On Street Portraits (Part 1/3)

The Chalk Master. Berlin 2015

Street photography has always been a principal interest of mine. Before 2012, I had  been shooting mainly with Holga & Diana+ cameras and the iphone, but in 2012 I switched to instant photography, working mainly with an SX-70 camera. The switch to instant film meant dealing with a camera that is woefully unsuited to street photography, as it is anything but discrete. However, as I was finding out on trips to India, it is a wonderful tool for doing street portraits, in other words, for taking portraits of perfect strangers on the street. When I asked people’s permission to take their photo, they were interested in the camera and the process, and were happy to pose. Seeing that I also gave the people I photographed a pic of their own, it was as about giving as about taking. All in all, this was a very rewarding experience: I came back with a series of good photos, and I had had interesting encounters on the way.

The Pilgrim in Puri. 2014

With my decision to switch back to digital cameras, I was able again to do candid street photography, and loved (and still love) doing it.

However, I remembered the results I got from India, and decided that street portraiture was a direction that I would like to continue in. I had never tried it in Europe, and had no idea how the average European would react to being asked whether they wanted to be photographed. I tried the method first when I was on vacation in the South of France, assuming that Mediterraneans were more likely to be open to this kind of thing than Berliners, whom I knew to be resistant to being photographed by strangers. I came away with with good results: a number of people (though not everybody) whom I asked was willing to be photographed. Later I decided to take the plunge and repeat the same experiment in Berlin. I concentrated first on my own neighbourhood, focusing on people hanging out on a square near where I live. The result was very positive: a good number of the people I asked were happy to be photographed (read this article for more on that particular project of mine). I have kept this up since: when I see interesting people, rather than trying to shoot them unawares, I go up and ask for permission. Not everyone agrees to it, which is fair, but a good number of people either do not object or are happy to be involved. I applied this in Berlin, on a return trip to India, and more recently in Oslo.

A Lady Of Many Shades. Berlin 2015

I know that in street photography, there are people who think that candid shots are the only true type of street photography; and certainly, many of the masters of this style have used candid shots exclusively. But there are other people, like me, who think that taking street portraits is on a par, if not better, than candid shots; and certainly photographers like Mary Ellen Mark and Diane Airbus blur the line between street and documentary photography by having regular, interesting folks on the street pose for their photos. Street photography teacher Eric Kim is a fervent defender of street portraiture, and he has actually written a book about it, which can be downloaded [here] (also check out his portfolio which is filled with great street portraits).

Personally, I have noticed that when posting posed photos to sites like Flickr and Instagram, these pictures are less “liked” than my candid photos. I’m not exactly sure of the reason. In some instances, it can be argued that other people do not see the interestingness which I see in the person I photographed. But I also keep thinking that one of the reasons people are attracted to street photography lies in the exposed vulnerability of the people photographed – a vulnerability which is absent from posed portraits.

The main reason why I enjoy street portraiture is that I am able to take close-ups if I want to, without having to resort to telescope lenses, and above all without disrespect to the subject. Personally I prefer close-ups in portraiture to full-body shots. In street photography in general I like two types of photos: pictures with a context, i.e. where the main subject is part of an interesting situation; or, failing that, close-ups of people of interest. In the latter case I can simply shoot with a fast aperture and blur out the background, concentrating on the subject who is hopefully interesting enough to warrant a close-up.  Granted, there is always the danger that the person (or group) poses in a forced or very touristy type way, but I found that most of the people I ask do not behave in this way, especially when I engage them first in conversation and  take the shots from a close, personal distance. And in the best of cases, an improvised, surprise portrait teases something special and interesting from the subject.

Burning Desire. Berlin 2015

The other reason why I like street portraiture is, I have more control over the outcome. I don’t need to decide in a split second how I want to frame and shoot the person, instead I can try different angles and camera settings, and I can ask the subject to stand this way or that, all that without hurrying through a shot. Street photography is not always about “the right moment.”

There is another side effect of street portraiture which I enjoy, and which is independent of the photo. In most cases, though not all, I would strike up a conversation with the person I asked or want to ask permission for for the photograph, and I make a connection. Sometimes the conversation is just small talk, but in a few instances people tell me their story, what they do and how the come to be here; and vice-versa want to know about me. And at the end of the day, I may find this more rewarding than the resulting photo itself.


Photo sets:

I Wonder if I Know Him Now: Street Portraits from India

Folks of Many Shades (Berlin Herrmanplatz)

External links:

Eric Kim

New York Times article discussing Diane Arbus’ work

6 thoughts on “On Street Portraits (Part 1/3)

  1. Pingback: On Street Portraits (Part 2/3) – Always Arriving

  2. Pingback: On Street Portraits (Part 3/3) – Always Arriving

  3. Pingback: New “Best of Street Portraits” Set – Always Arriving

  4. Pingback: My Year 2016 in Pictures – Always Arriving

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