December Photo Journal 1999

12-25-99

Probably a strange thing to try, but the idea of starting an on-line, journal related to this photography might be interesting. That remains to be seen. Like any journal, this will be somewhat rambling…

I’ve been shooting in the subways for almost 8 years, and I’m pretty much sick of it. I think that originally, I wanted to show that you could apply Ansel Adams type techniques to the most urban parts of New York, and wind up with beautiful photographs. Instead of the grainy stuff I was used to seeing, I would try and use medium and large format cameras. Pretty difficult to take a view camera onto a crowded subway car. Number one, you are not allowed to use a tripod in the subways, at least not without permission. Number two, how can you expect the average New Yorker to react to something so outrageous?

The best that I got during this period was actually the Empty subway car. This car, by the way, was only empty for about five seconds.

– The following is updated many years later.

In those days, you could do crazy things like that.  Remember, it’s a large contraption, and you look like some sort of strange alien when you place the black cloth over your head to see the frosted glass viewfinder which shows the image upside down and backwards.  Depth of field could be achieved to a greater degree with various tilts, and the detail from a 4 x 5 inch negative is remarkable, not to mention the long grayscale.

The image may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Not a sunset or a shot of the Empire State Building – but an idea of merging two styles – and having the guts to take the chance.  I actually took three shots while I was there.  The first one still has people in it but they are moving rapidly and it was a five second exposure and that’s too long for any interesting blurs.  This is the second of the three.  And I did one more as people were getting on the train but that had the same issues as the first.  Just streaks.  With that I left at the next station, the camera on the big wooden tripod, balanced on my right shoulder while I left, and then on my left as the weight sunk in.

Over the years, what I called Subway Car Interior (mundane title for all the planning it involved) turned out to sell fairly well, and now as I revise this in the digital age, to hold up as something of an historical artifact in many ways.

* * *

Another highlight, was the shot of the Man and Woman, which was taken with a Rolliflex Twin Lens. None of the work that I did was hidden — as Walker Evans had done. I always felt too sneaky to actually put a camera inside my coat as he had done. Instead, the camera was out in the open, sitting on my lap. Actually propped up on my briefcase. My theory was that after a while, true New Yorkers would ignore you.

In general that was true though I got my share of dirty looks.

Part of my fascination with the subway, was that I had always had a deep phobic reaction to being caught in these crowded trains. I don’t exaggerate. I thought that by trying to capture this phenomena, it might help me get over my phobia which it did. Go figure.

Another reason for shooting as much subway as I did, was simply because it was there! I took the same train to work every day, and if I was going to shoot, this was about all that was available during my normal work day. One trick that I used was to measure the width of the various subway cars. I always knew ahead of time how far it was from one door to another, or from one side of the train to the other. And of course, the lighting didn’t change much. Open up as much as you could. Use the slowest shutter speed you could manage. Hope for the best.

After a few years, I switched to an auto-focus camera (the Contax G2) because it had interchangeable lenses. This gave me the ability to shoot with a wide angle lens which you really need on a crowded train. The problem with the G2 was that it was a bit noisy. So it became important to pick a train that was noisy. The best of all was when you got a subway car where the p.a. system was out of whack and was continuously squeaking and groaning. The other thing was that in general, it was impossible to shoot while the train was actually moving (due to slow shutter speed). Almost all the shots on this site were taken while the train was still. Usually at that moment between when the doors closed and the train took off. Example from the G2.

* * * *

Another idea I once came up with was to dress and act like a tourist! After all, I was sort of a tourist. New Yorkers take everything for granted. I bought a big, cumbersome map of New York, had it sticking out of my jacket pocket, and wandered around looking at the tall buildings. I had noticed, while I was in Paris, that tourists were tolerated. If you were a tourist, it was okay to take a picture of most anything, and the denizens simply chalked it up to another annoying American. Wouldn’t the same technique work in New York. I once visited the Empire State building and pretended not to speak English (of course, all the while snapping away like crazy). At the top of the building was a man selling stamped coins or something, who tried desparately to explain to me how much these trinkets cost and why I needed one. I kept shaking my head and explaining in some language of my own devising that I wasn’t interested. A couple next to me got into the act, telling me that each trinket cost FIVE DOLLARS. Counting them out on their fingers. Finally, I pretended to understand and said in an accent — ‘Too Much’. And went on.

I was always looking for techniques that would allow me to get close to my subjects. It didn’t seem to be fair to use long lenses, and I’ve never used a lens longer than 90mm (on a 35mm camera) to photograph people. I was influenced by whatever I read about Cartier-Bresson. I read that he basically walked around with a 35mm and a 90mm lens (of course with a Lieca). If that was good enough for HCB, it was good enough for me. And there is something to be said for that simplicity. I’ve also stood clear of zoom lenses.

When I first started shooting seriously, I used a Canonet which had one fixed lens (was it 28 or 35??) and forced myself to get closer or further by walking. I probably stayed with this camera for about a year.

12-26-99

A few days ago, I stopped by one of those photography stands that seem to be all over the streets of New York. Mostly selling black and white tourist type photos. I asked the woman who was managing the site, whether these were here photos. She said, ‘no.’ She sells them for someone else. I asked her, did she think it was possible to make a decent living doing this sort of thing. And told her I was contemplating it. She took one look at me and said, ‘No. You couldn’t do it.’

– Why not? I asked.

– Because you need to be a big bastard to do this. And you don’t look like a bastard at all….

What was I going to say — ‘I can be a big bastard! Really I can’

* * * * *

I have to admit, although I’ve never seen myself as a saleman — and am generally pretty shy about pushing my self into the fray — since I decided to try and sell, I’ve spent 99% of my time with what could be called marketing. Or to be more exact, figuring how to get myself listed with the various search engines. It seems like a game. Alta Vista, for example, seems to throw my main page away — but some other engines have picked it up. The main keyword that I’m shooting for is ‘Black and White Photography’. If I ever switch to color, I’m going to be in big trouble. Fortunately, since I’ve been shooting for twenty odd years in black and white, and never had the urge to take a color shot, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.

Putting the site together has been interesting, since I have that computer background that I’m trying to get away from. The hard thing, is how to give a feeling of what the prints look like in real life. That was why I decided to make the main images 300 x 500 pixels (larger than on most sites) and include hi-res images that could be loaded. My logs however show that for every 5000 regular size images that are looked at, perhaps 200 large images are clicked on. Makes me wonder if its worth it.

I also played around with a Java Applet that allowed you to zoom in and out and explore different parts of the picture, but a few people told me it crashed their computer. So much for that.

So far I’ve spent $100 on marketing. That was to buy a RealName keyword.

And of course, the big thing still remains, which is to put a shopping cart and credit card processing on the site.

12-28-99

I’ve recieved a lot of letters from photography students asking for advise. A favorite quote is from Walker Evans, who was giving advice to another photographer, Ben Shahn. ‘Look Ben, there’s nothing to it. F9 on the shady side of the street. f45 on the sunny side, twentieth of a second. hold your camera steady!)

Film speeds have changed since then, but still, good simple advise.

12-31-99

I know this is going to annoy alot of people — it annoys me to have to do it, but I added banners to the site today. It’s part of the LinkExchange program, where if I agree to show others banners on my site, then, given some ratio or other my banner shows up on other LinkExchange sites.

Here’s the banner people will hopefully be seeing on other sites.

If it works, I’ll keep it. If not, its gone. All part of the grand experiment of how do you get people to your site without spending big bucks (or any bucks at all up until now.)

The real problem is that the place where I get the most hits, namely as each image is shown, is the last place you want to be hit with a banner. For now, I’ll resist that idea, and just keep it on the home page, and other pages where it won’t get in the way of the images.

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Dave

My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a photographer and programmer working in New York City.