When I was a kid, my family and I would travel into New York from suburban New Jersey only on very special occasions. Like when we saw the world premiere of the movie Annie on the big screen or the musical play Chicago on Broadway. My father used to make the daily bus commute into the city to work, so he was always less enthused than the rest of us about heading back in on a weekend. To us, New York was a vibrant, bustling place that, despite only living 45 mins away, was akin to the journey Dorothy took from Kansas to Oz. Making our way out of the Port Authority, the hum of the city, the people rushing to get where they were going, the bright neon lights and vivid yellow of the taxis was thrilling. This must be what every tourist who comes to our fair city for the first time must feel. But being a tourist and being a resident are vastly different things…..and different feelings.
After living here for over 10 years, the excitement had dulled. I’m one of the bustling people and the wide eyed tourists are now a nuisance. I avoid Times Square like the plague and Rockefeller Center…at Christmas…NO WAY!
But New York is so much more than tourists spots and iconic buildings. It’s full of culture and creativity.
It can be crowded yet lonely.
It can be vibrant and cold.
And most importantly, it can have a sense of humor.
Even though I grumble about the subway, the hordes of tourists, or the loud music blasting from suped up cars cruising the streets, when I come back after being away, that little kid in me still gets excited and can’t believe that New York is my home…and there’s no place I’d rather be.
For years have been inspired by photographic legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész. They captured small moments of time, fixed in black and white. From city streets like Paris and New York to quiet fields in Hungary or Provence, everything was fair game. Children playing, farmers and factory workers, models, and those down on their luck were all visually treated with respect and reverence. I would pour over books of their work and wonder how they were able to create such masterpieces. They were masters of street photography.
In my own photographic work, I tended to shoot landscapes free of people, bicycles parked on side streets, or people that I already knew. I shied away from shooting strangers as they went about their day. It was too risky, too intimidating, even though I was making the photos in my mind. I could see the moments, the man getting coffee from a street vender, the child skipping through the park, the way the lines of shadow and light laid out like a set of piano keys while people walked to work. I could see it, but was I brave enough to capture it?
Photographing buildings, animals, or people you know is one thing, but street photography is a whole other ball game. First of all, you have to be prepared. Moments won’t stop for you because you didn’t get it the first time. Life just keeps rolling along.
Second, you have to know your camera. Know the shutter and apature you need to get the shot. Light changes in an instant and you need to change with it.
Third, you need to have respect for your subject. There can be humor in your images, like juxteposition of a sleeping subway rider next to an ad for a mattress. But stay away from images that might mock your subject or make judgements on them.
But most importantly, and the one I struggle with, is fear. Being able to bring that camera up to your eye and press the shutter is always a risk. I’m afraid people will yell at me or be upset or that I will be seen as some sort of weirdo, creepy voyeur. In my travels abroad, I have found that I am much more bold being able to shoot on the street. Maybe because I know my time in that place, on that street, is short and I need to make the most of it. Maybe I think of myself as a tourist and it’s easier to shoot and disappear rather than shoot on the street where you live. But that is the way of the photographer, being able to hide behind the metal and glass. A sort of shield that protects you from being on the inside. It’s much more comfortable to be able to float around the perimeter then be in the center of the action. This is something I struggle with and have for years. I’ve gotten much better at personal interaction but still find that the camera is not only a way out but a way in. Yet the fear is still there. Recently though, I’ve gotten better, bolder and have been rewarded for these efforts.
Childhood is a time of discovery, wonder, and unlimited imagination. Unlike adults, they have no problem expressing their feelings. Excitement, joy, sadness, or even bordem are all out in the open. No filters. It’s a time when you can wear clothes covered in cartoon characters and no one bats an eye. A time when asking a silly question gets smiles and a pat on the head. Ice cream tastes better, candy is like crack, and the sight of a playground brings uncontrolled joy. There are no bills to pay, you don’t follow politics or world news, and the biggest stress you have is hoping not to be picked last for kickball.
Maybe that’s why I get such a kick out of kids. They are inherently free. They haven’t let the world encroach on their spirits yet, and joy shines from their faces like a beacon on a cold, foggy night.