A photographer doing commercial studio work spontaneously decided to hit the street with a camera and a simple backdrop taped to a wall. He learned about human nature, but he also learned about his own capacity to take risks. This article is from a talk he gave in November 2010.
By Derek Ford
Hi, can I take your picture?
I’m a commercial photographer and I’m working on a personal project.
Great, I have a backdrop set up just over here.
And so it began.
In the summer of 2009, I was working in my studio: photographing products, still life, commercial work.
I realized looking around that the summer was passing and I had barely left the studio. I wanted to get out and have some interaction with people.
I took my camera, a white seamless backdrop and hit the streets. I found a great spot in Trounce Alley on Government Street and taped my backdrop to the wall.
I began to stop people and using the introduction I just shared with you, asked if I could take their picture. Initially, the introduction wasn’t that brief but I came to realize I had to be quick, 8-10 secs at most. Sure I had straight out no’s; some people just kept walking barely acknowledging that I had even spoken to them, others wanted to know the catch. Some people stopped and we had a brief conversation but in most of these cases, they would refuse. It seemed to me that the people who stopped made a quick decision based on impulse and this was one of the characteristics they shared. The people I photographed were spontaneous, open and friendly. Needless to say, it was a pleasure to spend an afternoon with such willing subjects!
I took about five minutes with each person. Filling out the model release form probably took the most time. In some cases I had the portrait within the first two to three frames. I wanted them to be relaxed once I raised the camera. I didn’t want the portrait to be an awkward oh you’re taking my picture how do I look kind of thing. I wanted the portrait to reveal something about them. Some of the portraits were taken before the person had a moment to pose. I captured them as they were talking or laughing or sharing something about themselves with me. We would talk about how they were feeling that day or where they were going when they stopped. Sometimes they would come up with their own pose or look that they wanted me to capture. Sometimes their portrait fell outside the backdrop. I went with it.
As the light turned on the first day, I had a collection of people from all walks: parents, grandparents, friends, locals, tourists. And I realized that I was just getting started. I began to see that day as part of a larger project. I saw the opportunity to put all these portraits together in a space where everyone could come and see their portrait for the first time and meet the other people whose portraits I had taken. All these people whose lives I had interacted with at that point in space. When I began to show the book around, people would point out people they knew: friends, acquaintances, locals. One of the people in the book passed on shortly after I met him and the memory of our conversation and interaction was still fresh as I remembered his gentleness and kindness three months after I photographed him.
I returned to my street studio 4 times. Often, people who had stopped or refused to stop would pass by. Sometimes they would stop again to chat on their way by, of course if they hadn’t stopped, they more often than not hurried by, lest I ask them again! Some days were more productive than others in terms of the amount of people who would stop and sometimes in a day more men would stop than women or vice versa. People just came and went, stopped or didn’t stop but on the street that summer, 90 people did stop. The one demographic I think that is poorly represented are seniors. I recall a higher percentage of no thank you’s from this group more than any other. But regardless of how many people stopped in a day, I was enriched for the experience.
I spoke with people who talked to me about their pride for their grandson, the day out with their mother, or the city they were from. They told me stories about their lives, a cast, a shopping trip for boots and when I asked one woman to pull something out of her bag that would reveal something about herself, she pulled out a knitting needle and held it between her teeth for her portrait. There was the punk rock musician who posed perfectly as if standing in front of a mirror and the business owner with a Mohawk who posed with a threatening look on his face belying the fact that he had a huge smile and a warm greeting for me when I wandered into his store to make sure that it was okay that I was using the outside wall of his business. I photographed the street busker and the employee grabbing lunch as he delivered packages, the security guard and the couple just in town for the day. The people who posed with their eyes closed or laughing as we shared a joke. All of these people and all of their wonderful stories.
The connections I made became the theme of the work for me. The portrait on the cover of the book is of a woman who owns a local business that I have used many times but I had never met her until I stopped her on the street. Now we meet for coffee and catch up. That I chose to do something that could have been very uncomfortable, I mean stopping people on the street to take a photo! They have no idea who I am or what I’m going to do with it, I mean why would they agree, right? Despite these objections and the rejections (both imagined and real), I went ahead and stood out there and I came away with something very rewarding. Since this project, when challenged with doing something I am uncomfortable with, I draw on this experience.
I have put all the portraits together in a book. Every person who stopped for a portrait is included in this book and the book runs chronologically from the first portrait to the last. Although many review the book flipping through and enjoying the portraits that catch their attention, I hope that tonight you can also appreciate the book from start to finish. It is to me a book of short stories, each one connected to the one that comes before. I am proud of every portrait that I made for this book. I have respected and honored the stories that were given to me in trust that summer.
Where to buy Derek Ford’s book…
You can purchase a copy of Derek Ford’s book Street Portraits by clicking here.
About Derek Ford
Visit Derek’s website at http://derekfordphoto.com
All photographs © Derek Ford. All Rights Reserved.