Eric’s Note: Michael Martin is an incredible street photographer from Manhattan, New York who captures touching images from the people around him. The strength of his images not only are shown through his consistency, but also through the colorful portraits he captures as well. You can truly feel the energy of the city that he lives and breathes. Read more to check out this exclusive interview with him below.
1. Michael, how did you get started in street photography?
About five years ago, a coworker turned me on to Flickr. I was pretty serious about photography back in the early 70’s, when I was a teenager, so none of the technical aspects were entirely foreign to me. But my first passion was always writing, so the photography eventually fell off. After joining Flickr, I bought new equipment and began shooting every day. It quickly became an obsession. When I stumbled across the work of people like Art Cummings, Bradford Kim, and several others in the Flickr street groups, I realized that candid photography was what I really wanted to do. Initially, I wasn’t bold enough to get out there in front of strangers, so I took the safe route and shot parade participants, protesters, street performers, and others who have candid moments while more or less expecting to be photographed. It took a while to grow into it.
2. How is it different shooting in the streets of New York City from shooting other places?
When you say New York City, I take it that you mean Manhattan? Personally, I feel that the further you go from Manhattan the more difficult it is to work the street. In Manhattan, particularly the high traffic areas like Midtown, people are generally preoccupied with the business of getting from one place to another, especially during the week when the overall vibe is edgy and hectic. It’s a different experience in the outer boroughs of the city. Take Queens, for example. Most communities are residential; the neighborhoods tend to be ethnic, and perhaps a bit xenophobic, as well. Outsiders are easily identified and often viewed with suspicion. Some areas have small concentrations of illegals who have reason to be concerned about interlopers with cameras. If an unfamiliar individual were taking pictures in my neighborhood, he would almost certainly find a patrol car creeping up behind him at some point. I think some of it also has to do with the collective mindset of the city after 9/11.
3. I see that you have a mix between color and black and white street photographs. When do you determine to shoot either in color or black and white?
With rare exceptions, I usually shoot everything in color and convert to black and white as needed. I wish I could say that I have some hard and fast rule for preferring one over the other, but essentially it’s just a vague sense about which version achieves the most desired effect. And that depends on the picture. I love the dramatic look and the vintage feel of black and white, but I also appreciate the lively warm atmosphere that is conveyed in a vivid color photo.
4. Tell me about the most memorable street photograph that you took. Where was it and what was going through your mind?
It changes frequently, but the most memorable are usually the ones that have led to some kind of personal interaction. They’re not always what I consider great photos, but for me it’s the person in the picture who made the moment special, not the photo itself. I recently had a peculiar encounter with an attractive young lady who caught me taking a picture of her on Fifth Avenue. It’s too long to detail effectively here, but she got me when my radar was down, and for a moment I was concerned that it might turn into an unpleasant scene. We had a short conversation. However, she wouldn’t let me take her picture because, as she said, “it’s not going to come out.” But as she turned to walk away, she looked over her shoulder briefly, and I got her. It was the conversation that led up to the photo that made it memorable.
5. Looking at your images, it seems that many were taken with your 85mm. How do you prefer this focal length compared with either closer or wider lenses?
I think everyone has a distance at which they feel most comfortable when photographing people on the street. The 85mm has always “felt” right for me, not too close, not too far. Plus it’s fast, lightweight, and sharp. The drawback is that it turned me into a headhunter. At some point I felt a need to consciously force myself to look at whole scenes through shorter, wider lenses in order to see entire bodies, rather than going for tight candid portraits all the time. I like faces and dramatic expressions, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a headhunter, but I had reached a point where I felt confined. These days, I use the 35mm Nikkor mounted on my Sony NEX-5 more frequently than the 85mm on my dSLR.
6. From which photographers do you find inspiration?
Individual photographs often inspire me more than the people who took them. Sometimes I don’t even know the name of the photographer, although, I tend to like documentary style photographs. Of those who are well known, the dramatic power of Dorothea Lange’s Depression Era photos has always moved me. People like Helen Leavitt, Roy DeCarava, Berenice Abbott, and Lewis Hine are also among my favorites. Contemporaries would have to include the New York City subway shots of Travis Ruse. His work made a big impression on me when I first got back into photography.
7. What do you love most about street photography?
It’s the alter ego thing. It lets me become someone else. I’m somewhat boring, reclusive, and generally avoid face-to-face social interactions. I find superficial conversation difficult at best; at worst, painful. Yet, when out on the street with a camera, I talk to strangers, I take pictures of people I don’t know from as close as a few feet away, head-on. There’s an intangible thrill involved in every shot, and even if you work in the same area each day, each encounter is still a different experience. I think there’s a definite voyeur factor, as well. I believe you have to enjoy watching people, anticipating their movements, predicting their behavior, and understanding their motivations if you want to get the most out of this.
8. What tips would you give to aspiring street photographers?
Be confident, but not foolhardy. Just because you have the right to take a photo doesn’t mean people won’t take action to prevent you from doing it. Relax, try to have fun with it. If you project insecurity the reaction you receive will usually be one of suspicion. Train yourself to see irony, paradox, and the imbalance of power within routine human interactions. It adds another dimension to your photos. Try to use short wide primes if you can. They force you to become a participant rather than a spectator. Shoot at night. It’s a whole different world out there after dark.
9. Any shout-outs that you would like to give?
Sure, all of my Flickr buddies. Ourit, Renata, Zun, Minkel, Young Hee, Art, Willem, Francis, to name just a few. And all the others who make it a great online community.
Got a question for Michael or would like to show him some love? If so, support him and leave him a comment below!