Chris by iSight, 2008
I was having dinner last weekend with a group that included my cousin Dan. We were talking about photography and I was observing that I’ve never seemed to get the knack for putting strangers at ease in order to do good street portraits. It’s not like people run from me. But I just haven’t mastered the art of that kind of encounter.
I was describing how much I respect my friend Gary Clark’s portraits. Whether he’s photographing the homeless on the streets of New York or Amish children in Pennsylvania, Gary portraits make his respect for his subjects clear. That doesn’t mean his portraits are all cute or predictable. Rather, whatever his subjects are doing, wherever they are, and whether they are happy or sad, you feel like you know the person, that Gary has captured their condition.
I was telling Dan how I wished I had that way of putting people at ease, and suggested that Gary must have something in his smile or approach that makes people want to sit for him.
Dan politely suggested, “Well, you know, that picture of you on your blog is kind of menacing. If you encountered that guy on the street and he walked toward you with a camera, you’d probably walk in the other direction.”
I tried to allow as how I don’t greet people with a scowl. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my way of dealing with people in street portraits is to look away from them. When I try to catch someone in a candid pose, I don’t pose them. I don’t even try to let them know I’m photographing them. If they look suspicious—and why wouldn’t they be if a menacing looking guy with a camera started zeroing in on them?—I take the picture and then turn smoothly and quickly without even looking up so that they’ll think I’m really taking a picture of something else.
Maybe if I interviewed a few hundred photographers I’d find that we sort out into at least two broad groups: the Observers and the Engagers. I’d be in solidly in the Observer group, content to stand at the side and catch photo ops as they pass. My friend Gary, on the other hand, would probably be standing in the Engagers group, those extroverted people who walk right up to strangers and start building a bridge to a good portrait.
For quite a while I’ve wanted to find some kind of photo workshop to broaden my skills. Maybe I should be looking for something for aspiring Engagers.
Live and learn. Thanks, Dan.
As for Chris by iSight, above, it’s there to prove to you that I can smile and make funny faces, and that if you leave me in a hotel room long enough with nothing to read or work on, I’ll probably just sit in front of the laptop and let it take silly pictures of myself.