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A Christmas Approach to Street Photography: Gifts Given, Gifts Withheld – Post 2 of 2

“Invitation to a Dance” by Lawrence Russ

I miss the pleasures of meeting people in doing my street photography.  Various factors have kept me from it almost completely  for several years:  a major change in the nature of my paying employment, a new office location, a much-needed surgery and long rehabilitation, the pandemic.  But I have to say that my experience, mostly on the streets of downtown Hartford, Connecticut, wasn’t all warming and satisfying, though it did call to my mind aspects of the life presented in the Gospels just as much as did the better parts of my portrait-seeking experience.

There are two streets that most Hartford residents and workers probably think of as the principal streets in downtown Hartford:  Main Street and Trumbull Street.  But I found them to be parallel (literally and figuratively), but differing worlds.  Main Street is broader and much longer and has many bus stops, a community college, a rehab center for addicts, restaurants from the cheapest fast food joints to at least a couple of top-notch eateries, the Hartford Municipal Building, the Old State House (where the Constitutional Convention did part of its work), the Wadsworth Atheneum (the oldest continually-operating art museum in the U.S.), the Main Hartford Public Library, the fortress-like Water Control Authority (a prime example of what is called Brutalist Architecture), a couple of historic Congregational Churches (including the notable Ancient Burying Ground sheltering the remains of certain people significant in Hartford’s history) and other, smaller churches.  Trumbull is more up-scale, with the Civic Center (though its spaces now are mostly empty), a number of large multi-story office buildings that hold prestigious corporate law firms and other corporate offices, a couple of stores selling more expensive clothing than you will find in stores on Main Street, a few very expensive restaurants, bank offices, an expensive “boutique” hotel.

There is a certain amount of mingling, of “cross-over,” but the general populations that work on or walk along those two streets are noticeably different from each other.  On Main Street, you encounter more families, more mothers with children, more poor and working-class people, more people spending the day inside public facilities like the Library or just sitting on the steps in front of them, more people of high-school age and younger.  On Trumbull, you see more attorneys, accountants, financial advisers, developers and realtors, office managers, more people in their late Twenties or older, more men and women wearing navy or gray business suits.  The predominant racial groups are different as well.

The guys in the center of the photo below may provide a sample of the kind of reception that I usually got on Trumbull Street.
“Men on the Move” by Lawrence Russ
Truth be told, though, this photograph is a cheat, but the reasons why I’ve put it here are pertinent.  You see those glares?  I can’t say that they’re necessarily for any reason but that these guys saw me training a camera with a long telephoto lens at them, which was all the more noticeable because it was mostly white, with an attached hood that makes it even longer.  That is not the kind of camera & lens combination that most people are accustomed to having pointed at them, especially by a stranger on the street.

Why, then, did I put this photo here?  Partly because I have many street portraits taken on Main Street, but less than a handful from Trumbull Street.  And why is that?  Partly because there are more people, events, blocks, and buildings of interest on Main Street.  But also because of the differing reactions that I received to my approaches on the two streets, because of the differing types of people on those streets..

When I was on Main Street, there were occasions when I would look at someone and decide that the person looked too hard or too angry or for some other reason seemed unlikely to respond well to my asking them to let me take their photograph.  But those cases were few.  Sometimes it required a little persuading or explanation, but almost no one on Main Street turned down my request to let me photograph them, or my request that they turn a certain way, or make a slight change to, say, put them into open shade that would allow me to get a better image.

The people I approached on Trumbull Street were less interesting material for visual images in that their clothing was more conventional, uniform, stiff, all of which is related to its purpose.  But the people themselves were also stiffer, more armored.  They were more hostile and suspicious, apparently assuming that I was trying to take from them something of value for which they would not be compensated, and radiating condescension toward someone who was dressed more casually and apparently of lower social standing than they were.  A would-be artist, a street photographer?  I probably could have messed with their minds if I’d worn a pin-striped suit, white shirt, tie, and dress shoes while I was photographing, and had identified myself as an attorney indulging in a hobby.  But I wouldn’t have thought that valuable or good to do.

One of my experiences on Trumbull Street stands out in my mind as emblematic of my attempts to find good portraits there.   On a sunny day, I went up to a couple in standard business dress, both the man and the woman wearing a pin-striped navy suit.  I asked them if I could take their picture, saying that they seemed like good portrait subjects to me.  The man stiffened visibly, and the woman looked confused as to what she should do or say.  The man looked disgruntled, as though I were being presumptuous, looking to freeload off him, asking for something of his that he had no reason to give me.  The woman’s gaze shifted nervously from me to him to the pavement.  She looked up at him for guidance, some way to resolve this troubling dilemma.  The tense silence persisted, until I just said, “Well, thanks anyway,” and walked on.

Here is an example of the contrasting kinds of experience that I sometimes had on Main Street:  One afternoon, I saw some young men together, in and around a car, and just as the last one still standing at the curb ducked into its front seat, my new, bolder street-photographer self went up to the car and tapped on the window.  I said, “I’m sorry to bug you, but you just looked so cool in those bright yellow shoes standing against this sharp red car, that I wonder if you would come back out for a minute so that I can photograph you in front of it.”  Maybe had you been there, you would have been surprised to see it, but he obliged me.  Sadly, as you can see, though, I blew the shot by not opening up my aperture wide enough to blur the background and make him stand out clearly against it .

“Bright Yellow Shoes and Hot Red Car” by Lawrence Russ

As part of our ongoing Pandemic Film Festival, my wife and I watched the movie Bound for Glory, based on Woody Guthrie’s semi-autobiographical novel of that name, starring David Carradine.  In the movie, after repeated requests from Woody that she do so, a rich woman who ran a soup kitchen during the terrible Dust Bowl days finally invited Woody to her home for a dinner.  A romantic relationship developed between them.  During a meal with this woman, Pauline, Woody is feeling troubled by his new position of privilege, while so many others like him were unemployed, homeless, and starving; and feeling guilty about this affair, because he was a married man and a father.  The following dialogue insues:

Pauline: I am very sorry that there are so many people who have nothing.
Woody Guthrie: Sure. Course you are. Sorry don’t get the hay in. So you ladle ’em up the soup and dish out a little charity?
Pauline: Well, we’re not all as gifted as you are. Some of us just do the best we can.
Woody Guthrie: Pauline, let me tell you somethin’. When I. . .well, when I was on the road, I met a lot of different kinds of people. There was bums and freeloaders. There was families that was torn apart. And poor people that just was achin’ for some kind of work. And men that are just tryin’ to get somewhere. Anywhere. They all got somethin’ in common, that every one of them had somethin’ to give me. Then you meet some man that’s got some money, and he’ll be… tied up and anxious. The human thing is just gone. It’s just gone, cos he’s afraid. Afraid that he’s gonna lose somethin’. He’s afraid to smile, cos somebody’s gonna swipe his teeth out his mouth.

I’ll conclude with two texts from different sources, different spiritual traditions, pointing to the same truths greatly relevant in this context (and on this date, I have to say, greatly relevant to Mr. Trump and his allies and supporters and their worship of the devilish idea of “strength”):

Living people are soft and tender.

corpses are hard and stiff.

The ten thousand things,

the living grass, the trees,

are soft, pliant.

Dead, they’re dry and brittle.

 

So hardness and stiffness

go with death;

Tenderness, softness,

go with life.

 

And the hard sword fails,

the stiff tree’s felled.

The hard and great go under.

The soft and weak stay up.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 76, translated by Ursula LeGuin

 

4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.

5 They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:

6 They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:

7 They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.

8 They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.

Psalms 115

 

If only they had ears to hear and eyes to see. . . .

Lawrence Russ View All

Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .

One thought on “A Christmas Approach to Street Photography: Gifts Given, Gifts Withheld – Post 2 of 2 Leave a comment

  1. Great post. – Your experiences seem to confirm Woody’s comments. I admire your quest for virtue but don’t have the energy or endurance to follow in your footsteps. I’m simply not that noble. Allow me to share my approach to the theme raised by your post by quoting the wise social commentator, Don Van Vliet:

    The stars are matter,
    We’re matter –
    But it doesn’t matter.

    Best wishes and keep up the good fight.

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