A Conversation with Jonathan Elderfield
Many photographers are interested in taking pictures of people on the street, but don’t do it because they don’t know how to start. Of all the genres of photography, Street Photography seems to be shrouded in the most mystery, so we asked Jonathan Elderfield, who is leading our upcoming Street Photography class, to offer some insider tips on getting started.
- Many photographers are very intimidated by the idea of taking pictures of strangers out on the street. How do you do it?
I totally understand and sympathize that photographers can be intimidated by doing street photography. I still get nervous when I have to go up to people and ask for a photograph. Of course, practice is really the only way to get over this. Over time it becomes easier to do because you see the interesting pictures and fruitful interactions that come from meeting strangers.
When I was working on Living Under South Street, I had 3 different approaches:
1. The Direct Approach: In situations that I felt couldn’t be shot otherwise, for example people with kids around, or when entering someone’s property, I would ask people for permission to take pictures and if they said yes, I’d try to hang out in the background until they or I had had enough.
2. Shooting from the Hip: If I felt that disturbing the person or scene would ruin the photo, I would preset my focus and shoot from the hip.
3. Out in the Open: On big public intersections like Broad and Snyder, or during events like the Mummers Parade or the Fourth of July, I would go ahead and shoot very much in the open. People expect to be photographed at times like these.
In general, I think you have to find a method that works for you, and for the specific project. But I suggest you try some different methods and gradually push yourself out of your comfort zone over time. Keep doing it and I promise it will get easier.
- What are you looking for when you’re out shooting? How do you know when you’ve found it?
When out shooting, I’m often looking for body language, and the geometry of the elements and figures in the frame. I love good or interesting eye contact between people in the frame, or with the viewer. Depending on the stage of the project, I might be looking for details, or for more graphic, wider overall images. I also let the project itself dictate my shooting style. For example, much of my downtown Chicago work is more structured and geometric to reflect the open spaces and cool architecture, while my South Philly work tends to feature tighter frames that focus more on body language and interaction.
I would say that most of the time when shooting on the street I do not know when I’ve found something. I won’t usually know until I’m in the editing stage, which can sometimes occur after quite a bit of time has passed. Although there are exceptions, such as the cover image for Living Under South Street. I felt it the moment I shot it. Even though it was shot from the hip, I was confident that I had it right in terms of framing and exposure, etc. The more you shoot, the sharper these instincts will become.
- What is your process when making a picture? Is it something you plan, something totally instinctual, or something in between?
I’ll start by doing a lot of planning, especially when deciding on a location. I’ll pore over maps and think of interesting places and events to head to. The planning and preparation is really about getting somewhere and being in the right place at the right time. After that, the process is just about looking, listening, and trying to stay aware and in the moment.
Sometimes, I will see something and make a single frame, trying to respond as quickly as possible. Other times, I will find a location where it looks like people are passing in good light or in front of an interesting background, position myself there, and let my instincts tell me when to push the button.
Generally I try to shoot a lot with the hope that a good frame will result. There is a quote attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson, which is, “it takes a lot of milk to make a little butter.” If you can make a habit of shooting frequently, you will get more images to work with.
- Can you describe the making of this particular photo? When was it taken, and what was going on in your mind when you took it?
The photo is part of a project I worked on called ONLY Chicago, which was a street photography collection featuring work from the many neighborhoods that make up the city. This image is from the North Side, along the lake. A lot of life is lived there.
I’ll often pick out someone such as a food vendor or street performer and use that activity as a way to photograph people. Despite the fact that I was working in black-and-white, it was the color of the cotton candy that attracted me to this scene. In any case, there was a lot of activity, with families lining up and kids fooling around. So I started shooting. I can’t remember if the girl was making crazy faces the whole time, or if she reacted to seeing me photographing. As with a lot of street photography, there was a fair amount of luck involved.
In the catalog for the show of this work I wrote: “These ephemeral moments continue to exist only because I was there.” There is a beauty in that. Things happen in front of the lens, and the camera sees in ways that we don’t. The street photographer’s job is to make sure that the camera is there in the right place and time, whenever and wherever that might be.
Join Jonathan Elderfield for his upcoming Street Photography class starting on September 26th!