“You Want to Take MY Photograph?” by Lawrence Russ
My personality type, as determined and described by the classic Myers-Briggs Personality Test, confuses people. While there’s no doubt, as anyone who’s known me well for a good while could tell you, that I’m an introvert. But many people who see me in my “public” life — in my speaking, performing, or advocacy work – think that I’m certainly an extrovert. The key is that the seemingly-extroverted side comes into play when I’m pursuing a cause, when I’m working for something that I believe in, either because there’s a condition that needs reform, or an evil that needs fighting, or a loved artwork that I want people to experience. Still, I hate large social gatherings, I’m a terrible mixer. I much prefer talking to just one person, maybe two, at a time.
One of the great dangers for each of us is that we let someone define us, even it’s ourselves, and then we let that definition dictate what we do and don’t do, what we believe is possible or right for us. At various times in my life, I’ve felt impelled to challenge some idea of myself, sometimes at the cost of tremendous anxiety and apprehension. I often think of (and have a couple of T-shirts that quote) the remark of one of the child “Candidates” in
The Matrix, when Neo asks him how he is bending a spoon only by thinking about: “There is no spoon.” St. Paul has a similar, but farther-reaching saying: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” ( Philippians 4:13.)
Which is all a prelude to my telling you what followed from my decision, on my birthday in 2014, to try introducing myself to strangers in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, for the purpose of asking them to let me take their picture. Before that, I’d done street photography, the kind that consists of walking around with a camera “to see what I could see” (like the bear that went over the mountain, in the children’s song), looking for things that held some delight, fascination, or mystery for me, including, though not all that often, people unaware that I was taking their photograph. But now I wanted to break the internal ice by engaging with people more directly.
It didn’t go all that well at first. I was halting, nervous about approaching strangers, even though, “rationally,” it’d be hard to identify a reason for that apprehension. Was someone on a busy downtown street going to pull out a gun and shoot me for asking to take his picture? Was a woman likely to ask a policeman to throw me in jail because I stopped her briefly and politely in front of a department store?
I began to succeed more when a simple method emerged from my minor madness. It emerged in part from the unexpected warmth of people that I met. You could call it a Christmas method of street photography, because it involved the pursuit of “peace on earth, good will toward men”: I would approach my “subject” with a casual, open warmth, a friendly smile, and
tell the person or people what I saw in him, her, or them that moved me to want to take a photograph.
Sometimes people would ask me, “Why are you doing this? What are you going to do with these?” I would tell them that I’m an art photographer, not a commercial photographer, and that I was looking for people who showed some special quality of character or style or feeling that I thought was worth sharing with other people, and that if I got something good from my shooting, I would submit it for possible exhibition or publication, and that it could wind up in an exhibition in just about any part of the country, or online where anyone in the world could see it.
Here (and up top) is one of my favorite examples of the mode and result: I approached this man on Main Street in downtown Hartford, between the Municipal Building and the Wadsworth Atheneum (the oldest continuing art museum in the country), and said something like, “You might be the friendliest-looking guy on this street! Do you mind if I take your picture?” His response was dramatic and instantaneous. He lit up like a Christmas tree himself, and, as you can pretty much see from the photo at the start of this post. He exclaimed with disbelief and delight, “You want to take MY picture?!”
Sometimes a person seemed pleased by my remarks and request, but determined not to appear uncool, which was fine with me. A smile doesn’t always make for a better portrait. One of the wonderful things about Steve McCurry’s portraits is the way that he seems to manage to photograph people of all ages from very close up, without their losing their natural expression of wariness, or dignity, or melancholy, or peacefulness. For this portrait (exhibited recently in the Black Box Gallery in Portland, OR), I approached the young man and said, “What a great outfit! You know, I used to live in Chicago myself, & I was and still am a big fan of Michael and Scottie. Can I take a picture or two?” I’m glad that he didn’t smile or give me some obvious pose. It wouldn’t be right for Air Jordan’s man.
“Michael’s Man” by Lawrence Russ
On occasion, people, even if they said No to my request, would engage me in lengthy, surprisingly open conversation. They would tell me about their lives, their sufferings, their disappointments, their hopes or ambitions. I’d never experienced these kinds of outpourings – to which my wife is privy all the time, in all kinds of settings, with that something intangible about her that makes her a great interviewer. I enjoyed it, like drawing near a fire on a freezing day. And if you listen to someone with sympathy and unwavering attention, it’s remarkable what can happen. The warmth became as much or more a part of what drew me back out onto the street as the pleasure of taking photographs and the chance of making good ones. How could you resist this woman’s smile; I don’t need to tell you why I titled this “A Bit of Old World Sweetness.”
“A Bit of Old World Sweetness” by Lawrence Russ
It’s a sad commentary on a number of things, but the woman in the photo below was abashed, almost embarrassed, when I first spoke to her. She looked down at the ground, making an almost inaudible response. She probably suspected in that urban environment of culture and commerce and government that I might be looking at her as a curiosity, or a subject for mockery. It was only when I encouraged her not to be hesitant about her mission, but to hold her leaflet up proudly so that the camera could publish her message, that she gladly lifted her face and her pamphlet to the lens. Which made both of us happy.
“Who Is Your Master?” by Lawrence Russ
I could go on giving these kinds of examples. I enjoy remembering the encounters and exchanges that went into and came out of the taking of the photographs. But I’m afraid that I would stray across the line into self-indulgence. I know that many photographers, myself included, like to play the game of reverse-engineering other people’s images: What aperture was used? What kind of light or light modifiers were used? What focal length? And I think that now, whether you’re a photographer or not, you could probably reverse-engineer the kind of words and expressions that led to other street portraits in my “Street Lights” portfolio
As you might expect, though, other aspects of my experience in looking for photographs on the streets reflected less delightful aspects of the world of contemporary cities and of the world – in essential part, the same world – that appears in the Gospels. So the next part of this story may be called something like “The Christmas Approach to Street Photography: The Pharisees and the Poor.” We’ll see.
For now, I want to leave you with a saying that I’ve tried to take as a guide, the wisdom of which almost always reveals itself as soon as you apply it:
“Just as a man is punished for uttering an evil word, so is he punished for not uttering a good word when he had the opportunity, because he harms that speaking spirit which was prepared to speak above and below in holiness.”
— The Zohar