Friday, April 10, 2009

Street Portraiture

A couple of posts ago, "P" posted the following question:

I've developed an interest in street photography and taking portraits of strangers. Do you have any tips on how to approach people on the street for a quick portrait without creeping them out?

In response to that question (See how much I like comments!), I decided to conduct an experiment here in New Orleans. My goal is to ask ten people on the street if I can take their photo. So far I have only asked four because it takes longer than you might think to find a subject. It also takes guts. Here are the results so far:

subject #1: Irina.
I saw her sitting in a park taking a beer and cigarette break. I simply approached her and said something like "I love how colorful you are. Can I take your picture?" She put down the cigarette and I asked her to keep it for the photo. We talked for a while and she asked me if I would be in town next week to do some body-painting photography for her (I won't, although I'm sure it would have been interesting). We talked about her recent trip to Amsterdam, about neon paint, and other things. Approaching her for the photo led to a memorable experience that was well worth the potential refusal.

subject #2: the tattooed girl with bike
Emboldened by my initial success, I reacted quickly when I saw a girl with some pretty original tattoos coming toward me with her bike. "Great tatts! Can I take a picture?" She obliged. It was that simple. We talked about how a friend of hers did the tattoos then she introduced me to her girlfriend (I really should have taken a picture of them together), and that was that. I love the personality in her expression.

subject #3: washboard musician
Street portraiture does not always have to include faces. Here, I just wanted the hands of the man playing a washboard with a jazz band in the street. In order to take the photo, I had to get right up behind him while he was playing. He looked up at me and I mouthed "Can I take a picture" while pointing from my camera to the washboard. He nodded yes. I then stuck around and listened to the group.

Above is a shot of some of the other musicians. The singer (dancing at left) reminded me of Gelsomina in Fellini's La Strada. I tipped them after taking some photos (always tip street performers if you photograph them) and then I bought their CD. Another great experience.

subject #4: feet of tourists eating beignets at the Café du Monde.
Next to the Café du Monde, where tourists wait in endless lines to eat beignets (basically a rectangular donut covered in powered sugar), I noticed ground flocked with excess powdered sugar and asked the couple seated on the bench if I could take a picture. OK, I didn't exactly ask. I just sort of told them. In some cases (you be the judge), telling is preferable to asking. For me, this was a better souvenir than a beignet, and I didn't have to wait in line.

I need to get back out on the street now. A few thoughts before I go:
  • Street photogrpahy is more fun and less expensive than buying souvenirs. I haven't set foot in a single shop.
  • Most people will let you take their portrait if you are natural, complimentary, and friendly about it. Tell them it's for a project if you like or an assignment from a crazy blog that you read.
  • Even though I am currently batting 1000, I think that pre-screening your subjects is necessary. What I mean is that some people don't even want you to look at them much less take their photo.
  • Remember that the type of photo you get from a street portrait is not the same as a candid street photograph. Each has its place, but don't expect to make one into the other.
  • Don't hesitate or you will miss an opportunity. I saw the toughest wheelchair-bound guy ever today. I wanted to take his picture, but we were both crossing the street in opposite directions. I later regretted not turning around.
If you decide to give it a try, post your results on your own blog (or photo sharing site) and link them back here on the monthly special page.


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