Drew English: Photographing Strangers With a Pentax 67

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All images by Drew English. Used with permission.

I’m not afraid of people. I’m not afraid of talking to total strangers. But for years I have had an aversion to approaching people on the street and getting them to participate in my creative process point blank. Living in New York City, you’re consistently surrounded by seemingly unlimited human diversity, which I find very artistically inspiring. My eye is often drawn to an interesting face, look or style and my knee-jerk reaction is a desire to capture their portrait. Unfortunately, my nerves always held me back and I have missed out on countless opportunities.

DrewEnglish_Portrait_002I never set out to create a portrait project. I simply wanted to find a way to force myself into approaching people I found interesting on the street and photographing them. Having the right tool was a huge part of getting this project started. I have been increasingly disenchanted with shooting digitally as a form of artistic expression. I work frequently in digital but honestly, half the time I don’t want to deal with batteries, memory cards and tons of computer time. I don’t believe in film vs. digital; there is a place for everything. I simply gravitate toward film for personal work. That being said, I found it hard to motivate myself with the idea of shooting something like 35mm. For one, I needed to make this easily digestible. If I was going to force myself out the door and into the streets, I didn’t want to have to crank through 24 or 36 exposures at once. Additionally, I wanted a format that afforded me great resolution on order to bring out the character and idiosyncrasies of the subject. Medium format was the way to go.

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Last year, I picked up a Pentax 6×7 from someone off of Craigslist. It’s heavy, cumbersome and a bit unwieldy at times, but I fell in love with it. At only 10 exposures per roll, I could start with approaching a smaller number of people in order to build up my confidence. The lenses are a huge part of it too. They are quite unique and fantastic but have an incredibly low price point compared to other medium format gear. I used two lenses for this project; a 105 f2.4 and a 55mm f4. They each offer something different. The 105 has a fantastic vintage vibe and the ability to get an incredibly shallow, buttery depth of field. It has a look I haven’t seen elsewhere. The 55mm is the newest iteration of that lens and is super sharp. If I’m not mistaken, it may be one of the sharpest lenses ever made for the Pentax 6×7 system. It is a wide angle lens (28mm equivalent) but has an extremely close minimum focusing distance. I used it to bring in a little more of the background elements into some of the work. It’s great.

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Armed with my gear, I was looking for a way to get over this fear of mine and get shooting. The Pentax 6×7 has garnered a bit of a cult following and I’d seen some truly beautiful work online and on Instagram. I was able to get in touch with a few 6×7 shooters here in NYC who have the street portrait thing down pat and orchestrate a few photo walks. This was probably the single most helpful thing I could have done. Safety in numbers, when starting out, really helped build my confidence. I was able to see how other people approached and interacted with strangers and I was able to pick up a few tricks to try out on my own. Something else that helped quite a bit, was mixing in some portraiture of friends. It allowed me to work on my composition and technique in a really relaxed environment in addition to just getting me in the vibe of shooting portraits, bantering and being vocal about why I wanted to take the photograph. This helped immensely when approaching strangers.

I think my biggest misconception prior to just getting out there and doing it, was that it was going to be a big deal. I always thought I’d have to engage in a lengthy conversation, but I’ve never had to. I’ve refined my approach and now it’s really nothing more than, “Excuse me, could I take your portrait? I really just like your look.” 9 times out of 10 it works like a charm. Most people are even a bit flattered that I’d want to photograph them. Also, having a camera that’s the size of my head doesn’t hurt as it’s a wonderful conversation starter. More than once I’ve turned someone approaching me with a question about my camera into a portrait opportunity.

These are all photographs captured in March of 2015. What you’ll see in this post is a good mix of strangers and friends but that being said, I don’t feel like I sold myself short on my intention…getting comfortable with street portraiture. Coming out of this I truly feel like my photography has changed for the better. It’s not just about technical ability for me, but also about interaction and environment and I feel that this first portrait endeavor has taken me a step closer to some larger artistic goals.

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