Friday, March 16, 2012

Street Portraits

I took, for me, a huge leap forward this week while walking around Portobello Road with my camera. I asked two complete strangers for a picture!

This may not seem all that major, especially to blog pals like Kim who never hesitate to approach and photograph strangers, but I'm not that outgoing. Despite my background as a newspaper reporter, I'm skittish about asking people for a photo. If I had the backing of a news organization -- and I were being paid -- that would be one thing. But when it's just me, by my lonesome, I'm more wary. I suppose I'm worried that they'll react negatively or even angrily.

In this case, though, both agreed without hesitation -- which should probably tell me something, right? I liked the girl with her quirky outfit, and the man sitting with his two black pugs. I wish I'd had the girl turn her head a bit so we could better see the flower in her hair, and I wish I'd crouched down to take the man more straight-on rather than while towering above him. But oh well.

The teacher of the photography classes I took in January said we shouldn't ask people before taking a photo because they will "pose." Even if they try not to pose, they'll look stiffer and more self-aware.

He may have a point -- I love this photo, taken in Hyde Park on Wednesday, because the subjects were so natural. They had no idea I was taking their picture. But then, is it creepy to slink around secretly taking pictures of strangers?

I suppose there's no absolute answer. Sometimes it's fine to ask, and sometimes, asking would destroy the moment.


  1. i saw the title of your post and IMMEDIATELY clicked to check out your street portraits and imagine my surprise to find my name - ha ha.

    i love all three pictures - the hyde park one is priceless.

    to ask or not to ask that is the big question - but i think the answer most often lies in the situation and the purpose of the portrait - as wonderfully demonstrated in these three portraits!

  2. I really like them -- all three. I am wondering whether you've seen the documentary about Bill Cunningham? I think you'd love it, and it would help you to continue this work!

  3. I think you're right, Kim -- you have to read the moment and use your best judgment.

    Elizabeth, I actually met Bill C when I worked at the Times. I didn't know him well, though, and unfortunately I wasn't doing many people photos in those days. So I didn't take advantage of the opportunity to ask him about his craft!

  4. You definitely get a better picture if you don't ask. But your two subjects in this post look quite natural. I see the world as a stage these days. If people really don't want their photos taken, then maybe they should just stay off the stage. I suppose that's a little too obnoxious of me. I run into people now and then who are simply petrified of being sucked onto the Internet in any way, shape, or form.

  5. the world outside our door belongs to us all. i think there's nothing wrong with photographing the people in your public world. the street is fair game. i think, as kim says, the situation dictates the ask, but sometimes, even when a subject poses, even self-consciously, they reveal something of themselves in the way they pose, which can lead to intimacy of a different sort between photographer and subject. The subject grows still, meets your eyes bravely (or not), and there is a kind of trust they give you, a stranger, that can be quite beautiful. Even though you aren't happy with your angles in the first two photos (probably the result of rushing and not wanting to impose too much on the subject's time or good will) there is still trust in those photos. I love them both. And the hyde park one is panoramic and stunning too.

  6. Not creepy to ninja shoot! I get the best photos that way and rarely does anyone suspect- I have a screen on my broken camera that moves. I am keeping my broken camera because they don't make this model anymore. Damn!
    anyway, love the shots that you did get- you are correct-= the park one is the best!

  7. I Iove the shots where the subject is unaware they are being observed. Wit just seems more natural that way. Love the shot of the couple in the park.

    Ms. M