Len Speier has been shooting on the streets of New York City since the 1960’s. He’s actually been shooting a lot longer than that, but he didn’t get serious with his art until after a stint in the Army and a career as a trial lawyer. At 86, his work is in the permanent collection of numerous museums, and he’s a respected teacher, notably developing a popular course at The New School, entitled, “What Every Photographer Should Know about the Law.” Mr. Speier spoke with us about his shooting experiences and the changes in street photography he’s seen over the years.
What camera and lenses have you used and what do you shoot with now?
I used Nikon F cameras for the longest time and also my Leica M4-2. I would often carry two or three cameras around my neck but now, for the ease of getting around, I shoot with the Canon G-series cameras, particularly the G1 X. Occasionally I will still use the Leica.
What were the biggest adjustments you made when you switched to digital cameras and do you prefer digital photography over film photography?
For me, the most important change was in the processing. It’s now difficult for me to stand for long periods of time, so developing film and printing in a darkroom became something I had to avoid. In that sense, the switch to digital [photography] came at an opportune time and has enabled me to continue working. I also think that inkjet paper has come a long way and can equal the image quality of the chemical printing I did. In terms of how I approach my shooting, it really hasn’t changed much. I do tend to use the LCD monitor to compose so there’s less need to bring the camera up to my eye, which has its advantages, but I would always want a camera that has a viewfinder because there are times when I need that, too.
Do you prefer a type of street photography in which you interact with your subjects or do you tend to shoot without drawing any attention to yourself?
Well, in general, I don’t like to interfere with a scene that I see, but I take each situation as it comes. If I see a good shot, I shoot and don’t ask questions; if a person sees that I am shooting, I won’t abandon the shot. I have no specific rules, and if the situation deems that I should ask for permission before I shoot, I have no problem with that. There are times when the interaction creates a better shot. I have a shot of a mother and daughter at the Puerto Rican Day parade in which the young girl was wearing a crown and her father reached to adjust it and I shot just as his hand was in the frame. He later apologized for “ruining” the shot and I thanked him for “making” the shot. Perhaps it didn’t come out as the type of shot he had envisioned, but for me, his hand in the frame made the photo so much better.
Has the proliferation of camera phones and everybody shooting everything throughout the city changed street photography significantly?
That’s a good point. Everybody is taking pictures with every kind of gadget but I don’t think that it changes the quality of the work. A person shooting with their iPhone may take a great photo, but a good photographer will take many more great photos. Real photographers see what most people don’t.
Compared to the pre-digital era, do you sense a difference in the way people react when you take a picture of them?
No, if anything people seem more relaxed when being photographed. Occasionally, I can take a picture of someone when they are unaware and they realize what I am doing while I am shooting so I will take another and end up having two completely different types of shots. Both could be good in their own way.
There seems to be a paradoxical aspect at play in which we live with cameras everywhere but some people get quite upset at the idea of being photographed on the street. Have you had any situations in which people got upset when you photographed them?
Very rarely. And if someone is clearly upset with the idea of being photographed, I just don’t take the shot. I have been shooting a lot on buses, and there was an incident not too long ago on a city bus, which might hint at some sort of the attitude you are referring to. A person became so incensed that I had taken a picture of a child—it wasn’t even their child—but the person was so upset at me that I broke one of my own rules and actually deleted the photo.
Do you have any techniques or tricks to get a shot of someone so they are not aware you are shooting them?
No, not really, but I will use a very wide-angle lens to include people who think that they are actually not the subject of my shot but indeed are. I generally don’t use any artifice; I try to take photos as I find them. Many times people unknowingly position themselves perfectly with their background and surroundings.
Do you shoot when you are on errands or otherwise just passing through the city, or do you specifically set aside a block of time in order to shoot? Do you have favorite places to shoot or do you return to parts of the city that you have found inspirational or productive?
Unless I forget it, I carry my camera with me all the time. I feel that on the way to somewhere, something will be happening. I like to shoot all the time and have a very open eye; I love photographing people and social interaction but also landscapes and other subjects too. In New York, I tend to gravitate toward Fifth Avenue, which I find an ever-changing visual scene.
Your upcoming talk at B&H will touch on some legal issues relating to street photography. Do you have any advice regarding the legality of shooting on the street?
Well, I was a lawyer and dealt with copyright issues, but in general I encourage photographers to be very careful and place their copyright on all images. Facebook is horrendous in that sense, so I always add the line, ”Ok Facebook readers, look and enjoy, but this image is protected by federal law.” But as a photographer, you have to know that your work is protected under copyright law even if you haven’t yet registered it. We’ll talk a lot more about this and releases and many other topics on January 16.
Online registration for Len Speier’s January 16 B&H Event Space lecture Street Photography: More Than Just a Snapshot has been closed. You can still get on the wait list and potentially get in if you arrive 15 to 30 minutes early. You can see Speier’s work in the permanent collection of The International Center of Photography, and he continues to show regularly, including last year’s retrospective at NYU’s Kimmel Gallery.
The incident on the city bus reminded me of an experience that I had years ago when shooting video from the cab of a locomotive on a freight train. Two young children in a back yard, with their parents nearby, waved at the train, and I photographed them doing so. Not long afterward, the railroad's head office received an irate complaint from a neighbour of the children's family about the "inappropriate" behaviour of the cameraman on the train.
Nothing came of it, but nobody was particularly happy about the matter.
Unlike Mr Speier, I neither erased nor declined to use that footage.