Bruce York: New York

Head On finalist Bruce York’s image of the corner of George and Hay streets is currently in Hyde Park as part of Art and About’s Sydney Life exhibition. This is his work from another city.

How/when did you start out in street photography?

It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I’ve owned an SLR since I was about 15 but I don’t remember seriously thinking about street photography until I went to New York City in 1986. I was beginning an around the world trip and as soon as I arrived I bought myself a 28mm lens and a lot of Kodachrome.

Everyday life in NY seemed so different to the life I was familiar with. Images and sounds were coming at me from all directions. It was like a vast film set with everyone reading from a different script. I wanted to capture that chaos and energy. Because I was a tourist it felt OK to be a little strange and point a camera at things. I could be anonymous and it was liberating.

Why did it become important to you?

It was something I could incorporate into a daily schedule. I didn’t have to set anything up and it wasn’t expensive. I liked NY so much that I spent 15 years living and working there, and I always carried a camera. It gave me a reason to take a diversion, explore the city and start a conversation with strangers.

What ideas and or photographers had a major impact on you?

The idea that intrigues me the most about photography has something to do with capturing things that probably wouldn’t be seen except for a fleeting moment. You can freeze time and capture the extraordinary or you can make the ordinary seem extraordinary.

As for other photographers, I’d say William Klein, Ray K. Metzker, Ernst Haas, Josef Koudelka, Garry Winogrand, Alex Webb, Joel Meyerowitz, André Kertész, Martine Franck and her husband. More recently I’ve been looking at the work of Saul Leiter and Vladimir Birgus.

It’s more than a little intimidating looking at the legacy of these photographers although I feel a little reassured when I remember that Robert Frank had shot over 27,000 images to produce the 83 images in his book The Americans.

What are you principally interested in capturing when you are on the street with a camera?

There’s really not one answer to that question. Shooting on the street I tend to react to situations and think about it later. It’s easy to go for the one liner (a visual pun) but I’m more interested in the images that make your eyes move around the frame and hold your gaze. I like contrasts. I think that the best images evoke an emotional response but that’s really something that I hope for more often than achieve. I’m drawn to good light and making sense out of confusion. I want to take pictures that make you look but primarily I’m doing it to make me look.

Are there particular places that are of interest to you?

I like cities. Usually the place I’m in is the place that I’m interested in, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t want to leave. Saul Leiter has been quoted as saying, “I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.” So, with that in mind, I keep looking to see what I see. If I can’t find anything to photograph it’s probably just that I’m not looking in the right place or at the right time.

What other genres of photography do you do?

I’m particularly interested in the urban landscape and I’ve done a fair deal of studio/street portraiture and some commercial assignments. I work for the State Library of New South Wales so at the moment I’m specialising in flat things.

Can you tell me a little about the circumstances under which these NY images were taken?

These images were all taken over a four-week period in July and August 2010. A friend in NY called and invited me to come for a visit. With no obligations or commitments, I was free to spend my time wandering the city. As it happened, it was an incredibly hot summer so I spent as much time avoiding the sun as I did shooting in it. The cinemas in NY have really good air conditioning.

How is shooting New York different from shooting Sydney?

In Sydney I always carry a camera but I’m often in a car. I see pictures from the driver’s seat that I can’t get back to or that are gone when I do get back. Timing is everything and even if you could freeze the subjects the light keeps moving. I think it’s harder to shoot in Sydney because you have to be more dedicated and more organised than I am. I’d also say that people are more reserved and a little more wary of photographers. I’m more likely to be confronted and have my sanity or sexuality questioned.

In NYC I always carry a camera and I walk or take public transport everywhere. Whether you’re going uptown, downtown or across town you can alternate the route and discover something new. There is a tradition of street photography in NY. I’d say that people are generally more OK with letting others do their own thing and they’re more open (although 9/11 has changed that somewhat). The population density and diversity, the grid plan of the streets and the way the light falls all make working in NY a little easier.

In NY I don’t feel like a foreigner. I feel totally comfortable. I don’t have the chutzpah of Bruce Gilden so it’d probably be different if I were shooting in Tokyo. I do think having a camera and a purpose makes it easier to get involved and overcome a natural reserve. I usually try to avoid interacting with my subjects but it’s sometimes necessary to obtain approval to get access. I’ll often take portraits of people I meet on the street and although I find it difficult to approach strangers I know I’ll be annoyed with myself if I don’t take the opportunity.

What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned on the street with a camera?

Take your sense of humour, your empathy and an open mind but leave your lens cap and your ego at home. I think it’s important to open yourself up to chance. I often find that if I go out looking for something in particular I’ll end up finding something else. If you’re on a commercial assignment this could be a problem but as a street photographer it can lead to something better than you’d hoped for.

I think it’s important to know your rights but equally important to understand that it’s OK not to take a picture if someone insists that you shouldn’t. I was once confronted by a guy who wanted to know if I’d taken his fucking picture. When I told him no he was equally annoyed and wanted to know why fucking not. I had to think quickly and told him that I’d run out of film. He seemed satisfied with that. So, I guess the main lesson for me would be that in street photography you have to stay focused and keep your wits about you – you’re not just out for a stroll.

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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 open in May/June.

Image detail: Gary Ramage