It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in beautiful Philadelphia. My wife Sara is off having a "girly day with her ladies," and I'm left to wander the streets with my camera. Works for me. I find myself aimlessly meandering through Rittenhouse Square Park and noticing that, like in any city, there are so many interesting individuals gathered here. I spot this one elderly woman sitting alone on a park bench, seemingly deep in thoughts about the meaning of life. The warm sunlight is kissing her back and making the top of her ivory locks glow. Her face is fixed in a sad pensive expression. I know that I have to take her picture, and I start snapping images from a short-ish distance away. After a few frames she ever so slightly turns her head and looks straight down the barrel of my camera and into my soul. I was caught. It was in that moment as I pressed the shutter button, while this stranger looked into my lens, that a series was born. (I've ever so cleverly dubbed it, "Strangers In The Park.")
The lady looked at me for a moment and I gave a nod to my camera that seemed to say, "Hey cute little old lady, would you mind terribly if I take a few photos of you for no apparent reason...in a totally non-creepy sort of way?" (My nods can say a lot.) She smiled and nodded affirmatively back. I took a couple more images of her looking chipper, but I knew I'd already captured my picture. I waved goodbye and was off again. I noticed as I departed that her previously depressed-looking face was now beaming. Who knows what she was thinking before or after that picture was taken, but I like to think I cheered her up in some way.
It was so exciting and felt so great to have had this little encounter. What other interesting people could I photograph!? I decided I was going to approach complete strangers and ask them if I could take their portraits. I know for a lot of photographers and even for me, this is no easy task. I like to think I'm a rather outgoing guy, but man this little exercise can be a bit daunting. It's totally exhilarating though, and I'm so very pleased to have started doing it.
Here's how it goes down: I'll be bopping around Rittenhouse, listening to some music while I search for people that I think would be good additions to the series. Some people just have that, you know....something...the "it" factor, if you will. (Not like the "pop star it factor"... but that other kind of "it"...the "it" I want for my series.) These people almost wordlessly call out to me saying, "HEY TAKE MY FREAKIN PICTURE!" I definitely do look for people whose faces also seem to say, "Hey, I'm totally approachable and not that threatening. I'll probably agree to have my picture taken...." So far I have surprisingly only had two people turn me down, both of whom were very polite.
I'll spot someone with that certain something and promptly ... walk right past them. You know, just to scope them out/I usually chicken out at first, haha. Then I'll loop back around and stop close-ish to them to pretend to be taking pictures of a flower or something. I do this to get my camera's settings correct for the lighting my soon-to-be subject is in. I don't want to be fumbling with buttons and nobs during our soon-to-be photo shoot. While I'm adjusting my settings I'll form a little script in my head of what I'm going to say. Once I've worked up the nerve, I'll walk confidently over to them, explain who I am, what I'm doing, probably tell them why I'd like to take their photo in the form of a compliment, and then usually show them one of the finished pieces from the series on my phone. (I think that's a major selling point.) Once I've been given the all-clear, I'll take five or six shots and be on my way.
As you might have guessed, once I get back to my computer I attempt to make the images have a very crisp painterly quality. This is achieved with a heck of a lot of shading and digital painting on top of their lovely faces. The gentleman in "The Reader" (at the top of the post) was...wait for it...reading a book, and looking rather stern. I imagine it was a rather intense novel. I felt bad interrupting him, plus he just didn't look like the most approachable dude, but his eyes were so piercingly blue and his hair so delightfully swooshed atop his bearded face. I figured it never hurts to just ask... Turned out he was one of the jolliest of fellows and was immediately down to have his picture taken. He also took direction quite well.
So next time you're out in the world and someone's face just screams to have its portrait taken, JUST ASK THEM! (Unless they are literally screaming out loud to have their picture taken...in that case maybe choose someone else...someone far away.) The worst that will happen is that they will say "no" and then you can just keep on living your life. The more times you make yourself ask someone, the easier and easier it gets.