Harvey Stein is a photographer, educator, and curator based in New York City. He just released a new book: “Harlem Street Portraits“, documenting portraits in Harlem for over 22 years (from 1990 to 2012). I interview him about shooting and putting together the book– and what other tips/advice he has for street photographers who want to take more intimate portraits. You can also see my previous interview with him on his book “Coney Island.”
Dear Harvey, great having you again on the blog. You recently released your new book: “Harlem Street Portraits.” You have been shooting these portraits in Harlem for over 22 years, from 1990 to 2012. Can you share what kept bringing you back to Harlem over 2 decades to take these photos?
Hi Eric, it’s great to be featured again on your fine street blog.
I tend to return to locations that I like to photograph. If the place is visually interesting, markedly different from where I live, if it’s challenging, I am motivated to return.
My working method is to return again, and again. What attracts me most is the people, that always changes. The architecture and physical place often are the same, but each visit brings new people to my camera. I am a people photographer, and love meeting and photographing people different from me.
At first when you started to shoot in Harlem — how did you approach people to take their photographs? In a general sense, how many people were okay to take photos– and what were situations in which people weren’t comfortable being photographed?
I approach people with humility and friendliness. I try to be upbeat, and even complimentary toward my subjects.
I look for something about an individual (an arm full of tattoos, and interesting shirt) to discuss. I try to “break the ice” with a friendly remark. It doesn’t always work, but if the approach is right and the moment is good, I’m usually successful at getting the OK to photograph that person.
Really, when you think about it, it’s not a big deal, it’s only a photograph.
I found Harlem quite welcoming, I estimate that in downtown Manhattan, half the people I approach refuse to be photographed, in Harlem it’s maybe a 25% refusal. I’ve learned not to take the no’s personally and to move on and keep trying. And looking.
In your other books, you shoot a lot of candid street photography– whereas the majority of the photos taken in the book appear they are shot with permission. How do you decide when to take a candid shot- and when to ask for permission?
I do more candid shooting when I’m in a foreign country where I don’t know the language. I always prefer not to shoot candidly, and rather shoot in a style I call collaborative/confrontational. I want to directly engage my subject (confront them) and ask to photograph them (collaborative).
In my two Coney Island books, the portraits are mostly shot with the subject’s knowledge, ditto with the Harlem book. I like to isolate people for a portrait, usually with a 21mm lens; I want to get close and involved, and simultaneously show a context, i.e., an environment.
I shoot candidly when I’m in a crowd, or when something is happening very quickly where I can’t isolate a subject. Also sometimes when I think a person won’t want to be photographed.
Harlem gets a bad reputation for being one of the most dangerous places in America. As a white man walking around with your camera– did you ever feel uncomfortable? Have you ever been in any dangerous situations?
I’ve never felt uncomfortable shooting in Harlem. People have been friendly and open with their greetings, conversations and emotions. It’s a joy to be on the streets there.
Things have changed in the neighborhood, crime is down, and streets are cleaner, and better businesses are moving into the area. Certainly Harlem has crime, but where isn’t there crime?
In more than 40 years of photographing, I’ve never been attacked or robbed or even threatened. I’ve been scolded, but not much more than that. Maybe I’ve been lucky, maybe it’s my approach to people, maybe I know when not to go “there”. I can only speculate and continue working.
When you are approaching someone to take their portrait– what do you generally tell them to make them feel comfortable with you photographing them?
Often I find something positive to say, it could be a compliment about what they are wearing or how they look, it could be about the weather, or the passing scene. They might be doing something interesting that attracts me.
If they say yes, I’ll shoot 5-10 frames if I like the situation, and might even move them a few feet to avoid a distraction in the background or to put them in better light. Every situation is different and challenging, that is what keeps me interested and engaged.
You must have taken thousands of photos over these 22 years shooting in Harlem– yet you chose only 166 photographs. Can you share a bit about the editing process? How did you decide what photos to keep- versus what photos to ditch?
I estimate that I’ve taken over 15,000 frames while working in Harlem since 1990. All film. I develop the film and make contact sheets and loop every frame. Hopefully not too long after I shoot, but sometimes, because I shoot so much, it could be a year later.
I mark up the contact sheet, and then print perhaps one or two images per roll, depending on how they look to me. I look for strong and impactful images, for surprises and even mistakes that make the image interesting and something I hadn’t done before. The photo has to fit the mood and strategy of the other images, that is, be in the context of the theme and comfortably fit into the overall body of work.
I try to eliminate redundancy and photographs that don’t grab me. As you can see, it’s quite subjective, but I think I can recognize successful images.
How have you seen Harlem change and evolve over the last few decades? And what are some of the common misconceptions of Harlem?
I have seen changes in Harlem, it’s cleaner, brighter, and feels safer. There are more white faces on the streets. There are better restaurants and shops, newly built apartment buildings; parts of Harlem are gentrifying.
The biggest misconception is that it’s not a safe place to be. I have not found this to be true.
Can you share some particular encounters or photographs you took which had special significance for you? Perhaps share the story behind the shot?
I can talk about the cover image, the man in front of a pillar that fronts a church on Malcolm X Boulevard. I took the photo on a Sunday, perhaps around noon or 1pm. I approached the older gentleman, dressed very nicely for church, who just ignored me. I was about three feet from him and his gaze was away from the camera and myself.
Since I didn’t want to disturb him or the scene, I began shooting and took about 10 frames. Throughout this, he didn’t more or look at me. I had a choice of several frames to use, with the cover image being the best. Not only because of the central figure, but also because of the wonderful surrounding people, all looking away and all doing their own thing.
I love the man in the top left corner exiting the church and adjusting his hat, and the young child looking at the elderly gentleman as if he were his grandfather. I usually want my subjects to look at the camera, but in this scene, I was so happy that they didn’t. The image feels like a gift given to me. And I appreciate it.
What advice would you give street photographers when taking portraits of people in the streets?
My advice would be to be yourself, be honest, avoid being sneaky with the camera, talk to the subjects, work quickly with the correct camera and lens (small, maybe a rangefinder–hint, hint–a Leica), shoot often and enjoy being on the streets and meeting people different than you.
What are some new projects or books you are currently working on?
I have at least four book projects mostly finished, all film.
I hope to publish my next book on another neighborhood of New York City. It would be part of a trilogy, the first two books being Coney Island: 40 Years (published by Schiffer in 2011) and the new Harlem book.
I have been photographing in New Mexico for the last 10 years and would like to produce a book on this amazing state, again, mostly of the people. And I’m off to India soon for the second time in a year, and think this could become a book in the not too distant future. For these two projects, I am shooting mostly digitally, so the books would be my first using digitally shot imagery.
Books by Harvey Stein
Below are two of Harvey’s newest books he has recently published: