How My Approach to Street Photography Has Changed After More Than a Decade of Photographing New York

All images by text by James Maher. 

The time-honored approach to improving one’s photography has always been time spent out there taking pictures. Education, gallery shows, and reading photography books can do wonders for a person’s development, but there is nothing that comes close to the importance of just going out there constantly for a long period of time.

After photographing diligently for 14 years, I have noticed some profound changes in how I see the city and how I photograph it. Not only have my technical skills improved, but I have learned a lot more about what I like to shoot and how I want to portray the city. Here are some of the changes that have occurred.

More than just the pretty

When I purchased my first camera and entered my first photography course, I would go out on the streets and photograph people for the fun of it. I didn’t know it was called street photography. I also photographed the architecture and cityscapes, but the people seemed to be even more interesting than the buildings. I have many photographs from that time that I love, but when I think back about what I was looking for, so much of what jumped out at me was the traditionally beautiful. Beautiful or distinct people and colorful, flashy, fashionable outfits made up a huge portion of what I photographed. Those are the people that stand out on first glance, and some of those photographs were very interesting, but it was all very superficial. There was so much that I was ignoring, in favor of what stood out the most.

The beauty of a photograph will always be important, and that can sometimes carry the entire photograph, but after awhile I started to look for more. I began to look beneath the surface to try and take more interesting photographs. It became less about what people were wearing or what they looked like, and more about what they seemed to be feeling. I began to look for subtle hints and details that alluded to something deeper going on.

Faster and Slower

At first, the camera slowed me down. Figuring out how to zone focus and how to capture sharp photographs was difficult. The constantly changing light, the quick moments, and the focusing is a lot to handle at first. Street photography is like a sport, and even to this day when I take a significant amount of time off from shooting (usually in the dreadful month of February), it can take a little time to get the coordination back.

Hand-eye coordination with the camera is so important, and that can only improve through constant repetition. When done well, it feels almost like the camera isn’t there. One of the most important tips that Garry Winogrand received early on in his education was to trust hit gut and be spontaneous. Everything moves so fast out there, and it is important to develop your instincts. When you feel the potential of a photograph in your gut, go for it. It’s amazing how often that first instinctive photograph will be the best of a scene or moment. It’s important to make sure to react when you feel it in your gut.

However, at the same time, I’ve slowed down how I shoot in another way. Often it feels like the camera isn’t even there and it’s just my eyes and the world. I look around much more and try to notice as much as possible – people, expressions, details, light, and moments about to happen. I’m much more deliberate about doing that, and if I don’t see or feel something, I don’t take the shot. I take a lot fewer photographs than I used to, but if I feel the chance of a picture about to happen, then I go all out for it.

The imperfect

Composition, technical abilities, sharpness, and the ability to read light are so important. At first, that can feel overwhelming: always screwing up one element or another. But once you get past that step and become proficient, many of these mistakes actually become welcome. No matter how good you are with the camera, you can never escape mistakes in some form or another. Sometimes those mistakes will ruin the scene, but often they’ll make it better. Street photography is about real moments, and imperfections make an image feel more real. I’ve become so much less worried that everything is perfect, instead spending more energy worrying about whether or not I was able to capture the right moment.

The story of a neighborhood

The more I photographed the city, the more I became curious about the neighborhoods, the history, the people, and the businesses. I focused much of my time in a few neighborhoods, particularly the East Village, Lower East Side, and SoHo. I began to do interview projects to learn more about the people and neighborhoods, and I also grew a love for reading about New York and its history, eventually becoming a certified guide. I began to spend more time with books from old New York photographers as well.

While this helped me understand what I was photographing in a better way, it had a much more profound effect, helping to place what I was photographing into a historical perspective. I thought about how photographs taken now would age and be perceived and tried to not take as much for granted.

New York, which is a city where historically people of all backgrounds have interacted together on the streets, has recently become much more disconnected. People now walk down the street staring into cellphones, ears covered with huge headphones, hands occupied with a phone and gulping a huge coffee. Everyone seems much lonelier than they did in the past. We’ll talk about that part more, but studying the past helped me understand what was interesting about current times.

Seeing changes

The only constant to New York is how fast it changes. My favorite walking route goes through SoHo, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and the East Village, and it is unbelievable how much is different in just seven years. Some of my favorite locations for photographs have been completely stripped of their character, while new ones have popped out of nowhere. I now try to take pictures of things that I have a feeling will disappear soon. It’s a way of preserving the history of New York.

Focusing in

I’ve started to focus more on what interests me. So often a style is thought of as a specific look to a person’s photographs (and sometimes it is), but I prefer to think of it as more about the content of a person’s photos. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time while editing, grouping my images together into different themes and ideas, constantly changing them around in slight and significant ways. Having these themes and ideas in mind, I have been able to notice much more when walking around the city.

An old favorite.

Forgetting my preconceived notions

At the same time, while I have focused more on what I want to photograph, it became obvious that I had to try to not close myself off too much. It’s one thing to be aware of ideas and themes that you would like to capture when the moment hits, and it’s another to entirely search for them. I have tried very hard to keep my mind open for whatever the street gods give me. You never end up getting what you want when you try too hard to get it, but when you let things happen, that’s when the magic occurs.

Putting it all together

One of the projects that developed over the last seven years is called Luxury for Lease: a project about the increasing disconnection occurring around New York fueled by technology, consumerism, luxury, anxiety, gentrification, loss of history, and conformity. I still love New York and capture beautiful and inspiring images of the people and architecture here, but at the same time, I’ve focused a lot on the tough issues in the city that seem to be unfortunately increasing. Here are a few photographs from that project.

Having fun

As time goes on, it becomes even more important to not burn out. There are tough times where you’re busy, stressed, your mind is pre-occupied, the weather sucks, or where you’re just not getting much, and it can be easy to get fed up and give up. While I struggle with these sometimes, the key for me to fight through this was to focus on enjoying the walk itself and to try not to care if I come back with good shots or not. If you go out enough, the odds will always be in your favor. If you enjoy the process, if you enjoy the walk, that is the true key to becoming a good street photographer.

To see more of James’ work, please visit his website, Instagram and Facebook page.

ALSO: Don’t forget that we’re teaching a number of street photography related workshops soon.