Eric Davidove’s Street Portraits Show the Faces of San Francisco’s BDSM Culture (NSFW)

All images and text by Eric Davidove. Used with permission.

I am Eric Davidove, a photo hobbyist living in the San Francisco Bay area, who loves taking street photos. My camera is the Sony a6500 and my two lenses are the Zeiss 16-70mm and Zeiss 24mm. I have been shooting for about 2 years and picked up the hobby during a time when I suddenly found myself unemployed. Taking photos helped me deal with the stress and anxiety of unemployment, which lasted a year. For many years, a long time ago, I was a street mime who observed and interacted with people. Becoming a street photographer was a natural progression, and the mime experience helped me better anticipate and capture street moments, and interact with strangers.

Why did you get into photography?

One day I went to work and was told that it was my last day. After a few months of searching for work and participating in interviews, I began to feel down and anxious. At that time, I decided to get into photography so that I would not spend all of my waking hours worried about getting a job. I always enjoyed taking photos and finally had the time to school myself in more sophisticated techniques. Taking photos of people on the streets got me out of the house and made me happy. I taught myself how to use my camera, Lightroom and Photoshop, and a new printer.

What photographers are your biggest influences?

I really cannot pinpoint specific photographers by name who had a big influence on me. I joined some online photography groups, looked at books with photographs from well known street photographers, read articles in photography blogs and magazines, and researched photography exhibitions and galleries to see the sort of photographs that tend to get the most accolades and attention. I did watch a documentary about Vivian Maier and that was inspiring. I started my photography journey with an exclusive focus on street photography. However, I am expanding my interest and looking at photographers who excel at fine art and contemporary photography.

How long have you been shooting?

I started shooting photography a long time ago when taking photos of my family and vacation destinations. Usually with a point and shoot camera. I studied film and TV production as an undergrad in the early 1980s. I purchased a Sony mirrorless camera two years ago and that is when I started shooting without the “automatic” setting, and that is when I “really” started thinking of myself as a photographer.

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

At first, photography was important to me because it helped me get through a stressful and anxious time when I was unemployed (for a year). Now, I think it’s important to me because it opens my eyes and helps me see the world in a different way. Photography helps me pay more attention to details and to live in the moment.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?

For most of the last two years I feel that I was more of a documenter because I was exclusively shooting street scenes. During the past 3 months I am shooting more and more like a creator. I am either planning my shots or series in advance, or asking people to pose for me.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically?

I am typically thinking how most people might take the photograph and then avoiding that approach. My process mentally and mechanically is to experiment, take risks, get outside of my comfort zone, and capture an image that is unique, engaging, creative, and memorable. I think about the story or message that my photo will communicate, and how to do that in an effective and unexpected manner. I use the manual setting for most of my photos, with no flash and no accessories. I process my photos in Lightroom and/or Photoshop without too many fancy or artificial adjustments. I do not want people to see my photo and say “oh, that was Photoshopped!”

Want to walk us through your processing techniques?

I take a minimalist approach to processing. Open the shadows, turn down the highlights, increase the contrast, balance the whites and blacks, add some sharpening and noise reduction, allow for lens correction. Sometimes I will manually increase the bokeh.

Tell us about the project that you’re pitching, or your portfolio.

The Folsom Street Fair is a San Francisco-based single-day outdoor event held annually in September, that started in 1984. “Folsom” is the world’s largest leather event and showcase for Bondage and Discipline – Sadism and Masochism (BDSM) products and culture. As one of the few occasions when BDSM activities are encouraged and acted out in public, Folsom attracts a considerable number of extraordinary and unique people. The event was eye-opening, fun and shocking, and a perfect opportunity for me to practice a new approach to street portrait photography.

My photographic goal during the event was to ask people permission and then take their photo, rather than to capture candid street scenes of people engaged in BDSM activities. I adopted this approach in order to produce a photo series that uncovers the “real” people behind the masks and the leather outfits. In other words, portrait photos with familiar and friendly poses, making it possible for the viewer to imagine the subjects wearing standard attire. Because I asked permission before taking photos, I had the opportunity to take my time, shoot photos at different angles and directions, and get close to the subjects. I learned a lot from this approach and came away with new ideas for taking street portraits that might result in even better photographs. This approach to photography was also fun because no one was upset when I took their picture.

For many reasons, some people will never attend the Folsom Street Fair. However, such people might want to see my photo series because it focuses on the real people at the fair, rather than on the potentially off-putting BDSM activities and practices. The series provides a less threatening view of an often misunderstood and peculiar culture. For other people, the series is really cool because it portrays a unique view of the Fair. The photos will hopefully help the reader see the real people in those bizarre and crazy outfits, and perhaps find more similarities to themselves than differences. The readers might come away with the conclusion that the people in the photos are really not that different from themselves, or the people they see at the grocery store or at the office. They just happen to express themselves in different ways.

What made you want to get into your genre?

I decided to get into street photography because that genre did not require me to purchase anything but a camera. I also enjoy going to the city, walking around, and watching people. I like hunting for the right situation to photograph. Street photography was also a good way for me to learn how to use my camera. I had to think and act quickly, and make camera adjustments on the fly.

Tell us a bit about the gear that you use and how you feel it helps you achieve your creative vision.

I use the Sony a6500 and have two lenses. The camera has two features that help me with my creative vision. I can take 11 frames per second with a buffer that allows me to shoot at this speed for a long time. This feature allows me to capture a broad range of possibilities where I will hopefully find that one gem. The other feature is being able to turn off the shutter sound. This helps me achieve my creative vision of capturing candid scenes where the subject(s) do not notice me. My two lenses are a prime (35mm equivalent) and a telephoto (24-105mm equivalent). The prime lens helps me because it forces me to get closer to the subjects and the scenes, and to take more intimate photos. My telephoto lens is the one I use most often because it works for nearly every situation. This lens helps me achieve more bokeh, different focal lengths of the same subject(s) and scene(s), and gives me the flexibility to create on the fly without too much advance planning.

What motivates you to shoot?

I learn something new each time I use my camera, and I am motivated by my progress, development, improvement. Recently, my photos have been curated into exhibitions and some are winning awards. This is motivational as well.

Find out more about Eric Davidove and his photography on his website, Flickr, and Instagram.