As a photographer, I do carry around a camera most of the time. It isn’t so much that I expect to make images of any note every time I go out, but you just never know what might present itself. And when I am lucky, I get something that is useful later or in a current project.
More than not, the camera really just becomes a pretty heavy weight on my shoulder as the day progresses. When I expect to do more serious work, I’ll be a bit more purposeful than to just walk around with family or on my way to doing something else. At those times, I like to immerse myself in what I am doing and will generally work on a specific idea or project. Being pretty selfish about that time, I probably don’t make the greatest company when I am doing my own thing–not that everyone would notice the difference I suppose. But you just never know when inspiration is going to hit or an opportunity present itself—so I carry the camera.
One such opportunity came a little over a year ago, when I was in New York during spring break. We, family and friends, had been walking around the city for awhile and were led to a Candy Store (a premeditated act I am sure!) somewhere in the vicinity of Little Italy and the East Village. As we got there, I saw how packed the place was, with people and product, and since it was such a nice day, decided to stay outside rather than fight the crowds for a chance at a sugar high. Everyone else crammed in.
As I stood out front, I started to notice the people passing by. It was nearly rush hour and there was a sort of intensity and absorption on the people that were coming by. The first thing I noticed, as I remember, was just how many seemed to break stride when they saw the candy store and then I just noticed how driven and in a hurry almost everyone seemed to be. Occasionally, there was the person who just strolled by who, like the others, was locked into their own world but seemed less harried and was taking the time to just mosey along.
It didn’t take long for it all to hit me, that this could be an interesting and fun little photographic project while I waited. Photograph each person that came by, each and every one, but do it so they don’t know they are being photographed.
In her book, On Photography, Susan Sontag made the observation that “There is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do.” I think this is what I was noticing, that and the complete concentration on whatever task they were pursuing instead of really noticing what else might be going on around them. I don’t know if anyone ever even saw or noticed me, well mostly anyway.
I did adopt a more stealthy approach to make the photographs to be sure I didn’t garner attention, much the same as I had done while at Burning Man. There, while shooting the square format of the toy, plastic camera, the Holga, I had shot many of my images with the camera held at my side, my arm fully extended as if I was just carrying the camera. Here, with the larger camera and my desire to make horizontal images, I cradled it in my folded arms and used the secondary trigger so I wasn’t so obviously ready to make an image. As people strolled by, I tried to rotate my body to match their gait and follow them from right to left, and then pick up someone coming the other way and follow left to right. Now that I think of it, I probably either looked like I was in bad need of a restroom or was somehow otherwise afflicted. The light was low, so I almost always ended up with some motion blur, which seemed to be appropriate somehow, it just sort of fit their being so focused elsewhere and scurrying by.
In all, I made about 33 exposures in the 13 minutes I had while I waited. Like always in these sorts of things, and the reason I don’t like to get too involved in shooting when I am with others, I really wished I could have stayed longer, but everyone was ready to move on.
One of the things I think that I really liked about this particular work was just the fact that it wasn’t a sampling of the entire city, but rather a “snapshot” of a single place during a small, finite period of time. The variety of people, attitudes and demeanor wasn’t about somehow linking disparate places or times. The variety was organic, not forced or contrived, and the people were being themselves at this one place and time.
When I got home, I really wasn’t taking much of what I did that week too seriously. In fact, it wasn’t until several months later that I decided to even go back and look at what I had shot. I had totally forgotten about this little series of work. As I scrolled through the photos, these just sort of popped out to me and I started to process the images. I couldn’t stop until I had worked about 24 of them. There was something there for me that just seemed to capture the spirit of the place.
all rights reserved © 2010 John Acurso