In On Reading, a concise collection of photographs by André Kertész, there is a picture made in The Bowery, New York City on December 8th, 1960. Two men stand a few feet apart, each reading a newspaper. This picture, however, is all about the faces.
In the background, a man peers down at his pages, lying on a window sill, in deep concentration. We can never know what he is reading. With his fingers carefully following the lines of the page, perhaps he is skimming the sports results or racing odds. In the foreground is his companion – do they even know each other?
This other gentleman has an enigmatic look, his face contorted. At first, it seems like mirth but looking closer, one wonders if it is anger. Frustration? Disgust? In a book full of people reading, this photograph leaps out for the expressions on the faces of the subjects.
The Expressive Face
In a previous life, I was an instructor and coach for public speakers most notably working with TEDxWarsaw. A key tenet of my coaching came from my keen, curious eye as a street photographer. I taught my students that both facial expression and eye contact are vital cogs in the gears of good communication. To illustrate, I used photography to show how much we give of ourselves through our faces.
The expressive face is ubiquitous in the annals of street photography. I chose a photo by Kertész – Cartier-Bresson, Frank, Winogrand, and Erwitt get plenty of love around my little corner of the internet – but I could have chosen a picture by any street photographer of any worth from the invention of photography to date. The quickening pulse of the metropolis can be read in the emotions found on the faces within street photography. The masters of street photography are skilled at anticipating moments of expression whether joy, contemplation, melancholy, or heartbreak. A key practice to make better street photography, then, is to master the art of capturing expression and to do so, one must learn to see.
Those with interesting, weathered faces make fruitful subjects, though, as Bruce Gilden often warns, those who work too hard to be seen as a character make poor subjects. Too often this brings an evident artifice to the picture. Set aside from the pretenders, true characters stand out.
Though others may capture expressive faces in street portraiture with the explicit involvement of their subject, awareness of the camera forever changes the picture. Those in front of the unblinking lens interact with it whether they realise it or not. Clothes are smoothed, hair is tidied, posture is straightened, and most damaging of all, the expression on the face changes from one of unaffected emotion to a peculiar, uncanny simulacrum of what is inferred to be expected.
Instead, the street photographer may practice anticipation. To capture authentic, true emotion in the street, timing is everything. Emotion can be fleeting, such moments are ephemeral. Often an ebullient smile, a gesture of love, a withering glance, or a flash of anger can pass between people before a camera can be brought to the eye. It takes experience to see the potential in a moment and idle around, in plain sight, waiting for the moment and click.
The ultimate expression of connection and communication is, of course, eye contact. More timid, or less experienced, street photographers may be afraid of eye contact. If the subject looks down the barrel of the lens, they will recognise their photograph has been taken and there may be a confrontation. That is a risk though it is a small one. We can assume the worst in others and it may lead us to have irrational fears. Most often, nothing will be said. If something is mentioned, it will be curious to begin and then amiable. Only a few may react in an inappropriate manner, and though it is good to be prepared for this, it should not be expected. The best way to avoid aggravation is to smile and be open.
Eye contact, though, is often the cherry on top of an otherwise strong photograph. The expression read on the face, whether an amused smile or a look that could kill, is not directed at a third party, instead, there is a connection to the reader of the photograph which adds intensity to the emotion felt when reading.
With a camera and the world outside the front door, street photography is easy to do. It is, however, not easy to do well. The art of capturing expressions of a spectrum of emotions on the faces of one’s subjects shortens the odds of making excellent work and standing above the average, humdrum street photography out there.