Shooting people’s backs

black and white street photography by Markus Hartel, New York City

I was just looking through contact sheets (scanned, mind you) and thought of a critique I gave last night to one of my students – In my workshops I normally advise against shooting people’s backs, especially when it’s just one person and there is nothing else to tell a story. well, sometimes everything works out and things falls into the right place.

In this frame, I love how everyone is seeking cover and how the two people on the left are holding on to their umbrellas… the lady on the right with the scarf around her head. Most likely, I did not carry an umrella and was freezing my bum off, which really doesn’t add anything to the photo, but I guess my point is that from looking at this photo I (the viewer) can get a really good idea of what’s going on… it started to snow/rain and the wind is blowing and people are freezing their bums off, while rushing across the street.

At some point some preaching “street photographer” raised the question if story telling in a photo was all that necessary, and some may argue that form (i.e. composition) may work over function (i.e. story telling). What good is it going to do, if you have a well composed photo with no story? is it art? does it have emotion? is it just a graphic shot with no idea behind it?… Now take a photo with a great story and mediocre composition – what do we get? a snapshot? maybe – maybe the photo would work as a part of a compilation, a documentary accompanied by text. makes sense. I think a good street photograph needs to encompass a lot more, because oftentimes things are taken out of context. That being said, thought, composition and story telling are key for a successful street photograph.

The same rings true for a good portrait – the photographer needs to engage with the subject… well, maybe I’ll get into that in another post.

This frame is from 2004, shot at the corner of 34th St. & 8th Ave. The grittiness, organic grain and dust makes me itch to shoot some film. The only 35mm film camera that’s left in my shrinking array is a Canon Elan 7 and would do the trick just fine with the 28mm that I have… I may get around to it, but I definitely need to check on my chemicals!!

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