Grappling with the Big Apple: Street Photography in New York City
This week, I’m in New York City, a city which – like my home town, London – I never tire of. I took a walk through Chinatown, an area which I have somehow contrived to pass by, but not through, on previous visits. It was a rainy, cold, windy night, and I endured maybe an hour looking for photographs before heading into the warmth of a café for coffee and a bite to eat, having failed to dress appropriately and seriously underestimated the wind-chill factor and the plummeting temperatures as the the sun dipped below the horizon and the light faded from the day.
For me, street photography in a city like New York suggests different techniques compared to those I might try in a city like Chennai in India, which is where I found myself at the beginning of the year. In India, strangers are by and large much more receptive to an approach and a request for a photograph, and candid shots are harder to achieve owing to the high level of alertness of everyone on the street. In contrast, candid people shots in New York are easier to come by as many people are so engrossed in their own private bubble – whether listening to an MP3 player, talking or texting on the phone, or just day-dreaming – that they are less aware of what is going on around them. However, an attempt to pass the time of day, engage a stranger in idle conversation, or – God forbid – request a photograph may not always be met with the warm, friendly response that you hoped for. That’s not to say that New Yorkers aren’t friendly: just that the guard tends to be up when they are accosted by a stranger on the street with a funny accent and a camera.
In order to avoid invading anyone’s personal space with a lens, or pointing my lens conspicuously in anyone’s direction, I decided to set my camera on my tripod, and frame up a street scene as if it were a stage. Then it was simply a case of waiting for the actors to appear. Street photography can sometimes feel like hunting; this was more like fishing, in the sense that I settled down in one spot and let the images come to me. I don’t normally use a tripod for street photography, so this was an experiment in trying something different. I also used a cable release, which enabled me to trip the shutter remotely. The combination of the tripod and the cable release allowed me to make photographs without being obvious about when I was taking them. Sure, everyone passing by could see that I had a camera on a tripod pointing at the street. However, since the tripod and camera were set up before they appeared, there was no reason for them to think that they were unequivocally the subject of my photograph. And because I was using the cable release, it was easier to disguise the moment at which I released the shutter to make the image.
This is a technique which clearly would not generally be useful for close-up shots of people on the street; but in this instance, I was after a wider view, and I felt that it worked well.