Back in November I published my first “Inspiration from strangers” post showcasing street portrait photographers that inspire my own work. It features ten street photographers I hugely respect, with established bodies of works in the many tens to many hundreds of stranger portraits. Yet there was one photographer missing.
Carlo Sa is the exception. Away from Flickr for a while it took a little longer to get his positive response to my request to show his work. There are just seven images in his 100 Strangers portfolio on Flickr. They’re not neatly ordered in a set. Nor are they posted in order. Portrait 06 is missing, in fact. There are elements that some would challenge on technical grounds. And I’m totally in love with them.
What they have is that urgent spark of visceral presence that so many – myself certainly included – over-process or over-think or otherwise suffocate. Portait 04 (above) was the first I came to. I love the bright, glossy reflection in his glasses. The weird, at once ultra-real and yet somehow fantasy play of light, especially the odd rim light on his right cheek.
There’s the same feel of a sticky urban Californian night, and the same polluted wash of light in 03 (above). The same frisson of human contact. Portrait 02 (below) is a little more contrived, with more front, but the same fierce, dirty, real world lighting.
They’re risky portraits for me and packed with lessons I’m still working through for a future post, wanting to keep the focus here on Carlo’s work. In our email exchange Carlo noted a number of other portraits for his project and I can’t wait to see them. There’s a raw authenticity to them which I struggle to define, but know I don’t see elsewhere.
It’s a real skill balancing that sense of real life and intimacy. I really admire the details Carlo leaves in, and his use of found and borrowed light. The well judged elements of imperfection perfectly catch that random blaze of half met, half missed glances, the brief confrontations and flirtations, the energy of urban life, but hit with a little cinematic supercharge that lifts it above.
All images copyright Carlo Sa (2014), used with permission.
As I approach the final portrait in my 100 Strangers street portrait project, I’ve been reflecting on the photographers that inspired me to start and continue that journey. Some of them proved elusive, but ten of them kindly agree to let me share their street portraits here with a few words as to what I enjoyed in their portait work, and how it inspired my photography.
Perhaps the biggest spur to shoot strangers at all was Gerald Emming’s incredible 30 second project. Seeing Gerald’s work for the first time I could not quite believe this was possible on the street – everything was so clean, pure, intense. The stark, desaturated sheen and bold, intimate crop gave the series an unmistakable look, so consistently delivered time and time again. This one especially stands out in showcasing what struck me:
Gerald’s work is maybe most appealing to me in that it establishes such an instantly recognisable look, that he’s able to play with it in a number of portraits, introducing candid moments or twists on the style – without distracting from the core. This next one is perhaps my favourite of those, catching a chance, candid expression within the shoot. It’s that mix that strikes me in how I try to shoot my work. Striving for the consistent, recognisable look, whilst accommodating the opportunities each individual presents, and threading them together like alchemy into a magical whole.
Heading over to the 100 Strangers group on Flickr I found Peter’s work. Of many incredible shots, there are two I particularly admire. The first of Elle I’ve returned to a number of times, in awe of the wild light. When shooting Lily #69/100 in tough lighting conditions, it’s exactly this portrait of Peter’s that I thought of in trying to harness the wayward sun. I like the genius economy of the lighting – a single tilt of a reflector in the sun at once adding drama to her expression, depth and texture to her dress, tone to her hair and emphasis to the wall behind.
Compared with the pure drama of Elle’s portrait, there’s an intimate narrative almost to this one of Avalon. I’m as guilty as many others for getting lost in the compressed, tight headshot. For all their power, they sometimes lack that hint of environmental intrigue, of story. I love way all that plays out in Peter’s portrait of Avalon. Despite the consistent crop of head/shoulders, the wider angle lens brings so much more to life around her. Wider angle backgrounds can be so hard to compose to prevent distraction, and I love how Peter uses the chair on the left and the partition on the right to create a kind of “lead in step” effect in harmony with the centred composition. With all that going on that pure, smooth light and engaging mix of flirtation and ambiguity in Avalon’s expression is sorcery itself.
Tim shoots all kinds of incredible characters. There’s an amazingly raw character to his portraits of Melvin and Eddie, yet it’s one of his diptychs that I especially admire. Perhaps its the way the two shots both echo and inform one another. The power of class and character to Stefan’s headshot on the left is kind of at odds with the shorter looking, quirkier character of the environmental portrait on the right. Yet it occured to me that this is the beauty of what we do – so many of those people we pass, the quirky, the mundane, all of them – have this same inner core if you only stop and speak and look for it. This shot became kind of touchstone for me in that regard. A reminder that sometimes we should ignore the cover and take a proper look at the book.
Jeff’s work over at the 100 Strangers and more recently at The Human Family always struck me for his variety of subjects. Even writing that note on looking beneath a person’s superficial appearance alongside Tim’s work above, I have to admit I often end up shooting with the obvious “strangers of interest”; the Vogue/Glamour-definition young and beautiful. Jeff has an incredible talent for seeing and expressing that beauty in a huge range of subjects.
This one of Iman particularly struck me – the skillful technique in difficult light, the beauty of character, the balance of foreground and background and that masterfully judged depth of field retaining a sense of the world whilst ensure even cluttered lights supported Iman, rather than distracting from her. There’s a magic to shooting in the night which is so well communicated here.
Meeting Colin at my Stranger #5 was an important moment in my project. It’s what turned it from a solo endeavour to a social project, through which I’ve met a whole legion of fantastic photographers. As well as his advice, wry humour, and willingness to pose (generally stooping a foot or so down to simulate a typical subject’s more diminutive frame), his tight headshots especially grabbed my attention.
Ines flirtatious smirk and billiowing hair, and Tiger Lily’s smooth gaze with spiked shoulders are so powerful against that deftly dropped background, and they’re just two of a whole legion of thoughtfully approach, skillfully shot strangers I’d encourage you to check out.
Peter’s another 100 Strangers photographer I’ve been lucky enough to shoot with a couple of times now, and a 500 miles per hour dynamo with it. He’s another who’s diptych in particular inspire me. This one of Thamanay for instance, which comes with a kind of movement to it – a sense of meeting at a distance, and then a sudden, more intense turn in events.
This one of Anna is great too, offering a different contrast. He shoots fantastic portrait format shots especially – people like Abigail or Emily. More than anyone else, Peter’s portfolio buzzes with an energy of encounters. I love the moments when he’ll zap in a shot of strangers tattoo as well as their portrait. That eclectic mix of street fashion, photo journalism, energetic documentation and fast paced encounter is so full throttle and constantly flexible.
For every posted portrait, we all endure unseen hours on the streets. Often this is not so much due to rejection, as due to an absence of that perfect stranger to match a background we have seen. When a stranger does appear, that echoes, enhances and lifts a background it’s like rocket dust at Christmas, and this shot of Barbara’s is perhaps the most perfect instance of stranger meeting perfect background. Such an incredible mix of vision, patience and execution with so much on the line.
Then there’s the artistry of this one – where the match of stranger and background is less dramatic, less obviously perfect, yet still so evocative. Perhaps more so even, with the beautiful balance of costume, style, tone set and expression.
Arnab’s willingness to experiment and seize left field opportunities is perhaps the thing I most wanted to feature here, but I’d first kick off with this “straight” shot to establish his credentials in a more traditional sense. Super direct headshot. Cool.
For me, though, Arnab is the guy who hung out at the National Theatre to buy a stranger a glass of red wine, and shot her posing indoors whilst he was outside in the rain. True story. Sometimes you can see the edges of those experiments, and sometimes he just blows you away – like with this one of Jesse. I’d definitely check out the description behind the link for the story and thought process – awesome. The result with that clean palette of whites and the nuanced balance of diagonals is epic, held together with Jesse’s super gaze.
It’s a big regret that I missed Sylvia on her recent(ish) trip to London. Of her incredible portfolio, the following two shots grabbed my attention for the way she harnesses natural light so skillfully. When you read the detail of that first portrait of Jazmyn and see it’s all achieved with a single small reflector, it makes me feel like a proper plonker carrying lighting gear around with me. The hazy gold of the distant pillar, the way it infuses the edges of Jazmyn’s incredible mane of hair, and then that smooth even pop from the reflector are all so perfect. The depth of field is so cool too – getting those diagonal highlights sweeping back into the centre of the frame.
Another amazing reflector shot below, but this time with a superbly matched tonal theme and a totally different background effect, speaks to Sylvia’s flexibility. This time I love how the reflector changes the tone set up, introducing that warm glow to complement the pale, smokey blues.
There’s such a raw drama to Davide’s (w@@t) portraits. I’m a big advocate of the idea that “no one cares it’s a stranger”. By which I mean that when approaching a street portrait, the viewer is judging your portrait just as if it were a portrait of a model or family member. Maybe when they read the story behind the image they care, but when they first see it, no one knows. It’s just a portrait, fighting for attention against all portraits. You’d think you’re at a disadvantage then – shooting random strangers, compared to shooting professional models – but when the situation is handled well, you have an edge. There’s a spark to street encounters that one does not necessarily find in model shots. A certain frisson. Davide’s a master of harnessing that spark.
In these two shots that harnessed spark shines through. The almost feminine expression of Cristiano, with his quirky angled glasses, and the swish of hair framing that femme fatale gaze of Lera. I’d love to shoot with Davide and see him working with his subjects – inspiring these moments. Hopefully we’ll get to hook up in the New Year!
Please note, all images are copyright of the linked photographers.