Portraits. Photos that should capture the essence and spirit of the subject. Studio photographers go to great lengths in trying to capture just that. They might ask the subject to look down for three seconds and then lift their head straight to the camera, or they may have the person close their eyes and think of their favorite color, vacation, etc.
Is it necessary? Yes.We attempt to capture the truth. At least I do. That loving glance from a mother looking over her baby while she politely speaks with another person. The excitement of a sports fan when their team scores. The desperate look of having to clean the kitchen after a Thanksgiving dinner.
So it may be in the studio, in a controlled environment, and it may be candid, but both should reflect reality.
Although I often read and hear contrasting opinions regarding street photography and candid photos, there is a general consensus that street photography is spontaneous, candid, and that the subjects do not know they will be photographed before the shutter is pressed.
On the other hand, we have Street Portraits.
Ever happen that you walk the streets, the light is pretty crappy, the background is pretty bland, the angles are off, and the layers are just not there?
Most likely it has, and right then an there, this tall man, with a huge dog walks by and you can’t look away. He’s a character. He’s a winner. Color coded and all.
I remember making a few photographs, trying to work the scene, as both adults and children petted the dog and spoke with his caretaker. But I wasn’t pleased. The big friendly giant was washed out by the surrounding scene. He would bend over taking away his overpowering stature. For me, he just had to stand tall with his best companion right there next to him.
So I got closer, and sensing that he didn’t have a problem being photographed, I kneeled down and looking up from the ground, I gave him the power he truly deserved.
I would have loved to have made a more personal portrait, but I felt the dog was half the story. It would have taken away from the truth.
In the photograph below, I had to do a little more talking, but I couldn’t step back. I mean she had style. And had I made a street photo, she would still have been the subject, but with a bunch of distracting things around. So why not get in close and make it about her?
She was sitting with her boyfriend and friends at a bar at the BELT alley downtown Detroit. I couldn’t resist. The hair matched the nail polish color, which matched the dress, which matched the shoes.
How can one argue with such perfection and color coordination. Or should I say effort? That in itself is admirable.
I walked up, complemented her, asked to make a photo, and she jokingly replied: “if it’s ok with him”, pointing at her boyfriend! He nodded and there I was, ready to go. Boy did I appreciate her style. It’s a little soft, but then again, it’s not for a magazine cover.
No one falls in love with the magazine cover girls. They fall in love with reality.
And is photo not a telling portrait of our times?
I couldn’t have even imagined something so perfect to replicate in a studio. It is capturing street portraits.
I love taking street portraits.
I capture individual of our times. I speak to people for a few minutes. I compliment them. And I feel safer if the situation requires it.
Living in Detroit, which has had a history, and unfortunately continues to have, of crime, I can’t say that I take street photos lightly. I do consider my surroundings. I do consider the level of threat. I do consider whether or not there is a chance of altercations. I wrote on this in the post Capturing the Mafia.
But the impulse of the photographer is always stronger. I therefore find alternatives. I approach the person and ask if they mind me making a photograph.
To my surprise, I’ve only been rejected a handful of times.
So I ask, is one form of street photography, candid or not, better than the other?
I don’t think so. I think they are simply different. One is about the the scene; the composition must be compelling, the layers, the shadows, the contrast, the coming together of different elements that would otherwise be completely separate if not for that one moment.
Like in this photo by Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos.
Would it have been worth it to take the ducks away from the foreground, and the flying kicking man in the background to get a more intimate portrait of the sitting man? Of course not.
On the other hand, it might be that the entire subject is just that one person, with their style, their demeanor, their presence, their message.
So next time you feel like exchanging a few words with a stranger, documenting the world around you, making a portrait of a stylish character, circumventing composition challenges, or avoiding the fear of possible altercations, turn to a Street Portrait.
While I turn Jay-Z down, let me invite you to viewing individuals of our time in my ongoing Street Portrait project here.
Until Next Time,