Picturing people, peripatetically

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Harajuku girl, Tokyo, Japan.

When I travel abroad, once or twice a year, I keep my digital point-and-shoot camera in my outer coat pocket or untangled in my messenger bag, always at the ready, grabbable, right there for the right shot.

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Beggar girl, Old Dehli, India.

I’m something of a shutterbug, a total amateur driven by the blameless enthusiasm of a self-taught neophyte, toting a picture-taking toy. But I learn fast, and one of the early lessons in my journeys was how dull so many of my photos were. They were dry, clichéd, postcardy, filled with stolid buildings and objects and places you’re supposed to photograph just because you’re there and you want indelible proof that you did indeed behold the Mount of Olives, Ghiberti’s bronze doors or the Hanoi Hilton.

They weren’t awful, but they were lifeless, generic. What they missed were people and faces — humanity. I almost always travel solo, and, anyway, I’m not a big fan of pictures of friends and family standing robotically in front of oceanfronts and monuments.

So I started seeking locals for my shots. The approach not only improved my photographs but also improved my travels. Suddenly I was paying more attention to the daily activities of people, their work, play, drudgery and joys. Observing residents in action literally put a face on a place and deepened the cultural experience.

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Religious man, Jaipur, India.

Sometimes I “sneak” photos of people engaged in everyday life — men bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India; a man selling prayer beads to a customer in Istanbul; a student bicycling in Beijing — yet as a general rule I approach subjects who have a striking face or are wearing an arresting outfit or are doing something vaguely exotic and ask permission to take their picture.

This requires a spot of nerve, especially for an introvert like me. But I’ve found that in many places, if you’re courteous, low-key and smiling, people are receptive, even eager.

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Girl, Istanbul, Turkey.

I’ve had great success in Asian nations, where residents display a friendly excitement and curiosity toward the dopey American who wants their photo. Children in developing countries are especially agreeable to having their picture taken, mugging, posing, snatching at the camera to see their image. (Though, with both young and old, you should be prepared to drop a couple of coins into outstretched hands when you’re through.)

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Buddhist monk, Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

This is a selection of portraits I’ve taken around the world. They are the simplest of snapshots done with basic consumer digital cameras, not phones. They are carefully framed, yet quickly shot. I take only one picture of my subjects as a matter of speed and courtesy. There are no re-dos.

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Old Delhi, India.

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New Delhi, India.

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Hanoi, Vietnam.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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Boys, Istanbul.

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Kids and cow, New Delhi.

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Smoking woman, Istanbul.

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Udaipur, India.

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Praying man, Beirut, Lebanon.

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Udaipur, India.

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Istanbul.

The playful elegance of Irving Penn’s photos

I’ve recently done some traveling to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and London, art-encrusted metropolises boasting drop-dead, world-class museums, from D.C.’s National Gallery to London’s twin Tates and the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was spun around (picture Mary Tyler Moore giddy and agape in the big city) by the sheer voluminous quality around almost every corner, be it the say-what size of the magnificent Turner collections in London or the rare “Chagall: Colour and Music” show in Montreal.

Yet, for all that sublime perambulation, meandering among masterpieces, the best art show I’ve seen in a spell, hands-down, is the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met in New York. “Irving Penn: Centennial” features over 200 photos — glamorous portraits of writers, artists, actors, dancers and other outsize personalities; insane food still lifes; leonine fashion divas; and worlds more. It’s an exhilarating joy.

Avers the show catalog: It’s the “most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of the great American photographer,” who, after a sensational stint at Vogue, died in 2009. “Penn mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail.”

Yes, but there’s so much more than that clinical description suggests, and you can see it in the work itself. (Time is of the essence: the exhibit closes July 30. The Met has posted a nice video preview of the show here.) A smoky elegance and playful naturalism imbue the hugely influential pictures — hello, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz — whose complexity and sophistication are on full display, if rarely peacocky.

Below are a few of Penn’s famous black and white celebrity portraits — some of my favorites — lucid, lush, deceptively simple images that pierce into the personalities to become indelibly iconic. (Try and identify the subjects.)

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