For a long time I’ve wanted to take portraits of strangers, but have been afraid to try. I like taking portraits. And I like taking pictures of strangers, but always rather furtively while doing street photography (though I want to do some street photography in the William Klein style of seeking out someone in the crowd who looks straight in the camera — but for another day).
While walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn taking my “Essential Services” photos, I noticed that more and more people began to wear masks — this was in March. By the time I finished the essential services series, as the pandemic in New York grew more severe, mask wearing was common — at least in my neighborhood. It had become normalized. So, this series was born. These pictures are part of a larger series. They are simply portraits of people out and about living their lives, with this moment in time reflected in their covered faces. With everything they brought to this moment visible through their eyes.
I go out for about an hour every morning to take a walk, for vitamin D and sanity, and the photos were taken then. I did it for 5 weeks in my neighborhood in April-May, all within a 20 minute walk of my apartment. I’d say my Yes:No ratio when I told people what I was doing and asked if I could take their picture was about 3:1. I said I could give them a card with my email if they’d like me to send them a copy. Quite a few people took me up on that and are very happy to receive the pics and to be part of the project.
I think three things helped make the process successful: 1) I had a succinct plausible pitch, “I’m taking pictures of people out and about wearing masks”; 2) People were wearing masks so were maybe a bit less concerned about their faces appearing all over the internet; 3) I shot with an old twin lens reflex.
After years of resisting TLRs, they are now my favorite type of camera to use. For one thing, it looks like a real camera. It lent a bit of seriousness and credibility to the project. As my daughter said, It’s not like you’re going up to people sticking an iPhone in their face. And it’s a very friendly camera — you look down at the waist-level finder instead of holding it up to your eye. I think that allows more human contact between the photographer and subject. And many folks were curious about it, saying their dad had one, or would tell me a project they did in school with milk cartons and mirrors, or ask if you could still get film for one — “They still make film??”
I have a few TLRs at this point and the Koniflex is my favorite. I love the lens. Being from 1952, it’s not real contrasty but that suits me fine. In combination with the Portra 400, it captures a lot of detail over a wide dynamic range — helpful in the shots that had bright sunlight and hard shadows. More importantly, it’s a Heliar design and though these shots don’t generally reveal it, it often gives some nice 3D pop at f4-f5.6 with the right lighting. With these shots, for the most part I shot between f6-f10 because of the fast film, the 85mm lens, and wanting to ensure I got the eyes in focus. I didn’t want to impose on people by asking to take their time for multiple shots. These are single shot portrait sessions. In my experience doing portraits, I’ve found the first shot is almost always the best shot, anyway. Before people have time to become self-conscious.
Anyway, I learned some things and gained some confidence in taking portraits of strangers that I hope to apply when we’re no longer wearing masks.