A Few Street Portraits
These street portraits are among my favorite of all my shots. They are not "pretty." They don't necessarily capture the best side of the subjects. But they are authentic and honest. Always honest. I need to engage with a subject long enough to gain at least some trust to take close-ups like these. That's why they are of my favorites. If the shot is honest, it means that I engaged, which I'm always happy and proud to have done. I'm an introvert, so connecting with complete strangers on the street is a discomforting challenge for me. So it's rare that I succeed.
I always try to get as detailed on the face as I can. These are taken either with a 35mm or 50mm equivalent prime. I may have met the person on my walk, chatted as I took pictures and small talked my way into an ad-libbed portrait session. They may have gone deep with their own issues, confessing, complaining, extolling. I listen, respond, nod, ask questions, snapping when I can. I take notes, email or text them their pics afterward if they have contact info. Most of the times the process takes less than an hour. Sometimes it's only 15 minutes. That's not a long time to get close to someone I had never met before, but it's what I'm able to do.
My most rewarding captures are when I can find a place to sit for awhile and engage with people over time. For longer than an hour. For instance, I might find a spot between shelters in a tent encampment. Taking pictures of passersby, and capturing what I can with whomever I'm sitting with. I always ask permission. I never sneak a portrait. I never sneak shots of someone's bedding or living area. I always ask for a name but never demand it. The only way I can be on the street with a camera is if I'm honest. Honesty more often than not means that I walk away empty handed, but that's the cost of my time that I am willing to invest for the few moments that work out for me.
I don't know how to use a flash. I mean, I use one occasionally. But it's all guesswork with a flash. Nearly all my shots are with natural, or environmental, lighting. So I take advantage of what morning or early evening sun can offer. Like the early morning light of this shot. After about 9AM on most summer days, I'm useless with my camera until evening. Cloudless days may be great for the beach, but they murder my ability to take pictures. December and January in Seattle can be equally murderous for the lack of light, but I find ways to make the Seattle gray work. I have yet to figure out how to make clear summer days my ally.
Most of the portraits that I consider good are from Seattle, my hometown. It's where I can take the time to engage, interact and gain enough trust to shoot. When I'm able to connect in another city, it's usually fleeting, and late at night, when most things have shut down. I find an area of the city where I can stroll around and find connections with the few people lingering on the streets. They require lighting of course, which is not always possible, but street light can offer up its own kind of beauty.
I was in East Village, New York City in late February 2020, just before Covid took hold. I found night shooting to be extremely challenging due to the wide array of lights from across the spectrum -- emergency vehicles, street lamps, cars, neon facades. It was a mess. I gave up on shooting straight and lathered my glass with Vaseline in the hopes that it would mellow out some of those light sources. The use of Vaseline or another kind of gel (I've used sunscreen lotion as well) is more of an art than a science. You want a gel-free circumference on the glass for the lens' focal area, and you want a smooth transition of gel to extend from that focal area to the perimeter of the glass. So Vaseline is hit and miss. But when it hits, as it did in this portrait of Jaya, a Zen street poet I met just as I was closing my night wandering out, it can offer up soft skin tones and a dream-like texture to the bokeh.