Think of street photography, and chances are you think of New York. It may not have been invented here, but the streets and avenues of New York are the backdrop to many of the genre’s classic images. Just look at the roll call of photographer who’ve made their name shooting the city’s streets: Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Elliot Erwitt, Bruce Davidson.
It isn’t by accident. New York is a city where life is lived on the streets, especially on Manhattan, where people have lived cheek-by-jowl in tenement buildings, and the street has often been their only escape from stifling summer temperatures.
New York, therefore, has more in common with European cities like Rome or Barcelona than it does the city centres of the Mid-West., with its suburbs full of air-conditioned houses a freeway ride away. It’s a photographer’s playground, and along with Istanbul, is the best city of Earth to practice your street photography skills.
I’ve visited New York several times over the past couple of decades, but never managed to spend the amount of time out on the street taking pictures as I’d like. Like many street photographers, I’d love a month – even a couple of weeks – to pound the pavements, honing my skills, especially in the autumn, when the rich, gold light reflects off the windows and adds a beautiful texture to the old stone buildings.
I was in New York last month for a week for work; pretty much the only time I had to take pictures was the Sunday, the day after I arrived. My workmates and I met for a brunch at a diner south of Houston, and then the afternoon was free; an afternoon of bright, golden New York autumn sunshine. On an afternoon like this, there’s few other places on the planet I would rather be. The streets aren’t crowded with commuters, but there’s the different rhythm of local life.
Great street photography, novices are often told, requires that you become invisible. Shooting on rangefinder cameras, with their whisper-quiet shutters, is common (no coincidence that many of the masters used Leicas). The shots here were shot instead on a Praktica MTL 50, the last screw-mount camera in Pentacon’s long-line of SLRs. The Praktica’s tough, durable, easy to use and reliable, though it’s shutter could wake the dead; it would hard to be unobtrusive with this unless you were taking pictures next to a roadcrew using jackhammers.
But I think there’s something to be said for not becoming completely invisible; if you’re noticed taking somebody’s picture on the street, a smile is a pretty easy way to defuse a situation. People are more likely to become suspicious if you’re furtive and trying to pretend you haven’t been shooting them. It’s something I’ve practiced in Istanbul and in Morocco, where there’s a language barrier, and I firmly believe that it’s something that should work wherever you are – even in the hustling, bustling Big Apple.
For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been a big fan of the Lomography ethos to shooting (shoot film, shoot often, experiment and have fun) but it’s really the first time I’ve used their Lomography 100 print film. I don’t know who makes it – it could be Agfa, Fuji or Kodak – but it’s a beautiful, saturated print film, perfect for capturing such rich autumn sunlight.