8.15.2011

Saying hello to strangers in public.

 I know it can be kinda scary to walk up to strangers and ask them if you can take a picture of them.  It's even scarier if you don't share a common language.  But it's a fun challenge.  Especially for the introverted.  I was walking through the streets of Rome when I saw this imposing looking person. And he looked so different with the headscarf, the aviator sunglasses and the cigar in his right hand that I just had to get his portrait.  But I didn't feel right trying to be surreptitious so I walked right up to the table he was sitting at and asked him if he would mind.  "No Problem."  I focused my Hasselblad, having already judged the exposure the minute I stepped into the square.  I was using the 100mm Planar so it was important to get physically close.  That's not a long focal length on a medium format camera.  I shot a frame and then he leaned over and mugged a kiss to his mom.


I snapped that too.  He smiled, she smiled, I smiled.  I was about to thank him and walk away when he took off his glasses and his headscarf and gave me this very direct portrait.  I loved it.  We shook hands. I bowed and walked off.  The man seemed delighted that he had been singled out for a portrait.  He gave me good stuff.


When I go on walks in San Antonio with groups of photographers and when I do lectures about photography there are always some people who want to use long zoom lenses to sneak photos of interesting people.  But the images they get always leave me unengaged.  In many ways these long distance photographers have no cultural skin in the game.  And the photos lack dimension.  The camera is so, so, so secondary to the whole equation.  It's all about responding, reacting and collaboration.

A great exercise for all kinds of photographers is to stretch out of your comfort zone. Minimize your camera gear so that you don't need to make any choices.  That takes it out of the mental process.  Go somewhere with lots and lots of people and try picking out the most interesting people in the crowd, approach them, tell them your true intentions for taking an image and photograph them with their willing complicity.  You'll meet people.  You'll learn what it means to get permission.  And your photos will be more interesting.  Was it Robert Capa who said, "If you're pictures aren't interesting you're not close enough?"  

Techfo:  Hasselblad 500 CM,  100mm 3.5 Planar,  Tri-X film.  Scanned on an Epson V500.




19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Kirk,

Was this shot taken 20 yrs ago in Rome? There is a guy behind the main person you took a picture of and he is talking on what appears to be a cel phone. 20 yrs ago there were no cel phones in existence...

Broch said...

Hey Kirk, Thank you for posting these medium format images, and for reminding me of an earlier time in photography. In todays world of disposable camera bodies, it is very refreshing!

Mindless said...

I'm sure I've met with the wrong persons but my experience in this that most of the people look much better on the picture if she/he doesn't know someone taking a photo.

kirk tuck said...

Nice Try! Anonymous. Actually Vodafone launched cellphones in the UK in 1985 and GSM launched Europe wide in 1991. Oh Gosh. Just remembered that Motorola launched the first mobile phone services in 1971.

But, in fact, that man could be listening to a transistor radio for all we can tell in the image. But really, looks like a big, fat, flat Nokia to me. Circa 1993.....

Next you will tell me that no TV's existed before what? 1975?

It's good to use the Wiki before you post.

kirk tuck said...

Mindless, billions and billions of fashion portraits and fine art portraits say you are WRONG.

Paul Glover said...

Argh Kirk, stop making me want a Hasselblad when I can't possibly afford one!

Seriously though, those are truly engaging portraits that could only have been made with permission. I need to work on my "talking to strangers" technique.

To anon @ 2.19pm, there have been handheld mobile phones in existence since the mid 1980s, they just weren't very commonplace. Or convenient. Or affordable.

Hugh said...

Mobile phones were common in Europe years before they penetrated the US market...

Marshall said...

Ayup. Capa it was, credited with saying something very like that.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, is this a topic/skill that might be addressed at the San Diego workshop?

Michael B

kirk tuck said...

Michael B. Sure seems like a good topic. Maybe it deserves a real life demo!

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Ah, what a nice story again Kirk, and the photos are brilliant like always. Love to read these stories, and IMHO you should definitely consider to put these all into a book one day.

About the comfort zone: yes, I've tried to leave mine as well, and it's definitely a step one should consider. In case you (or any one of your readers) are interested, and don't mind my links here:

There was the time shortly after I've finally got my ZD 50mm Macro lens from Olympus. I hit the streets in the small place where we live on a kind of open plaza with shopping malls, when from my right a good looking woman appeared, walked a few steps behind me, and stopped to enter some text into her cell phone. I turned around and quickly grabbed this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wjlonien/5561318077/

I had turned around once more, and was ready to just go and leave when I thought: "No - you can do better. Don't be a milquetoast, go and ask", and so on. So I stopped and went to her, introduced myself and asked if I could take her photo. She was all surprise, and said something like: "Me? Am I going to be famous now? Will I get into the newspaper?", and I laughed and told her no, that's just for me, all that kind of stuff. I was so excited that I somehow even missed focus, and got this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wjlonien/5561895668/

I thanked her, and walked away, and later when I showed that photo to my wife she said oh, that's the sales woman from the bakery in this and that store... a nice experience, after all, and it took away some of my initial fears.

Please keep these stories coming, Kirk. One of my all time favorite photos of yours is that second one in your post from Feb 12th this year, where you explain your street shooting. Obviously not taken with a Hasselblad (the typical frame is missing), but wow what a picture! Would love to get the story behind that one, and if you asked first there as well, or if that was a candid one. To me that looks a bit like two models posing, but knowing the Italians it could as well be just two gorgeous women relaxing on those Spanish steps.

Oh, and about the cell phones: yes, these were definitely around 20 years ago. Looked a bit funny, like bricks, and often attached to some kind of suitcase with enough juice to power them, but I remember having seen those during that time.

Brian said...

Great post as usual, Kirk. Very timely for me, as I just took my first street portrait a few days ago. Posts like this are what finally helped me make it happen!

Anonymous said...

I had my camera with me all day and had several opportunities to make some portraits of interesting people, but I never got up the courage to ask any of them. Dang.

Michael B

Anonymous said...

And this was AFTER I read this post.

Michael B

Brown said...

The snap of the man kissing his mother is great. Incidentally, the card he's holding reads "Bacioni" which means "big kisses." Fun.

Hugh said...

Just pulled the Pentax 67 down off the shelf and ordered some film.

All your fault/you are an inspiration -take your pick!

[Experimenting with Kodak Portra 400 colour neg for scanning and conversion to BW - figure I'll get an effective speed increase of 1 stop compared to Tri-X, more if I apply filtration afterwards in computer.]

Anonymous said...

Kirk---I too have read where, "it's better to ask first", before pointing a camera in someone's face
however,

I have 2 comments:

1) I agree with Mindless, but with the caveat that, most non-professional models (people who have not been trained in how to pose and/or are not classically photogenic), do look better (more relaxed) when shot candidly, as opposed to being posed. I hate to pose for pictures. I stiffen up something terrible.

2) Wondering if the fact that you live in Texas (and I would guess, most of your shooting is done there) has anything to do with your beliefs about "asking" first? I have never been to Texas, but the stereotype of the contemporary south is that 'most' people are friendly and open ('southern hospitality' and all that). Somehow, I just don't think that "asking first" would work as well in NYC, Philly, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc. I just imagine people being much more suspicious and "in a hurry" in places like that.

Would be curious to hear from serious amateur street shooters who shoot in those areas.

kirk tuck said...

While I live it Texas a quick peek at my website would tell you that I shoot in lots of different cities around the world. While politeness is fashionable in Texas I find the willing complicity of subjects is appreciated universally. And you don't have to pose people.

I've shot in all the cities you mentioned and they are hardly any different than Austin, Paris, Rome, Istanbul or anywhere else.

Good tip? Wherever you are, there YOU are. You take the baggage of doubt with you.

Bold Photography said...

When we did our walk last summer in San Antonio, I did step out of my comfort zone. Got a few strangers to give me permission to take their photos. I even made an African-American woman blush when I told her that the camera thought she was pretty.

That said - there was a hostile group of homeless that insisted that it was their 'right' that they not be photographed (they were in the street.... and had no legal standing to their claim) - but I put the camera down and walked away from them...