Eric’s note: I got a special treat for all of you guys out there. I was fortunate enough to get an interview with renowned New York Street Photographer, Joe Wigfall. Joe is best known for his black and white imagery of New York City and a WNYC Street Shots feature of him “shooting from the hip” which has already racked over 60,000+ view on YouTube. Out of all of the street photographers out there, Joe is definitely one of the most humble and soulful. Check out this exclusive interview with him and become inspired by his images as well.
1. Hey Joe, tell us how you got started with street photography.
Before I picked up a camera to shoot people, I used a pen and sketch pad to draw the faces, expressions and interactions I saw. I used to take the New York City subways to work, so I would see some of everything. I quickly found the drawing process took too long. The moments usually ended by the time the train discharged at the next station. I eventually took a photojournalism course and soon realized that the process of interviewing my subjects, learning about their lives, spending time with them and then possibly shooting a few environmental shots wasn’t enough either.
One day I stumbled upon the street photographs of a skilled contemporary street photographer online who even shared his process. His straight up raw photos were works of art. I found a niche for my itch. I didn’t know that there were contemporary street photographers who made art by photographing people in the street just being themselves. More importantly, I realized that I might be able to do the same. My passion began to take root.
2. Describe your street photography style for us. What goes on in your head when you are roaming the streets and taking photos?
What is my style? I like to be unobtrusive. I try to disappear in the midst of the people I shoot. I call as little attention to myself as possible.
I don’t sneak around while I shoot. I’m too big for one thing. I don’t hide my camera, but I futz around with it while I shoot. I quickly and quietly shoot what appeals to me using whatever technique is most effective at the time. Sometimes I feel like I’m invisible, which of course is ludicrous since I’m a 6 foot tall 200 pound dark skinned man, but it works. I also like to get in close to the people I shoot.
I go out looking around me and making quick decisions about situations I see and whether to participate or to just walk on by. You really have to be wise where that’s concerned. Most people either aren’t aware or ignore you, but there are some, (and fortunately they are very few), who resent anyone shooting them whether the law is on your side or not. I intentionally overlook these unstable ones and stay focused, knowing that if I try too hard, I’ll miss the moments, and if I don’t pay enough attention, my response will be too little, too late.
3. Where do you find inspiration for your street photography?
It changes from time to time.
The world of black & white photograph inspires me because its imagery invokes the nostalgia of things gone by: like a childhood memory or an old song or some special someone only you remember.
4. What is one of the most memorable street photographs you have taken?
The ones that I think I shouldn’t have taken but that show a raw side of people and of life that I wonder whether I should even try to display.
I make emotional and psychological connections to my photos and the people in them. I edit ruthlessly for that very reason. The image has to make an impression on me. If it doesn’t, then I leave it. The photo either has something to say or it’s mute.
I felt the pain and heard the story (invented perhaps by my own desire for unfolding drama) behind her strained expression. A strikingly majestic woman walking down the street burdened with luggage with no one to help her but her inner strength. A forlorn yet determined look of someone who has lost someone dear to her or whose heart was recently crushed. I was so taken by how she bore her pain that I almost missed the shot.
5. A video of you on YouTube for WNYC Street Shots describing your technique of “shooting from the hip” has over 59,000 views. Discuss with us a little about how you shoot from the hip, and where you learned the technique.
Wow. I didn’t know that. That’s a lot of hits for a street photography video on a controversial technique. I wrote a tell-all article on it recently here. I tend to shoot over head, under my arm, in front of my chest, near my leg and even by my feet (haven’t done that in a while though). Most times when I use a digital camera I use a modified version of hip shooting which allows me to peak into the view finder while I set up the shot. Too many photographers think that there’s only one decisive moment. There’s usually more than one but most of us aren’t quick enough to recognize them.
I noticed the expressions would change whenever I put the camera to my face. So I would lower the camera just enough so that I could see what was happening but not enough to seem as though I was actually shooting. It worked. I grew bolder and lowered it even more and people’s defenses came down and I got the type of shots I wanted. As I learned what my lenses (28mm and 35mm) could do, I eventually knew how to hold them for straight on shots and what moves to make to get my subject to pose for me without asking them to.
(I don’t always shoot from the hip. I shoot conventionally when the situation warrants it, but I would challenge you diehards to determine which of my photos was shot through the viewfinder and which were shot from the hip.)
6. I understand that there are some people out there who disregard shooting from the hip. What do you have to say to them and what do you think are the pros and cons of shooting from the hip?
Many purists think that shooting from the hip invalidates the shot. Others are intimidated by its free wheeling, nose thumbing manner. Still others curse it simply because they can’t do it with any fair degree of accuracy.
Truth of the matter is—it’d just another technique and when used in the right hands with the right amount of practice, can go where conventionally shot photography can’t. It simply serves a purpose.
It’s the image that counts, not how you get it. There’s nothing illegal about shooting from the hip. There’s nothing sacrosanct about shooting the conventional way either. When we view images that make our hearts throb, we may wonder how the artist did it, but in the long run, who cares. What matters most is the image itself—not the camera, the lens, the film or pixels, the exposure or the style of shooting. It’s the effectiveness of the photograph that matters most in the end.
This is the skinny on shooting from the hip.
The good: It’s innovative, invigorating and fun. It allows you to compose in-your-face moments that add a lot to even the most mundane moments. It can be used when conventional shooting technique doesn’t cut it or is just conducive.
The bad: It involves losing a little control over the photographic experience. (Why do we photographers feel we have to control everything?) In addition, the technique must be practiced for a while to develop a feel for it. You still must allow for composition, exposure and a command of visual aesthetics. There’s a timing and rhythm involved too, so you can’t be a klutz. (Am I from New York or what?)
Life just ain’t perfect and neither is any of the people we shoot nor are some of the best photographs out there.
7. According to your biography, you have been avidly shooting for 25 years—a great feat. In the end, what do you want to accomplish out of your street photography?
Eric, if nothing else I want to create a tome of great street images from life as it unfolds before me. I also hope that the art books I plan to publish, the courses I plan to teach, the manuals I plan to write on shooting (in different cities and countries worldwide) and the articles and interviews I plan to continue to do will encourage others to pursue the genre in their own locale and create an artistic tidal wave for street photography and its way of grabbing life and inhaling it.
8. Who are some of the street photographers that you look up to and admire?
Old School: Robert Frank for his gentle rawness and subtle boldness; Walker Evans for his invisibility factor (and use of an accomplice while he shot in the subways); Gary Winogrand for his compulsive consistency in getting out everyday to shoot something and Robert Capa (yeah, I know, he was a war photographer), for his work’s risk taking impact and my favorite quotes: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” and “The pictures are there and you just take them.”
Contemporary: There are many I know who are known and unknown to the general street photography community (Ying Tang, Rui Palha, Matt Weber, Orville Robertson, D. Skyshaper to name a few) who continue to amaze me. I will just single out one: Markus Hartel. His work, shot mostly throughout midtown Manhattan, inspired and taught me how to step out and develop as a street photographer. It was his online site that got me out on the streets believing I could do this.
9. What kind of equipment have you shot with in the past and are shooting with right now? What do you think is the “ideal” camera for street photography?
I’ve used a plethora of film and digital cameras through the years. The Rolleicord, Fuji GS645s, Yashica Electro and Konica Hexar for film. (I love film for the tonal quality it brings to the images). Because I like being somewhat invisible, shooting street with big cameras like my old DSLRs (Minolta 7D, Canon 30D, 5D and the like) compromise that ability. Ease of use and flexibility are important too, so I liked using early digicams like the old Olympus 5050 and Canon 9 series.
Nowadays I use the Ricoh GRD3, a Lumix LX3 digicam and a four-thirds camera, the Panasonic G1. On occasion I’ll pull out my Konica Hexar when I’m feeling that film thing stirring up in me.
While I don’t think there’s an ideal camera for street photography because you really need to develop yourself with one camera of choice before rotating (as I do to keep the creative juices flowing). For me, if it’s too large or has a noisy shutter button, I shy aware from it unless I’m just in the mood to be bold and bodacious.
I also like working out the nuances of a camera until I make it flow intuitively with me.
10. What is the number one tip you would give to aspiring street photographers?
Learn to judiciously edit your images. Look for the definitive moment among your photos. Does it move you? Is it interesting? Are there dimensions, connections, interactions? You shouldn’t have to try to explain it; it must evoke a response in you and your viewer. If it doesn’t, keep looking.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to put your images away for a week or more so that you can become somewhat detached from them. To edit, you must be able to cut. The photo must stand on its own merit, nothing less. When you can look at your images as though someone else shot them, then you can begin to notice the rhythm and the flow of the composition. It sounds deep, but it’s not really. Just realize everything you shoot is not gold. Look for the gems. They have a brilliance all their own.
So do you have a question for Joe or would like to give him a shout-out? Leave a comment below and show your love!