To Hover Is To See: Images From Two City Blocks

This gentleman was looking away, but waiting for him to turn around produced the desired photograph. [Click photo to enlarge]
This gentleman was looking away, but waiting for him to turn around produced the desired photograph. [Click photo to enlarge]
Couples in love will always be great subjects to photograph. [Click photo to enlarge]
Couples in love will always be great subjects to photograph. [Click image to enlarge]
Rare as it may be, there's always plenty of public romance in our cities. [Click to enlarge]
Rare as it may be, there’s always plenty of public romance in our cities. [Click image to enlarge]
Candid moments are simply the best, provided you learn to anticipate the scene. [Click for larger image]
Candid moments are simply the best, provided you learn to anticipate the scene. [Click image to enlarge]
Sometimes the secret is to see the image amongst all the environmental noise surrounding it. [Click image to enlarge]
Sometimes the secret is to see the image amongst all the environmental noise surrounding it. [Click image to enlarge]
 

Recently, I bumped into a local photographer friend of mine who happened to be hanging around an icy puddle of slush on a Washington, DC downtown corner.  Noticing that he was kind of hovering around the area with his Leica rangefinder at the ready, it was obvious that he was waiting for something to happen, so I asked him how it was going.  Without taking his eyes away from that puddle of slush for more than a second, he told me that he was waiting for the “decisive moment” when someone would hop over the puddle so he could capture it a la Cartier-Bresson.  To say he was working the scene would be an understatement.  Dodging people and nature while constantly shifting his position, he appeared to be moving with the grace of a Mohamed Ali within the confined amount of space allowed by a busy sidewalk.  I don’t know if he ever got his picture, but if he didn’t, it was certainly not for lack of trying.

Working a scene is what appears to be at the root of any great photograph.  When we look at some of the unbelievable photographs made by National Geographic photographers, what makes these photographs so special to a large extent is the unique perspective from which they were captured.  Composition, angle of view, and masterly handling of light are not things that happen by chance.  At that level, lots of considerations go into a photographer’s choices before that shutter is finally pressed, and luck, while always welcomed, has nothing to do with it in the vast majority of cases.  It is visual decision-making at its best: when to hang tight, when to move, when to aim, when to shift left or right, when to squat, or climb a building–they are all the product of intense observation and quick reaction, even if the end result is to stand still and wait.  While not perfect in any way, every single photo on this blog today was made possible by the simple act of waiting. Waiting for the cigar-smoking gentleman to look at me, waiting for the couples to show some tenderness, waiting for the grandfather to strike a teaching pose at the museum, and waiting for the waiter to approach the window.  Waiting, and anticipating.  Some may call this luck, and no doubt there’s some truth to the fact that the subjects could have acted otherwise, but the old saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” may also have something to do with it.  Learning to see, combined with the patience that so often rewards anticipation, will pay great visual dividends after the shutter is pressed.  So after hanging around two downtown blocks for an entire afternoon on a very cold day, here’s the photographic lesson that was reinforced in my mind: that it is OK to run when you have to, but when you don’t, then don’t. Great things may happen when you allow your eyes the time to do what they do best: to see.

 

A Little Street Verticality

When composing photographs, orienting your camera vertically will product a totally different mood.
When composing photographs, orienting your camera vertically will product a totally different mood.
Shooting vertically will eliminate most of the environmental setting in a photograph.
Shooting vertically will eliminate most of the environmental setting in a photograph.
Shooting vertically adds a little compositional challenge by severely limiting the cropping options.
Shooting vertically adds a little compositional challenge by severely limiting the cropping options.
The vertical effect is dramatically enhance by the presence of similarly oriented structures.
The vertical effect is dramatically enhance by the presence of similarly oriented structures.
Going tight with your shot, as opposed to wide, give a natural telephoto effect to a photograph.
Going tight with your shot, as opposed to wide, give a natural telephoto effect to a photograph.

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.

 

Something Happened Before I Clicked

Lady acts quite surprised after turning the photo book page at the 2013 PDN Photo Expo at the Javits Center in New York City.
Lady acts quite surprised after turning the photo book page at the 2013 PDN Photo Expo at the Javits Center in New York City.

Some photographs just speak for themselves.  This is one of those.  After seeing a group of people perusing photo books for sale at at the 2013 PDN Expo in NYC, I decided to take a photo with my Ricoh GR just to make up for what otherwise was a slow photography day.  What I was not expecting was for the woman in the photo to suddenly turn the book page and be shocked by whatever it was she had just seen.  I could’t quite make out what exactly she was looking at, but it had obviously caused quite an impression on her.  Sometimes, that’s just how it happens.  Just when you are about to press that shutter, someone within the frame of view will do something that will produce a much more interesting photograph.  That’s what happened on this day, and it obviously transformed what was just an ordinary scene into one not so ordinary.  That worked for me.

The Ricoh GR And The Art Of Candid Photography

Colorful participant at the 2013 PRIDE Parade in Washington, DC.  Ricoh GR, 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent).
Colorful participant at the 2013 PRIDE Parade in Washington, DC. Ricoh GR, 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent).
Some street scenes are so generic in character that they could come from anywhere in the world.  Ricoh GR, 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent).
Some street scenes are so generic in character that they could come from anywhere in the world. Ricoh GR, 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent).
The Ricoh GR is perfect for capturing street scenes up close.  Ricoh GR, 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent).
The Ricoh GR is perfect for capturing street scenes up close. Ricoh GR, 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent).
Sometimes there is simply no time to ask whether it is OK to take that photograph.  Ricoh GR, 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent).
Sometimes there is simply no time to ask whether it is OK to take that photograph. Ricoh GR, 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent).

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.