Photo work is slow in the winter – it’s a time for me to explore my personal photography and email clients about shoots during warmer, upcoming months. With my free time, I’ve been trying to make a habit of practicing street photography on mornings in downtown Frederick, Maryland. On previous shoots, I used my 1930 Leica, 5cm Elmar and Kodak Tri-X 400 film.
I was happy with the results of but I’m a big advocate of the Robert Capa adage “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
I know, I know, street photography is conventionally the domain of wider lenses because you can use hyperfocal distance instead of looking through the rangefinder, announcing that you’re taking shots. The lenses and rigs are also smaller and perhaps more stealthy as a result. And Capa was encouraging physical closeness to subjects, not sniper shooting. I get it. I really do. But sometimes we have to do things our own way.
The technique that I came up with during a previous photo walk was to shoot from the opposite side of the street as my subject. In doing so, I can be less distracting and more deliberate with my framing. Being on the opposite side of the street, I can easily locate good-looking store fronts, make simple, straight-on compositions and anticipate the position of my subject. I am sure that some credentialed street shooter has already explored this technique and the comments section will fill with examples of how unoriginal I am, but it’s something that came to me organically via total ignorance, so whatever.
90mm is good, not only for getting tighter but, as wide angle aficionados often seem to forget, 90 allows for more accurate framing with rangefinders courtesy of that dirty word – “parallax.” Though, on a Barnack, there is a challenge involved.
Shooting with a 90mm on a pre-IIIg Leica requires not only the normal exposing and focusing but also parallax correction of the accessory viewfinder. On both my Voigtlander and the original Leica brightline finder, there is a focus ring. As one rotates it to match the distance set on the lens, the entire finder tilts up or down to change the location of the framelines ever so slightly. Failure to keep the viewfinder and lens in agreement will result in incorrect compositions. However, having to set the distance on a separate device also makes one that much more aware of spatial relationships and considering depth of field as I mentioned in my rangefinder focusing techniques blog. And the Voigtlander 90mm brightline finder is a 1 to 1 magnification, which makes for a very pleasing viewing experience.
The process for shooting this rig then, is as follows:
–set the aperture and shutter speed
–determine the distance to pre-focus
–set the actual focus on the lens by looking through the rangefinder window
–move my eye to the viewfinder and set the focus on it
–advance the film
–wait for the subject to enter the frame and fire the shutter
So choosing a 90 instead of a 50 requires not only more work but a certain order to the work. Because you need to get the focus off of the lens before you can compose. If all this sounds like a turn-off, of course there are faster, more modern cameras than my humble 1930 III that one can use. But I personally really enjoy the cadence and dedication of function that one must adopt in order to use these cameras. There is a nearly musical rhythm that one picks up and follows leading up to each image, which makes the process of taking a shot really fun and informative of each scene. Also, in regards to separate view and rangefinders, it is pure luxury to dedicate ones efforts to a single purpose with a single device instead of combining everything. Engineers and photographers once sought to combine focusing, composing and metering into the single window but separating these functions, I find, is a great way not only to ensure accuracy but also just to give yourself some head space.
I don’t know if it was my cool, new ONA Prince Street bag, the slightly larger lens and viewfinder, relaxed mask restrictions or just some grand happenstance of The Universe, but people were interrupting me left and right. I swear, every ten minutes or so, someone would, at the very least, pass by and tell me that they liked my old camera. One guy even appeared to have run out of the shop he was inside just talk to me.
“Hey, is that an Olympus?”
“Not quite,” I replied with a smile, “this is a Leica” I declared with pride. His demeaner shrunk at my response because, I’m guessing, he didn’t know the brand. Or maybe he just thought I was being pompous.
So I continued with my stock follow-up question “do you shoot?” The man said “oh no, but I have an Olympus that’s just like that.”
I tried to ignore this common comment that I hear from people who don’t know cameras – that they have something cheap or common that is “just like” whatever expensive/rare/special camera that I’d researched and saved for months to purchase.
He couldn’t think of the model of the camera and struggled to explain that he thought it took an odd film format that they don’t make anymore. “The Penn – Olympus Penn.” I replied. “It just takes 35mm that they still make but the camera only shoots half frame.”
If he wasn’t bewildered before, now he looked completely stupefied.
I did my best to explain more clearly and he seemed grateful for, what for him is probably just trivia but for me is Bible verse. I affirmed “it was good talking to you” and we warmly parted ways.
Last time I took street photos, the light was harsh and contrasty. Which was fun when I could harness it but required fairly constantly exposure checks and changes. Today, the sky was an evenly lit grey, just a few hours before rain. So I stayed at 400 ISO, 1/500 and f8 for the entire shoot and focused, well, on focusing. The consistent lighting allowed me to concentrate on watching people and getting the compositions and moments I wanted instead of worrying about adjusting my exposure.
So what I did, as mentioned, was walk on the opposite side of the street from where I saw people. I walked a bit ahead of them, in the same direction they were going. Then I’d locate a cool background to put them in and stop walking to compose and focus as they continued into my scene.
Knob wind Leica’s are also a challenge for street photography because, while they probably felt blazingly fast in the 1930’s, I have no means to rapid fire with mine, such as a Leicavit, etc. While photographers are always waiting for the perfect moment to snap the shutter, anticipating these little scenarios and watching them unfold felt particularly critical and exciting, knowing I couldn’t knock off a few frames per second as I could with an M6.
I like to set up my shot and then look around at the architecture and pretend to fiddle with settings like a fascinated amateur. My goal is to look harmless, busy and not paying attention to the people I’m photographing. I think my technique worked because one loud and gregarious gentleman began, without solicitation, yelling from across the street about how old the buildings are while I quietly took a photo of a jogger and passively responded to him.
But he kept yelling to me anyway. “Does that camera even work?!” “It sure does.” “How about you take a picture of me?” I set up really fast, not even expecting to get the focus right, and snapped, just to appease him. “Hey, what are you going to do with that picture?” In my mind, I was thinking, I don’t know, YOU wanted me to take it! But all I said, instead of running across the street, infected by the man’s energy and zest to offer my business card, was a defeated and useless “I don’t know.” He didn’t have any sassy comeback to that and found another passerby on his side of the street to harass with kindness.
Now that I’m looking at the photo that I took of the boisterous man, I see that he was also wearing what appears to be an SLR. See? If I was shooting with an SLR and its magnified viewfinder, I may have noticed this! Maybe the man’s photos of me will show up on some other blog, elsewhere on the internet! Anyway, here you go, buddy. You’re a part of mine now.
While I enjoy small black cameras, I’ve never subscribed to any philosophy about making oneself invisible. I really don’t believe that you can, and perhaps should not try to be totally invisible as a photojournalist or documentary photographer. I know everyone wants that cliché, coveted fly-on-the-wall perspective but I think that perspective is earned with interaction, not deflection. I mean, I actually really enjoy that last photo of the loud apparent photographer who annoyed me. But I wouldn’t have gotten that shot if I had just completely ignored him (or didn’t take his direction!), right?
People naturally look at people with cameras, particularly when they’re aiming them in their direction. It doesn’t matter if your camera is chrome, black or hot pink. I would rather be seen but not seen as a threat, than move around sneakily and cause alarm when I am, inevitably, seen.
I’m not known for street photography so maybe I’ve got this all wrong! But I’m just sharing my approach as an introverted event photographer who doesn’t like to talk to people and has learned to smile and earn trust with simple niceties. In line with that, I was just watching a documentary about Ricky Powell whose greatest strength seemed to have been access. Unlike myself, he really embodied that Capa quote.
I finished my first roll of Tri-X and wound the film back into the canister as I walked to a set of steps on Market Street. I pulled up a seat on the cold stone and swapped the spent roll for a fresh one from my ONA bag. It only takes a few moments before I’m back on my feet, checking the light with the meter on my phone and beginning Roll Two.
As I noted previously, people kept interrupting me to talk about the Leica. It was getting comically annoying. Some interactions were brief and non-disruptive. Others just completely knocked me out of Observation Mode and required me to pretend to be on my way somewhere to get away from all the pointless, redundant and superficial banter. Yes, my inner curmudgeon is showing. I began wondering if I should have been dressing or acting differently, maybe even using a less attractive/interesting-looking camera since everyone seemed so drawn to this one. By the time of the next interruption, I was through with being polite.
While waiting for someone to walk into a shot, I heard yet another disruptive voice call to me from, what in my opinion, was a ridiculous distance away to strike up a conversation. Because I was scanning the entirety of my surroundings, I knew that a gentleman was approaching on my right side, however he was still a good 15 feet away when he brashly shouted, “Hey! What kind of camera is that?”
“Jesus Fucking Christ” I thought. I pretended to continue working on my photo which had now disintegrated due more to my nerves than anything else.
“It’s a Leica.” I replied flatly without removing my face from the back of the camera and feigning to change settings.
I was hoping that this guy would just keep shuffling along if he saw that I was engaged, but when he got to about 5 feet from me, he stopped and just stood there watching me. I think he may have kept blabbing but I wasn’t paying attention and don’t even remember what finally made me give up on my posturing to look at him. But that’s when I saw it.
Dangling from this socially inept passerby’s neck was a clean, chrome Leica M with a late model lens and handsome square hood.
My entire demeanor flipped like a switch. It reminded me of the night that I met rock photographer, Jason Nicholson, who was similarly disinterested in the conversation of a chatty stranger until he saw that I was also wearing a Leica.
It turned out that I was in the presence of Jacob Chielli, a local street portrait shooter and employee at Virginia’s Ace Photo where I sometimes in pop in. Jacob and I immediately began talking about our cameras, our lenses, our shooting styles. Of the six or so various people I’d spoken with this morning, here was the one person I could talk to as if we’d known each other for years. It was very much a case of speaking the same language. This chance meeting was a great way to close out my session.
As I walked back to my car, feeling a bit snobbish and needlessly cantankerous in reflection, I also felt a sense of peace and empathy, as well as receptive of a message from that grand happenstance of The Universe. I needed to embrace my own philosophy of not hiding from subjects, but rather to work with them and embrace what they give me, not just take what I wanted.
So, almost to my car, I decided to hide on the opposite side of this bridge at Carroll Creek and pretend to shoot the architecture while people walked or jogged through my frame.
I guess that you just can’t stop some people from being who they are! Nobody can stop me from shooting with and writing about ludicrously old, needlessly complicated and, apparently, distracting cameras, using aged techniques instead of the latest tech. Nobody can stop me from paying out the nose for film just to give digital photography a stiff middle finger. And while I’ll never be a social butterfly, street photography has reminded me to loosen up a bit and not take myself so seriously.
Ironically, taking photos of other people has turned out to be like holding a mirror up to myself.
Many thanks to the good people of downtown Frederick, Maryland for putting up with my foolishness.
And thanks to you for reading. Happy shooting!
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