All images by Gene Altman. Used with permission.
“What drew me to street photography was the thrill of candid photography,” explains photographer Gene Altman about his candid street photography from the 1960s in NYC. “I was drawn to it because I soon found that giving people time to pose usually masked their truth.” Gene’s images are part of his book called Cityscapes: Intimate Strangers which brings many of these beautiful candid moments to the fore. Gene moved to NYC a long time ago in pursuit of becoming a full time photographer. There were bouts in between where he went without work and sometimes got depressed. So in order to cope, he went out and photographed the people in the streets.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Gene: My first single lens reflex camera, the Nikkormat FS in 1965, changed everything for me. Looking through the bright pentaprism viewfinder, a previously hidden world was revealed – a world of shape and form that spoke to me of the soul of things. After that even without the camera, everywhere I looked I saw things as if through the lens. Color could distract the eye but b&w film (Kodak tri-X) sharpened it. The excitement I felt propelled me to take a leave of absence from medical school, where I was preparing for psychiatry, and move to New York to pursue my passion for photography. I bought a Nikon F (later called the F-1) and 28, 35, 50, 105 and 200mm Nikkor lenses that I carried with me at all times. In those days zoom lenses were big and bulky and not as sharp as fixed focal lengths. I didn’t like or use them. There was no accurate TTL light metering at that time either. When possible I used a hand held Gossen Luna Pro. For most of the candid shots I simply guessed based on my experience.
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into street and documentary photography?
Gene: What drew me to street photography was the thrill of candid photography. I was drawn to it because I soon found that giving people time to pose usually masked their truth. I wanted to capture those fleeting unguarded moments when people are truly themselves – as are children, whom I loved to photograph. New York was the perfect setting for candid street photography. New Yorkers express themselves in public with little verbal or visual restraint. When I didn’t have studio jobs (which was often) I roamed the streets photographing the pageant of everyday city life. I loved the anonymity of candid shots, where the photographer’s interaction with his subject doesn’t change anything – as in quantum physics when the experimenter’s observation determines the outcome.
Phoblographer: When you came to NYC in 1967, it seems like you simply just went after moments in the streets vs a lot of the social actions that were happening. Most photographers tend to go for that type of stuff, so what made you want to shoot the subject matter that you did?
Gene: I was interested in the inner life of people, which is why I eventually became a psychiatrist. I did photograph several anti-Vietnam war marches because I felt it was important to document the outcry against the stupidity and unjustness of the war. But in general I never saw myself as a witness to history. Even with the demonstrations I chose those candid shots that spoke to me of what people were thinking and feeling more than those that were political statements. That’s why I wrote the texts to accompany the images in Cityscapes: Intimate Strangers. I wanted to set down what I thought the subject(s) in each photo might have been thinking and feeling at the moment the shutter froze them in time.
Lots of your work showcases people and social interactions between them; especially families! So when you went about photographing these people, what was your relationship typically like with them? Did you not interact with a lot of folks?
Gene: Most of my photography was candid. Occasionally when I felt it necessary I approached my subjects and asked to take their picture. I didn’t pose them but let them pose themselves and being New Yorker’s they would usually show me who they were on the spot. I believe that each person I photographed helped me to discover a hidden or forgotten fragment of myself.
“I did photograph several anti-Vietnam war marches because I felt it was important to document the outcry against the stupidity and unjustness of the war. But in general I never saw myself as a witness to history.”
Phoblographer: What neighborhoods did you like photographing the most? Why?
Gene: All the boroughs, with the possible exception of Staten Island, are grounded in rich and diverse photographic soil. But I liked photographing New Yorkers in Manhattan the best. There’s an eloquent vitality on the streets of Manhattan that I’ve never found anywhere else.
Phoblographer: What photographers had a big influence on who you became as a photographer? How do you feel they influenced your work?
Gene: The biggest influence on my work was my mother. Her paintings were representational but suggestive – designed to “stir the mind and allow the imagination to take hold,” as she put it. By the juxtaposition of different visual elements, I tried to achieve the same effect in a different way. I hoped my viewers would identify with my subjects’ inner thoughts and feeling, each in their own particular way. One time I was photographing construction workers in an excavation and a businessman with a briefcase stopped and said, “I can’t believe anybody would pay for that.” He was right, but I was richly rewarded in many other ways.
“I believe that each person I photographed helped me to discover a hidden or forgotten fragment of myself.”
Of course I was influenced by many great photographers. I had seen the work of Dorothea Lange, Cartier-Bresson and other greats and was blown away by how they captured the decisive moment that depicted the agony, joy, irony and honesty of life. In New York I haunted the MOMA photography archive study center (renamed The Erna and Victor Hasselblad Photography Study Center in the 80’s). I would take the elevator up to the 4th floor, I believe it was, and ask to see the photographs of any given photographer, and they would bring out the folio and I would lose myself for hours. I was particularly influenced by the depth of emotion in Dorthea Lange’s work; the ironic juxtapositions of Cartier-Bresson; and, Ansel Adams’ blocking in light and shadow as elements of composition.
Phoblographer: You seemingly liked always getting close to your subjects or at least framing them this way. What do you think that this did for your photos?
Gene: I liked to get close to my subjects whenever possible because I wanted to bring out the inner, as opposed to the outer person. The authentic self as opposed to the “representative” as Chris Rock humorously puts it. I wanted my viewers to see through the surface of the photograph and connect with the inner state of my subjects. Ordinarily we tend to rush through our lives outwardly focused without pausing to fully experience ourselves in the moments we pass through. In my photography I tried to alleviate that.
Phoblographer: When you stand back and look at your body of work, do you think that NYC specifically had anything to do with the work you produced? It seems to be less about the city and more about the interactions, no?
Gene: That’s correct. I’ve photographed cities and countrysides in a totally different way. There’s a book I discovered only recently, The New York I Know (1961), by Marya Mannes, photography by Herb Snitzer. The book is a mournful elegy for a New York that was demolishing its past as rapidly as old structures were being razed to make way for new ones. Snitzer’s arresting photographs of people and buildings capture the mood of loneliness and isolation that befits the theme of the book as regards the city at that time. But I wasn’t interested in photographing the city. I was fascinated by the broad range of people living in NYC and the vitality of its individuals. Who were these people living in this humming hive of humanity? What was it like to be a New Yorker in 1967? I was a tourist, if you will, in a landscape of souls.
Phoblographer: Tell us the story about one of your most memorable or scary experiences as a photographer?
Gene: Two incidents come to mind. In the first, I was photographing in Tafraout, in southern Morocco. I was taking long range telephoto shots of what probably was a cleric in a long white robe with a wooden staff standing alone on a low hill in front of a row of giant reddish brown boulders so precariously balanced they looked about to tumble down on him. It was a stunning scene, positively biblical. But when he spied me he began shaking his fist and cursing me in Arabic. I had a guilty feeling – many Muslims, especially devout ones there, believed a photograph could steal their soul. In Morocco I shot over 100 rolls of color film. The only roll that got lost by the processing lab in France was that one. There is another dimension to life that we rarely consciously encounter. This was one encounter.
The second incident occurred in New York. In the 60’s I walked all over Harlem and Spanish Harlem with my camera dangling from my neck and my bag with 4 other lenses over my shoulder. I never felt afraid or had reason to. But one time in Manhattan I was standing by the curb photographing an arched machine shop doorway with garbage cans – don’t ask me why! A man in an ill-fitting suit came walking down the sidewalk, saw my camera, and dropped to the sidewalk on his hands, then scrambled up and ran off. I guess I was lucky he didn’t pull out a gun and shoot me.
Phoblographer: Did you ever go through periods where you weren’t happy with your work? How did you overcome those slumps?
Gene: After 7 months in New York I wasn’t getting enough jobs. I wasn’t unhappy with my work, just with my bank account and my inability to promote myself. In February, the coldest month, I got depressed. I would lie in bed until noon, watching sitcom reruns like I Love Lucy and The Jackie Gleason Show. Laughter gradually cured me and I got back to work. I shot a feature on the Digger’s in Greenwich Village, a group of semi-reformed Hell’s Angels from California who were opening a Free Store. One of them and his “girl” asked me to photograph them together. I asked them to show me how they felt about each other. The resulting picture appeared in Photography Annual 1969.
Phoblographer: What are some of the biggest evolutions you feel you’ve made as a photographer over the years?
Gene: The biggest change was that I decided to return to medical school and pursue my interest in people by studying psychiatry, a career that lasted 42 years. I then became interested in taking portraits that revealed the person. Here I let myself be creative. I photographed a physician I greatly admired. A dedicated doctor, he was also a creative cook and photographer and had a great sense of humor. I took 3 separate shots and combined them in such a way as to reflect the rich diversity of his character. He loved it. On the other hand, a poseur I know asked me to take his portrait. I superimposed two shots in movement from the shoulders up at ½ and ¼ shutter speeds, resulting in a blurred inner image of him showing through somewhat less blurred outer image. He hated it so I guess I got it right!