From the recent falafel post: “I have to admit, that sometimes I do get sick and tired of photographing in New York.”
Now get this. It is my very first post – in the days before blogs were called blogs. It was “posted” even that wasn’t a word that was used on December 25th, 1999. You can find this sort of stuff via the Wayback Machine link at Alexa.com. This December 25th will mark one decade since the blog, which was then called a journal, began. Wow. Who would’ve thunk it.
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Dec. 25th, 1999. 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.
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.
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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.
So there you have it… As a point of information, this image has been on the site since the beginning. Fortunately, I didn’t need to depend on sales of this shot to eat. Maybe I sold one up til now. The Wayback Machine site.
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