REDEFINE | STREET PHOTOGRAPHY feature by Jennifer Tonetti Spellman

jtstreet (9 of 10)Why are you passionate about street photography

First and foremost, there is nothing fake, easy or predictable about street work. It’s the most frightening yet exhilarating way to capture the world around you. Secondly, I’m saddened that we gloss over people in our every day hurry without even knowing it’s happening. No one stops on the streets to talk or connect anymore. Now more than ever, when you really observe people on the street, the usual scene is head down looking at their phone or headphones in blocking out the sounds around them. With street, it forces me to be present with people and really look for connections.

What were the challenges for you in the beginning?

The biggest challenge to deal with when I set out on my first street run nearly 6 years ago was ‘what will the reaction be if someone catches me shooting them? Are they going to flip out? Grab and break my camera? Punch me in the face?’ I found out, fairly quickly, two things: most people are so consumed with where they are going they have no idea I am even shooting them or secondly, most people think I’m shooting something else because they never think ‘they’ could possibly be the subject.

Another challenge was figuring out what type of street work I really liked to do and what ‘fit’ me. So I experimented. I’m not drawn to street portraits where you speak to the subject and ask to take their picture. I don’t like the ‘up close in your face to get a reaction’ style. I much more prefer the capturing of unique people unaware who are larger than life to me, or juxtapositions, or cool light on buildings or even lines in a building or structure. I also love finding a ‘back drop’ like a colored wall and waiting for the right person to pass by. Anything on the street that pops out at me, be it human or otherwise, and literally makes me stop dead in my tracks, I shoot it.

When did you first realize you were interested in shooting street photography?

Almost 6 years ago I read an article in the paper about a new discovery of a woman’s work named Vivian Maier. I was completely blown away that this street photographer kept her images a secret, telling no one (hard concept to grasp in this age of oversharing). I was captivated by her images. Raw humanity, shocking at times, but as real as it got, and she shot a ton in NY so I really felt like I connected with her work on that level as well. I was heading to London shortly after with a friend and said to her ‘I need to shoot street when we are there, alone, by myself.’ I set out every day for a bit just walking the streets and I was beyond hooked. I had been shooting clients already and had a business but this was different. This was the biggest personal project I have ever taken on, and it’s all for me and only me.

How do you feel street photography is different from all other genres?

First off I am amazed at the age span of street photographers. A while back I took a street workshop and there were men and women there age 60+. It was actually refreshing. Street truly spans the ages. Also, when you shoot street there are zero second chances if you miss something. If you do miss it, rather than kicking yourself, you need to adapt an onward and upward philosophy, something I am usually not good at but I’m getting there. Street is the most challenging form of photography I have ever shot and I love a challenge as I bore very easily.

Has it helped influence your personal life or business side?

I’d say street has influenced both. Before street I didn’t notice juxtapositions as much in my in-home client work so it really sharpened my eye to those serendipitous moments. Personally it has made me slow down, work on my patience and recognize the humanity in us all. It also has given me another voice in photography and is my natural next step as I continue to search for ways to push myself.

What are the tips you would share with anyone trying to shoot in the street (aim for at least 5, but any are welcome)

1. Be patient and don’t expect much. There are days I come back after street shooting and have nothing to show for it. This isn’t like shooting clients, or your children, or a wedding where you pretty much are guaranteed ‘something’ at the end of the day.

2. Be self-critical of your work. Just because you caught someone walking down the street and nailed the focus doesn’t mean it’s a good street photo. There are many elements of good street images: juxtapositions/interesting subjects/layers/lines/structures. Don’t settle.

3. Study the masters. Not for comparison sake but for the vision they had and see how amazing the elements of street can be when they all come together.

4. Avoid using a dSLR. The ultimate goal for me is to look like I have no idea what I am doing with a camera, and go completely unnoticed. I shoot with a small Ricoh GRII (which looks like a toy camera and fits in your pocket) and my Fujifilm x100T with black tape over it so people think it’s just a junky camera. When you bust out a big honking dSLR you look like you are shooting with intent.

5. Don’t shoot wide open. You want the whole scene in focus to truly tell the story of the street. Every detail matters.

6. Manual is not king on the street. It’s darn near impossible to shoot in manual mode in street. I have yet to meet a street photographer that does because it all moves way too fast out there.

7. Let go of perfection. Images can be raw/slightly blurry etc. It’s totally acceptable as long as the content is strong. Street started on film and if you look at the masters of street, some of the greats will have amazing images that may not be technically correct.

8. Ignore the pressure to convert all to B+W. I’m an ‘in vivid color’ kind of girl- most of my street is in color because I am drawn to the colors on the street and they tell the story. As with any genre, there are pissing matches of how you should do certain things, and as with any genre, I ignore all that and shoot and process images with my gut.

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Jennifer Tonetti Spellman is a NY based photographer who photographs street work for herself and in-home photojournalistic sessions for her clients. Jennifer is also the co-founder of Illuminate Classes where she also teaches. When she isn’t shooting or teaching she can be found hanging with the four who make her world spin round: her husband, two girls, and her shelter dog .



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