When blizzard season arrives, most people stay warm and indoors as much as possible. Adam Miller is not most people.
“With respect to the use of flash in the street, I think it comes down to, well, chutzpah!” explains photographer Adam Miller to us about his NYC Snow Blizzards project. Miller loves New York City. He never takes it for granted and appreciates all that it gives. That’s why no matter the season, you will find him out with his camera making his awesome photographs. Known for his fine art prints and breathtaking cityscapes, Miller is also an excellent street photographer. We were particularly drawn to his project NYC Snow Blizzards in which he has created a series of images that document New Yorkers during the coldest of climates.
We spoke to him to better understand what life is like shooting street during the challenging blizzard season…
Phoblographer: There’s a famous quote that for any movie shot in NYC, there is always at least one extra character, and that character is New York itself. So when you go about shooting in the snow, how do you feel New York and the people within it tend to change?
Adam: I find that the acute conditions of our snow blizzards really bring out the toughness and, at some level, survival skills of New Yorkers. So much of our lives depend on walking the streets, more so than most other large cosmopolitan cities. Therefore, most of us have no choice but to go out for a prolonged period and brave the extreme weather elements. The deep and slippery snow, harsh winds and brutal cold can be mercilessly punishing. Yet, New Yorkers find their own way to persevere. Many get jovial and laugh their way slipping and sliding throughout the streets. Others become very frustrated, intense and focused, as if a fighting spirit is ignited within them. Whatever the case may be, the blizzards tend to consume our attention. This preoccupation tends to allow me to get in closer. It allows me to capture that interesting expression, gesture, fashion style element or other interesting subjects. They are all on full display despite the arresting weather conditions.
Phoblographer: Do you find this at all to be some sort of thrilling physical challenge for you?
Adam: It is thrilling for sure. Sometimes, I feel like I get more enjoyment out of the process of taking the photos than the actual results. I usually get very excited the night before a big blizzard, like I remember being as a youngster before a little league soccer match. I prepare my gear and layers of clothing and try to visualize where I will go within the City. And what my workflow will be to keep my gear as dry as possible. When I get out on the street and the blizzard gets intense, I am very much in a zone and having a blast. There is no other place that I would rather be than with my camera among “my people” entrenched in a war with mother nature.
I know that I am capturing some truly unique moments on a medium that is, unfortunately, rarely used today in these situations. The thrill and excitement overcome me so much that, after hours of slogging through the streets, I will not even notice that I can no longer feel my toes or fingers. It usually will not be until I get home that I will finally realize that, despite the layers of clothing and gortex, I am completely soaked from head to toe and in dire need of a warm bath!
“My general technique is to seek out people who look interesting to me, getting as close as I can while still maintaining some context. I shoot them in a total candid fashion with a pulsating flash.”
Phoblographer: Some street photographers like to slow down when it gets to winter. Not you though – where did the enthusiasm for this project come from?
Adam: The winter is actually my favourite season to shoot in the street, and also my most active. Even putting aside the blizzards, I love how the low barreling sunshine and super long shadows of the short days interact within the narrow corridors of Manhattan. There are so many ways that the shadows and natural contrast can be used to create unique photographs. It is a season for thinking outside of the box and letting your juices flow. In this vein, about six years ago, I did some light shooting in a couple of the snow blizzards that we had in NYC. I was somewhat timid as I didn’t know how my camera and lens would react. I took plenty of cover from the snow and – like a real poseur – worried more about my Leica investments than my subjects. This all proved shamefully over-conservative. My precious Leica gear withstood the moisture and cold just fine. I instantly fell in love with the results – and more importantly, the potential that I observed could be unlocked. Because of this, I garnered more confidence in my gear’s ability to withstand the elements. Each year since the dabbling that I did in that first winter, I have made a point of getting out in as many of our snow blizzards as possible. I keep my camera tucked away when I can. However, it pretty much gets soaked and frozen every time, although with some post-shooting R&R it all recovers just fine (knock on wood!). My enthusiasm for the project compounds with each blizzard.
“It is thrilling for sure. Sometimes, I feel like I get more enjoyment out of the process of taking the photos than the actual results.”
Phoblographer: What photographic techniques are you using to make your images?
Adam: My general technique is to seek out people who look interesting to me, getting as close as I can while still maintaining some context. I shoot them in a total candid fashion with a pulsating flash. I seek out interesting expressions, the behaviour of struggling through the extreme wind and annoying snow pellets, a particular fashion statement (or lack thereof!) or anything else that embodies New York City. I use only film for this shooting. I really love how film adds that three-dimensional look to the images. Lots of details are captured in the background beyond the reach of the flash, yet they are rendered differently – namely less saturated and even painterly – than the main point(s) of focus. I find the juxtaposition of the main subject(s) and background very special and something that really sets my images apart. The sense of motion that you will have noticed in many of my images is the result of the low shutter speed. I’m pretty much forced to use this technique due to my on-camera flash, which does not have a high shutter speed sync feature. Thus, the fastest shutter that I can use is 1/45. This is quite slow, for sure. However, I have turned this from a weakness into a strength. With the use of the flash and a good zone of focus (which the slow shutter allows me to deepen through the ability to stop down more), my main subjects come out acceptably sharp – even when they’re moving. Yet, I can achieve interesting motion blur through the use of panning or other deliberate gestures. This flexibility really enhances the level of creativity and thus the authenticity of my images.
Phoblographer: Why did you feel those techniques were right for this street photography project?
Adam: I think the proof is, as they say, “in the pudding.” The up close and personal candid documentary style really showcases what I love most about New Yorkers. The use of film provides glorious colours and tonal range in a very unique rendition. The use of flash takes a scene that otherwise can become puzzled by the busy snow streaks and puts a focus-drawing pulse of light on the main subject. All of these elements, plus a healthy dose of chutzpah (see below for more on that), make the results very special and enduring, methinks!
“There is no other place that I would rather be than with my camera among “my people” entrenched in a war with mother nature.”
Phoblographer: You’re a film photographer. On top of that, you use flash. That’s not an easy approach to street photography. How long did it take you to feel assured in this style?
Adam: On your first point, I think shooting film on the street is actually much easier – and creative – than shooting digital. Once you take the time to learn how to read light and not rely on an in-camera meter, there are minimal settings to keep track of and you have much more control over those settings that you do keep track of. You are certainly correct, though, that the workflow of bringing the exposed film in the camera to life as scanned images on a computer screen is not easy and is, in fact, quite laborious. I wish it were easier and less time-consuming. However, I love the results so much that, for me, it is worth the effort. It is not for everyone, which I completely understand!
With respect to the use of flash in the street, I think it comes down to, well, chutzpah! For one reason or another, I have been endowed with a healthy dose of it. It could be my New York upbringing or my career as an offensive lineman that span throughout my college days. Civil confrontation is just second nature for me. I have absolutely no problem getting less than a meter from strangers and shooting them in a candid fashion, with or without a flash. Anyone who has gone shooting with me will tell you that “stealth” is not in my vocabulary. Of course, there are those rare situations in which my approach may draw consternation, or even ire, from people. But that’s where my charm comes in handy. I very rarely fail to be able to charm myself out of a sticky situation. I don’t have to use it often but am pretty good at it when I do!
Phoblographer: The project incorporates colour and black & white. Were you looking for different things in your subjects when using each type of film?
Adam: Not really. I love the results that I get with all types of film. I tend, however, to gravitate heavily towards colour film, as I am drawn to colours much more than form in my photography. To be honest, I do try to mix it up every once in a while, usually with Kodak Tri-X. It adds an additional dimension to the series.
Phoblographer: When you think about NYC, the winter and the people, what do they all mean to you and how do they inspire your style of street photography?
Adam: Let’s face it, it is hard not to be inspired by New York City. The rich history, dense metropolis and melting pot of cultures and attitudes are all so fun to be a part of. And then there are the people. So many people!! The streets are always flooded with them. It is amazing how many people one can walk amongst during the course of a day. It is even more amazing at how one can walk the same course to and from work, day in and day out, and pass by tens of thousands of people and very rarely encounter the same people multiple times. It’s like they grow on trees or get spit out of some assembly line! From a photography perspective, it is a total candy store. There are so many interesting people out there who express themselves in a variety of different ways. Whatever the case may be, these expressions, whether as a matter of fashion, style or beauty, are reflective of our current culture. I have a deep interest in capturing these expressions of culture. They define our present time. Like a good wine, I believe the photographs will age well and increase in public interest as years and decades pass. The ever-evolving and dynamic society in New York City constantly help to renew this inspiration.
Phoblographer: Do you get out and shoot as much as possible or do you adopt a “less is more” approach?
Adam: With my 35mm photography, I very much adopt a “more is more” type of approach. I find that the best way to get loose, break the ice and grab those interesting candid moments is to shoot, shoot and then shoot some more. Being selective and overthinking my shot choices only lead to sterility in my photography. Particularly when I am using a flash, I will force myself to start shooting early on. I just follow my instincts and shoot whatever I find interesting. I don’t try to emulate anyone’s style. That’s no fun. I believe that it is much more fun to develop one’s own style and signature. It is sink or swim, for sure. The challenge is to make images that, at least once in a while, stay afloat!
Phoblographer: Our favourite image is Octopus Man with Shades on – What’s yours?
Adam: Now you have really stumped me! I couldn’t possibly pick a single photograph as a favourite above all others. Not because I take them all so seriously. I definitely don’t. And some are certainly stronger than others in terms of number and degree of elements of interest. It is just that many of them have different elements that I find equally interesting. Having said all of this, the photos that I have chosen to be featured in this interview are among my most favourite.
Phoblographer: We love the number of images in the final selection (146). Usually, photographers only share between 10-20 stills. What was the thought process behind your decision to showcase such a high quantity?
Adam: 10 to 20? Oy! That might be possible to curate in the context of a one-off public display of prints. However, the portfolio of photos that are displayed on my website represent images that I have taken over a six-year period. If you figure that each season I make it out to an average of two blizzards and shoot an average of six rolls (of 36 exposures each) per blizzard, that’s 72 rolls and over 2500 exposures over the six-year period! A 150-image portfolio translates into a keeper rate of only 6%. Seems pretty judicious to me! The truth is that I am quite hard on myself and beat up my own images, probably to excess. I constantly am both pruning images that are currently in my portfolio and adding new images from the archives that have re-kindled my interest.
Phoblographer: Gear wise – what did you use when shooting the project?
Adam: I use Leica film rangefinders because, in addition to the exceptional build quality, I have total control over what I am focusing on and what my shutter speed is. I use the M7 for the snow because I find that the internal electronics pair very well with the flash (although I don’t use the internal meter). At one point, I used my older non-electric Leica film Ms. However, I experienced too many misfires of the flash and consequently stopped using them. As for the lens, I typically use an old pre-aspherical Leica 28mm Elmarit as it is relatively low contrast, great for film and not too expensive to replace if it freezes or drowns to death! I use the Leica SF-24D flash, which is the entry-level Leica flash. I have no idea how to work the settings. As long as it fires, I’m happy!
Phoblographer: What film roll do you use and why?
Adam: I use predominantly Kodak Portra 400 colour film for my snow blizzard photographs. It is my favourite colour film for street photography because it has a sublime warm yet true-to-colour palette and wonderful latitude that makes it nearly impossible to blow highlights (namely from the flash). I also will get the itch to shoot black and white from time to time and will usually use Kodak Tri-X film. Tri-X is also known for its wide latitude, as well as deep blacks.
The films have a native ISO of 400. I typically will “push” the film one extra stop, which means that I will shoot it as if it were an 800 ISO film and then ask my lab to develop it as if it were an 800 ISO film (except for the Tri-X, which I typically develop at 1250). 800 iso is very slow by digital camera standards. However, by film standards, it is quite fast and allows me to stop down enough to work within a reasonably deep zone of focus. I am pretty familiar with the distance scale on my 28mm lens and am pretty good at knowing how much to slide the focus ring without looking to shift the zone of focus. It has become second nature, which is very handy as I am able to refocus on the fly and spend most of the available split seconds composing and snapping.
Phoblographer: Finally, what does the future hold for you and your work in street photography?
Adam: Blizzard shooting-wise, I hope to keep my pace for another 10-20 years and add 10 or so keepers per year to my NYC snow blizzard portfolio. I feel that the body of work that I have amassed so far is ripe for a book. I am actually in the process of scoping out suitable publishers.
As for street photography in general, I will continue my love affair with New York City and its people and shoot them in my up-close-and-personal style as often as I can. As of late, I have been rather fixated on tattooing a silhouette of me and my fedora hat on the chests and backs of people, thanks to the low barrelling light of the winter sun.