09.04.16: Street scene

People and stories in a street scene, East 42nd Street between 1st and 2nd avenues, New York City. 


Technical information

July 2, 2008,
9:52 a.m.

40°44'57” N,
73°58'16" W
(Show in Google Maps)

Canon EOS 40D

Canon EF 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 (90mm) 


1/100th second


Street photography is an art form where the photographer creates an interesting image based on chance encounters, random incidents or, at times, decisive moments representing day-to-day activities.

The best street photographs show the relationship (or, in many instances, the lack of relationship) between people in the photograph or people and their environment. This makes the viewer build their own story for the photograph: What was that person thinking? Where was that person going? Why isn’t he paying attention?

Capturing interesting street scenes is a skill, no different than the ability to capture quality sports action shots, landscapes or wildlife photos. 

And it’s something I don’t do very often.

First, I don’t spend much time “on the street,” except during travel. And second, I don’t take photos of people very often. It’s not that I don’t like people. Heck, most people are OK. But photographing people opens up the whole privacy issue and the potential for litigation if a photo is sold, displayed or published. 

While laws in the U.S. prohibit using a person’s likeness, without consent, for advertising or other trade-related purposes, courts have repeatedly ruled that using a person’s image without consent for artistic expression or creative purposes is legal, especially when the photograph is taken in a public place.

But that won’t stop someone from suing.

Also, there’s that whole “why are you taking my photo?” look that people give when they see a camera pointed at them that makes me feel somewhat creepy when doing street photography.

But I do make exceptions and this photo is the result of one of those exceptions.

I was in New York City on business and took a break in the morning to walk a few blocks with my camera looking for architecture photos, one of my favorite things to do in cities. I was walking east on East 42nd Street, between 1st and 2nd avenues, when I saw a tired, raggedly-dressed man across the street sitting behind a hand-lettered shoe-shine price list. Behind him was a lady struggling to get a stroller up steps to the Mary O’Connor Playground above street level.

I thought the juxtaposition of the two activities and the detail of the block wall would make an interesting photograph, so I framed the scene in my viewfinder and clicked off a few shots. Several of the photos included people who happened to be walking by, but this one caught my attention when I saw it on my computer.

The scene on the steps creates one story: the woman lifting the stroller while her son climbs ahead and a friend waits at the landing above. Is this something they do every day or is this a special occasion? Why isn’t the friend helping the woman who is struggling with the stroller? The red of the stroller and the boy’s shorts and the yellow toy he carries pop against the blocks in the background. The sun illuminates the friend’s face that is framed by leaves and the wrought iron railing. It creates a nice slice-of-life scene inside a scene.

In the foreground, a young man walks into the scene from the left. He’s wearing a blue blazer, gray slacks and is holding tight to a notebook. Is he a student heading to or from class? Is he a young businessman (or an intern) on his way to his first job? His stride and posture show a sense of purpose or of confidence.

And in the middle of the scene, pulling everything together, is the tired shoe-shine man, staring straight ahead. What is he thinking? How did he get here? Does anyone ever stop to get a shine ($3 for shoes or $5 for boots, as his sign says)?

The three scenes share the same space and time, but represent separate lives seemingly oblivious to the other activities nearby. And they are all pulled together by the lines of the handrail on the steps, the blocks on the wall and squares on the sidewalk.

It’s a simple shot. Nothing special. But I’ve always liked it.

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.