All photographs in this article are copyrighted by Jeff Mermelstein.
I love the street photography of Jeff Mermelstein. Hailing from New York City, he is one of the most prolific street photographers and photojournalists out there. Besides his personal street photography work, he has done major assignment work for Life Magazine, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine.
When I first saw Jeff’s images, I was blown away by the simplicity but depth of emotions in his photographs. His photographs are very quirky, and intensely powerful as well.
I wanted to dedicate this article to Jeff– in terms of how he has inspired me in street photography. I also hope to share some of his philosophies, images, and experiences with you.
Jeff Mermelstein’s History & Background
How he got started in photography
Jeff Mermelstein explains in an interview below how he got started in photography:
“As a biology student in college I was very unhappy. I had been taking photographs since the age of 13 after I was given a camera from my older brother for my Bar Mitzvah. I am one of those lucky ones who never struggled to find what to do with their life. I was born a photographer. My mother would rather I had been a dentist but that is another story.”
The turning point in his career
Mermelstein also shares the turning point in his career, in which he was given his first big break:
“In 1983 GEO Magazine gave me my first big break in magazine photography at the age of 25. I proposed doing a feature story on Animal Actors such as Morris the Cat, Benji, Lassie, The Exxon Tiger etc., and I was given the assignment which ended up as a cover story. Another huge turning point for me was winning The European Publishers Award for Photography in 1999 which enabled my first book Sidewalk to be published.”
The biggest influence on his work
Jeff Mermelstein shares his biggest influence on his work:
“Ultimately it is the people around you that influence you the most. For me it was and is my family. I am the son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to America in 1947. I know that the Yiddish speaking family that surrounded me has fed my drive and help to define my curiosity, humor and way of dealing with life. All artists are also influenced by other artists and I am no different. Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Jacques Henri-Lartigue, Weegee, Louis Faurer. There are so many and they keep changing.”
What excites him about photography
One thing that is exciting about Mermelstein is his outpouring of enthusiasm and energy for street photography:
“I remain as excited as ever making pictures mostly in New York. I never tire of it and maintain a constant passion, love and obsession for my next New York image. New York is attractive to me because it has an edge. A grey grit even in color. There is an energy unlike any other city. It never bores me.”
Jeff Mermelstein’s Shooting Style & Technique
In the film, Jeff Mermelstein shoots with a Leica M6 with a 35mm Leica lens and shoots color film (not sure what speed of film). He is very quick when he’s on the street– using zone focusing to a certain distance. Some of his shots are more wide-open than others, but most are shot with a relatively small aperture. He doesn’t ask for permission when he’s shooting, and weaves quickly in and out of the streets.
Lessons Jeff Mermelstein Has Taught Me:
Below are some specific lessons Jeff Mermelstein has taught me about street photography:
1. Be excited about the editing process
When it comes to street photography, shooting is exciting. However what can sometimes be more exciting is the viewing and editing process. Mermelstein explains:
“Of course going out and making the pictures is exciting. But what is even more exciting is the feeling that I get in viewing pictures I made for the first time. Sometimes it is more than a month or two before I first view pictures I have taken. There is a perpetual thrill of catching up.”
Mermelstein explains his editing process more in another interview:
I feel that I never know if I get a good picture. I know a lot of photographers who say I got it—I got it. But I don’t know. For me its almost the same experience or even more intense when I’m looking at the real film in a lightbox. Its like taking a picture for the first time again. its like when I bring 15-20 rolls of film to look at, it is like a goody bag of possibilities. I’m looking at pictures, and it has been my way of enticing a courtship with a picture.”
Sometimes we focus too much on the shooting aspect of street photography– and not enough on the viewing and editing of images.
Mermelstein also has a habit in his film street photography to wait more than a month or two before seeing his images. I believe this helps him emotionally distance himself from his shots, and forget some of the photos that he’s taken. This probably helps him be more objective while he’s editing and choosing his best images. Not only that, but it allows him the joy of re-experiencing his images.
When it comes to your street photography, shoot prolifically- but also sit on your images and let them marinate before looking at them.
If you shoot digitally, I think it is a good idea to immediately import your images to Lightroom or your computer. However before taking a really close look, let them sit for a week, two weeks, a month, or even longer. The longer you let your shots “marinate”
the more emotional disconnection you will have from them. This will help you better judge your strong images from your weaker ones. It will also allow you to joy to re-live your images.
2. Don’t have a theme while shooting
One part I find fascinating about Mermelstein’s work is that he often doesn’t have a theme in his mind when he’s out shooting. Rather, he finds reoccurring patterns in human behavior on the streets, such as his hair-twirlers and runners project in New York. When it comes to working on themes, he discovers them after he photographs, when his work starts to pile up:
“My obsession is with making photographs. I generally do not have a theme when in the act of photographing. Themes emerge after the photographs begin to accumulate. This happened in a clear way with my new book and exhibition Twirl / Run. For me picture taking is pure instinct. Gut. That is why I love doing it. I’m not thinking when I am working.”
Personally I prefer having a theme in mind when shooting on the streets. But that isn’t for everybody. For street photographers like Jeff Mermelstein, he shoots first– then edits later.
You can apply the same approach in your street photography. Just go out and photograph whatever fascinates you. Then go back to the catalogue of your work and try to find the reoccurring themes in your work. Identify certain subject matter you are constantly drawn to– whether it be urban landscapes, portraits, elderly people, children, etc. Then you can start focusing on that theme– and creating a body of work.
3. Stay true to your personal vision
When asked in an interview what advice he would give to photographers– he shared the importance of staying true to yourself and your personal vision:
“In my opinion what is most important is to stay true to your personal vision and create a body of work that expresses that. I never believed in making pictures with the goal of showing those to obtain commercial work. Do what you do best and love the most and you will be doing all that you can to be happy.”
When it comes to street photography, you should do it because you love it. You shouldn’t feel pressured to create images for others– and to get lots of likes or favorites on social media. You want to photograph to please yourself– and satisfy your hunger for creating images.
It is very important to be inspired by other photographers. Let them influence your work. But at the same time, stay true to what you feel is your personal vision. Work on projects that you find personally meaningful, interesting, and fun. Don’t worry about fame and recognition
just focus on pleasing yourself.
4. Don’t ask for permission
When you see videos of Jeff Mermelstein in action, he is quite bold. He gets close to his subjects, yet blends in with the crowd. He is also a pretty huge guy– but he photographs quickly, and just moves on. Mermelstein shares his working style:
“I’m a voyeur – I’m not asking people if I can take their picture, even if they are on a public stage. I’m in a sense, stealing something from them without asking. I don’t get releases on the streets, can you imagine that? You cant do the type of photography I do by talking to people before taking their picture.”
Mermelstein doesn’t feel bad for taking photos of people on the streets without permission, and explains:
“I myself feel no guilt from that. I feel some people new to the notion to what street photography is about might be turned off from it. I’m interested in making an interesting photograph. A lot of people aren’t gonna bite that, but I’m totally comfortable and cozy because I know I’m not trying to hurt anybody with a camera. Its just what I do, and its my way of responding to people.”
Even though Jeff is quite aggressive when shooting on the streets, he has no problems doing it. His purpose is to make interesting photographs, and he isn’t trying to hurt anybody in the process. Taking photos is simply the way he interacts with the world and other people.
Don’t feel guilty shooting street photography. You aren’t doing anything wrong. You’re not hurting anybody. You’re simply documenting everyday life for a greater social cause. You will get people who are angry or upset at you. But stay strong and focused on your purpose as a photographer– to make interesting and meaningful photographs.
5. Get in the groove
One of the most difficult things is to get comfortable shooting in the streets. Jeff Mermelstein shares how he gets in the groove when shooting– and the importance of being quick:
“When you’re out in the street, it is a matter of getting in a certain type of groove. You don’t even think about it, you see it and you do it. It’s gotta be quick, because if you don’t do it quick, then its gone. Then you’re really pissed. That’s the worst. At least have a try at it. So what you usually find is that at least for me, you don’t really think too much. You don’t have to think about it. You just want to take pictures. Its just like this quick thing, like boom boom boom. If theres a boom, that’s it. It’s instinct, you just do it.”
When you’re out shooting on the streets, you don’t want to think. You want to fall into a “stream of consciousness” type of shooting– when you totally lose a sense of yourself, and just shoot instinctively on the streets.
Personally I get in the groove shooting in the streets by warming up by just taking a few bad photos. I give myself permission to take a few bad snapshots to get my trigger-finger warmed up. Then the more I click, the more confidence builds up inside me. Then I soon start feeling the energy of the people around me, which helps me lose a sense of myself. This gives me energy– and the ability to be bold.
Mermelstein also shares the importance of being quick. If you hesitate when you’re out shooting on the streets, you will miss the moment.
Jeff also shares the importance of not thinking. The more you think when you’re shooting on the streets, the more you will hesitate and miss precious “decisive moments.”
6. Embrace the banal and ordinary
One of the things that Mermelstein loves most about street photography is the ability to make something extraordinary from the ordinary:
“I think it’s exciting to make something extraordinary out of the banal. I’m not the kind of photographer that needs to travel to take pictures. I am not saying that there aren’t extraordinary images being made in Gaza and sometimes I wonder I should go to Gaza. But I’d probably get sick and be scared. I don’t want it. I’m comfortable, I’m not drawn to bullets. I’m not drawn to danger.”
The best place to shoot street photography is in your own neighborhood. Mermelstein has shot for several decades in New York City and hasn’t grown tired of it. He doesn’t feel he needs to travel anywhere else to shoot street photography.
Of course you might be thinking: “Of course Jeff Mermelstein never gets bored shooting in NYC, it is New York– the most interesting place to shoot street photography in the world!”
I know a lot of street photographers in NYC, and they actually do have issues staying inspired shooting there. They too, can get accustomed to a place and have a hard time finding more extraordinary moments out of ordinary moments.
So regardless of where you live, know that there are always extraordinary photos to be made– no matter how boring the place you live in. The more boring the place you live– the more opportunity you have to make unique and interesting images.
Jeff Mermelstein is a prolific street photographer who truly loves shooting on the streets. He does it for himself, and has never grown tired of his passion. His bold, quick, and sometimes aggressive approach has helped him create some incredible images.
Remember what he said– you’re not hurting anybody in street photography. Make your aim and focus to make powerful images for yourself and the rest of the world.
I highly recommend watching this documentary on Jeff Mermelstein below:
Jeff Mermelstein: Media Matters:
Photographers similar to Jeff Mermelstein
If you like the work of Jeff Mermelstein, I highly recommend these other street photographers:
- Joel Meyerowitz (also worked in color in NYC, but Joel’s work includes more multiple-subjects)
- Bruce Gilden (Jeff’s work is similar to that of Bruce Gilden in terms of how close he gets to his subjects. But Gilden’s work is in black and white and uses more flash on the streets. Both don’t really ask for permission when shooting on the streets of NYC)
- William Klein (similar in aggressiveness to Mermelstein – and shoots head-on as well)
- William Eggleston (study Eggleston for his use of colors. Mermelstein makes great uses of his colors too)