remarkeable. That this verticality takes place up close in shapes and figures that most people don’t even notice, is even more astounding. After a day of attempting to grasp this whole vertical approach to composition by shooting exclusively “that way,” I certainly had a taste of the challenges and rewards associated with this visual approach. Hooked? Not sure, but I surely intend to tilt my camera from its traditional comfort zone a lot more in the future.
I’ve written about the Ricoh GR before, but the little wonder just never ceases to amaze me. This “backup camera” is simply one of those technological feats that when paired with its natural street photography habitat, could easily challenge any DSLR out there. Not that it will necessarily give you any more dynamic range or sharpness, but rather that when you consider what the little rocket brings to the table, its shortcomings are easy to forget. You see, when you are out and about trying to record everyday life and scenes on the street, the GR is almost unparalleled in its ability to silently move in, snap that photograph, and capture that scene. Quick, silent, and covering enough photographic real estate to make sure nothing is left out of that picture. With its snap mode and ability to quickly compensate for available light, this little camera and its large APS-C sensor will be about as close to ideal as you’ll ever get in the street photography arena. Perfect? Nope. But when I leave my Leica M240 at home for the day to hang out with the Ricoh GR, that’s telling you something. Will it replace the incredible Leica out on the street? Absolutely not, but it will surely be in my pocket when every time I venture out to capture bigger photographic game.
Photographers are constantly reminding each other that taking pictures in public places is generally a legally-protected right. Like anything else, there are limits, and many cases where photographers have been arrested for exercising this right have been documented in the press. Bottom line: it’s a risky business no matter how you look at it. Of course, most people taking photographs out in the open are innocently recording everyday life, with their photos destined for their personal blog (like the case here). But to fully ignore, or disreguard for that matter, privacy and propriety considerations out there could be a risky business. The law is somewhat murky and perhaps designed so that a visit to the local courthouse is all but inevitable if you are not careful. This also gets a lot more complicated when you travel abroad, as different countries have different interpretations of what is permissible and what is not. Bottom line: best to do a little research and never leave common sense behind when stepping out with a camera. And when in doubt, don’t. Then again, that may take all the fun out of photography.
If you read a lot of the popular photography literature out there, you would think that when it came to focal lengths, not much has changed for lenses over the past 100 years or so. To this day, lots of print is devoted to Robert Capa’s dictum that, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.” Now, I’m not sure whether Mr. Capa was referring to optical or physical distance, but my guess is that he was perhaps referring to the proportion of the subject in the photograph to the overall frame of the photo. I can only surmise this because Mr. Capa was more interesting on the drama of a photograph than where the photographer happened to have his or her feet planted. A great image, after all, is never hostage to a particular focal length.
But something has changed a bit since Mr. Capa’s days. Call it the loss of innocence, societal mistrust, or whatever, but people are no longer as relaxed when having their picture taken by a stranger as they used to be. Governments have also jumped into the focal length controversy by creating all sorts of conditions under which a photographer can be labeled an intruder of some sort. Under modern privacy rights considerations, that invisible privacy zone around people has become a virtual minefield for photographers. Enter at your own peril, and successful navigation through it will require a great deal of luck, not to mention personal charm. This zone, which used to be easily traversed with a 50mm focal length, has become a lot harder to deal with. Awareness, perception, and distrust have to a large extent forced the average photographer on the street to move back a bit. Photographers may perceive themselves as creatives capturing a moment in history, but their subjects are growingly seeing them as trespassers, perverts, and untrustworthy social media trolls. But that is precisely where a 75mm or 85mm lens comes into play. These lenses allow you to move back a bit, be less conspicuous, less intrusive, and more discreet. Not that you always want to be that detached from the people you are photographing, but if you don’t have the time to invest in building those relationships (like a photographer in the middle of a festival, procession, or market), then distance could easily prove to be your best friend, and a mid-sized telephoto lens will easily subtract the added distance from your subject. That is why these days, my trusted Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M, as well as my Nikon 85mm f/1.4G workhorse, are getting a lot more saddle time on my camera. Ah, and then there’s that glorious bokeh, but that is a subject for another day.
I sat at home yesterday thinking about the old saying that, “There’s no such thing as a bad day to take photographs,” and pondered the wisdom of going out with my camera to challenge the near-freezing temperatures outside. Don’t get me wrong, I am a tough guy. Well, above freezing temperatures at least, but I generally do not let a bad day hold me back from hitting the streets in search of the perfect photograph (which by the way, rarely is out there waiting for you). Nevertheless, out I went to Georgetown because I figured that if anyone would be outside on a cold day like this, it would be the always-there Georgetown crowds. To my surprise, though, the crowds were quite thin today, but the colors on this gray, overcast day could not have been any more perfect. And then there was the light, yes, the light. Not just any light mind you, but that creamy, yellowish, soft light that photographers dream of and which is generally only experienced during what is commonly known in the photography world as the “magic hour.” Who would’ve known, that on this gloomiest of days we would all be blessed with some of the most beautiful light these sorry eyes have ever seen. Go figure.
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.
Lately I’ve been wondering about the “regular folk” cliche that keeps appearing in the media and our social daily social interactions. Frankly, I’m not sure what that phrase means any more, as the more I look, the more eclectic we are becoming as a nation. What’s more, this generational phenomena seems to be accentuated by the changes taking place between the looks of “city folk” and the people who live in non-urban areas. Not that I am an expert at these things (but you can see the debate depicted by the Economisthere), or qualified to be humanity’s judge. Far from it. But as I spend more time in the city, I’ve become growingly aware of these differences: the way people dress, the speed at which the move, the willingness to make eye contact, their ideas of neighborliness, their desire to go out at night, the cars they drive, and the overall way they carry themselves. I now wish I could remember all those theories I studied in my Ecology course in college, but maybe I was not paying as much attention to this stuff back then. The point is that for a lack of a better term, we all tend to become “aboriginals” in our own ecosystems, be it the city, the suburb, or the countryside. That’s right, we all may have become “tribal” in one way or another. So, in case the great Crocodile Dundee shows up and asks you what he asked Gus (“What tribe are you, Gus”), you better start thinking of an answer.
Afraid of walking up to a stranger and asking if you can take their picture? Can’t blame you if you are, as it could be a nerve-wracking experience for the non-extroverts amongst us. What people with cameras don’t realize is that the worst that could happen is for you to get a dismissive “no” in the process. Rarely will people show any fangs as part of their answer. My experience has been that while half the people will say no and keep on walking, the other half will gladly say “yes,” if you ask nicely. In fact, for many folks out there minding their own business, your asking is kind of an ego-booster of some sort. People take time to make themselves up as best as possible before going out, and it is not to be visually ignored by the rest of us. As a photographer, you can’t help but notice these fashionistas when you go out. They are different in some visual way: better looking, more colorful, strange, exotic, or simply unique. Whatever the reason, they catch the photographer’s eye, and the often-repeated advice that being nice and showing a sincere interest in them (or what they are doing) will always go a long way in you getting them to agree to have their picture taken. So best to avoid photographic ambushes that give so many photographers a bad reputation and instead give your subjects a little time from your busy photo day. You’ll be amazed at how nice people can be in return, as I discovered with the young woman in the photo.
Thought I’d share with you some street scenes from Krakow, Poland. For a street photographer, Krakow’s Old Town is about as close to heaven as you can get. During the summer months its streets are filled with people at all hours of the day. And while a great number of them are no doubt tourists, locals are also up-and-about in great numbers. No doubt the extensive pedestrian-only zones have something to do with this, as well as the feeling of relief from the long Polish winters. But they are out there, and to see thousands of people at sidewalk cafes and restaurants past 10:00 PM at night, is quite impressive. The crowds are also quite photo-friendly, or put another way, they don’t scold you for taking a photo as they do in other parts of the world, which is kind of nice. And yes, I did try to give these photographs a somewhat older-looking feeling by applying a few filters during post-processing, but I hope that didn’t detract too much from the scenes.
We’ve heard it a million times: get a Leica or any other non-DSLR camera and you will become invisible when taking photos. It sounds kind of convincing, and like thousands of photographers out there, I too bought into this myth. I say that it is a myth because after endless hours of walking the streets with my assortment of small cameras, I have grown convinced that it is not the camera that makes you inconspicuous to your photographic subjects. Rather, it is the environment and the noise level that do the trick. Why is this the case? Because no matter how small that camera gets, the unmistakable fact is that you are attached to it, and like they say, “you is a big thing.” Stop within a few meters of anyone on the street when there’s no one else around and believe me, you will get noticed. Don’t you notice people within your peripheral vision all the time? It all boils down to how much you as a person stand out in your environment. The photograph above was taken with the famous Ricoh GR, the darling of street photographers. The gentleman was talking to the young lady trying to sell her one of this paintings, but somehow through his peripheral vision he became aware of my split-second presence with the diminutive Ricoh GR. It had nothing to do with my choice of camera, but it had everything to do with my 5’11” frame and muscular (OK, pudgy if you insist on exactitude) complexion. Had I had a crowd around me, he would never had noticed my presence, even if I had a large Nikon DSLR strapped around my neck. The same with noise. The sound level of a shutter release is a big deal in street photography. That loud click from your DSLR will get you all the unwanted attention every time. Here’s where cameras like the Leica M 240 and the Ricoh GR excel in a big way. They are nearly silent, and normal street noise levels will easily drown any sound coming from them. Noise, then, is all relative. It will only get you noticed if the noise you generate reverberates over all the other environmental noise around you.
So what’s the point? Basically, that all this invisible camera hype on the Internet is mostly just that, hype. The real secret is blending in with the environment and connecting with your subject. This last point was highlighted very well in Greg Koch’s recent article, where the virtues of connecting with the people you are photographing could not have been better stated. Too many photographers de-humanize the photographic process by merely pointing their cameras in the direction of their subjects, clicking, and then walking away. Sure, that works sometimes, but nothing beats establishing some sort of connection with these folks. A nod of your head, a V sign, some small talk, or whatever, it is all better than mere silence and a hasty departure. So blend in and be friendly and you’ll see that the type of camera you use will not matter as much.
One of the great things about photography is its ability to hold on to a scene so we can take our time in analyzing it. This is what photographers commonly refer to as “capturing the moment.” Now mind you that this “moment” doesn’t really have to be publishable material, but rather it is a moment that has the effect of grabbing on to your attention while simultaneously precluding you from moving on in a hurry. The phenomenon is commonly experienced when we flip through a photo book or magazine barely noticing much of its content, until something makes us stop and take notice. Sometimes it’s bewilderment, sometimes it’s just plain old curiosity. But we do stop and linger while our eyes and brains get in synch to make sense of what lies before us. Not that this whole synching thing takes a long time. After all, we’re talking Internet-era attention span here. But unlike video, our “moment” goes nowhere and there’s never a need to rewind. It is static, suspended in time until we are done with it. It is a story onto itself, and we rarely know what happened before or after this fraction of a second in time. An incomplete story where more often than not our imagination must fill in the blanks. Perhaps that’s why we linger after all, to take our time in completing the story.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if this is the case, then my vague attempt to capture the street photography magic of Vivian Maier in a single photograph must be considered my private tribute to her work. After watching the great BBC documentary about her life and work (brought to my attention by Eric Kim’s street photography blog), I headed out on this non-descript day to see how easy it would be to imitate here style. Well, to save you some time if you do not want to read any longer, the short answer is that it is not easy at all. I think it all has to do with the times we live in and the simple fact that Ms. Maier looked down when taking her masterful photos. We’re talking pre-Internet and social media times here, when photography was not a globalized commodity to be feared and state-of-the-art Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras (like the one used by Ms. Maier) forced you to look down into the glass instead of across to the subject.
These elements must have played a role in her photographic life, but there is no denying that her incredible talent to capture the proverbial “moment” of a scene more than justify her posthumous photographic fame. Her eye for composition and light was nothing short of brilliant—a study of balance and symmetry that should be required study for any photographer. As depicted in the BBC video, many of her shots required her to be about three to four feet from her subjects, which in today’s über-paranoid world would not be an easy thing to do. I’m certain that sixty years ago Ms. Maier had an easier time answering the “what do you plan to do with those pictures” question, as the state of technology back then did not allow for instantaneous global distribution of your photos. But whatever the case, there is no denying that Ms. Maier got her shot when she was there with her camera, and in the end, that is all that matters. Too bad she never got to see the much-deserved outpouring of admiration from a thankful world.
We keep hearing that monumental changes are taking place in the world of photography today, and were we to judge these assertions based on the new breed of APS-C sensor small cameras making their market appearance lately, it would seem impossible to disagree. I certainly couldn’t after spending one day with the darling of street photographers everywhere: the new Ricoh GR camera. Small and totally inconspicuous, this computer-in-a-pocket wonder is not just fast, it is amazingly audience-friendly–a major plus when it comes to street photography. With an APS-C 16.2 megapixel-sized sensor (the size of what you typically find in most DSLR’s out there), this little camera delivers, and in a big way. Sure, the fixed 18.3mm (28mm equivalent) may be somewhat limiting if you want to cover all your photographic bases, but for what it was intended to excel at, the Ricoh GR may arguably be the best there is out there. From the ground up, this camera was brilliantly and unapologetically designed with one single purpose in mind: street photography (see Steve Huff’s great review here), and to say that Ricoh delivered would be a gross understatement. Will it replace the trusted Nikon or beloved Leica in my camera bag? Don’t think so, but it will never be left behind when I step out the door with its larger and more expensive siblings. Thank you Ricoh.
Let me start this post by saying that I love black & white photography. Not that I have mastered this medium by any stretch of the imagination, but rather that I have come to realize that there are some scenes out there that come to life when shot on black & white. In some strange way, the removal of color artifacts (or should I say, the substitution of these artifacts by different shades of grey) from the photograph kind of diminishes the judgmental interpretation of the photograph. No longer can someone point out that the red shirt was not that red in the real world, or that blues look over-saturated. When black & white photographs are involved, the observer tends to go through some sort of a mental shift as if being handed a different list of criteria by which to interpret the photograph. Without ever having heard of Ansel Adam’s Zone System, these observers begin to interpret the photographs in terms of those grey variations that lie somewhere in between absolute white and absolute black. What’s more, when black & white photography is involved, the whole notion of photographic composition seems to experience somewhat of a liberation to be analyzed without the distracting effect of color getting in the way.
But to what extent is the resulting photo the product of the photographer’s ability to “see” the scene in black & white prior to capturing it with his or her camera? Is there such a thing as “seeing” in black & white when it comes to photography, or is it all the product of post-capture manipulation with today’s advanced software applications? Frankly, I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I do venture to say that for most folks out there (and this includes your humble blogger here), playing with the software during post is where the action is. We try this or that like a New York fashionista until voilà, we know it when we see it. Having said that, I have no doubt that some talented photographers out there do have this ability uncanny ability to see in black & white. At the very least, in they are able to see in grey variations, à la Ansel Adams. For some, this gift will come natural; for others, no doubt the result of many years of photographic observation and practice. Whatever the case, I am just glad that black & white photography is alive and well and that companies like Leica pay it tribute with the introduction of such wonderful products as the Leica M Monochrome. We can only hope that other companies follow in their footsteps.
I’ll start this post with a simple admission: I love walking the street. And to paraphrase Hugh Grant’s famous line in the hit movie Notting Hill, I mean that in a “non-prostitute” sort of way. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I grant you, but for me, the craziness of the street with its unpredictable, and always revealing human activity, is the stuff of life. Where else can you, and in the scope of a day, experience great art, creative people, international music, great food, Ethiopian coffee, incredible architecture, and dare I say it, a little flirting here and there. But even more than that, the street has a certain energy that is highly contagious. It is scenery that is always changing, and for someone interested in the human condition in any way, there is simply no other place to be than out there where the noise is coming from. Be it in Rio, Berlin, Shanghai, or Delhi, life on the street is simply a never-ending theatrical performance by momentary, wonderful characters. Crude at times, scary at others, but also happy and refreshing most of the time. Sort of like a human thrift shop. Haven’t experienced the streets and neighborhoods in your town yet? Well, you ought to try getting out there. Don’t just read about life, be that life. And don’t forget your camera.