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frequently asked questions

How do you photograph strangers?

It is always a scary moment when I raise my camera to take a stranger's photograph. I seldom ask for permission. A friend once said, “To seek permission is to seek denial.” If I stopped to talk to the subject before I made the photo, the moment that I was drawn to would be gone. My policy is that if I take someone’s photo and they express their displeasure then I will not post the image. That has never happened. I also feel that since the intent of this project is to celebrate the subway commuter no one would be offended by the images. I’m trying to tell a story, our story. What it’s like to live in NYC in 2006 and commute on the subway. I also carry business cards with the website address to hand out. I've gotten some great feedback that way.

What kind of camera do you use?

A Canon 20D and a 5d. For the first month, I was using a point-and-shoot Canon. I upgraded for two reasons: First, the quality and performance of the point-and-shoot were lacking in the low light of the subway. Second, the smallness of the camera made me feel like I was sneaking photos. I actually feel better having a big camera around my neck that announces my intentions. It can give me a heads-up if someone is leery of my activities.

Lenses: 24, 35, 50 and an 85mm. Zoom lenses are too bulky to use in the close confines of a rush-hour train.

How do you cope with the lighting in the subway?

A friend of mine used to say, “It’s not the quantity of light but the quality.” That is so true in the subway. The lighting is very dramatic. Most of the lights are fluorescent and covered by frosted sleeves. It makes for a very beautiful diffused light. (Can you say that about anything else found in the subway?) I’m shooting almost exclusively at ISO 800. Sometimes 1600. I use the auto white balance, and let it roll. It’s usually pretty darn close. That said, when I process the images I just kind of let the colors fall where they fall since there is no “natural” light underground. My one concern is skin tones.

How do you process your images?

My favorite application in my entire digital workflow is my JPEG browser, Photo Mechanic. It’s just a killer application, with the best customer support.

All images are processed on a Mac and the monitor has been calibrated to a gamma of 2.2.

For the first six months of this project I shot exclusively in jpeg format.  Around July I sought help when I first started to print the images. I was having a difficult time with the jpeg files and was severely reprimanded for not shooting RAW.  So I took the lesson to heart and now every thing is shot in the RAW format.  Images are edited in PM.  I no longer do any processing work on color noise.  I used to use Noise Ninja but have since just embraced the inherent flaws of digital.  I do all my processing work with Adjustment Layers in Photoshop.  Again my workflow was pretty ugly until I got advice on how to make proper prints on the computer.  I do all this work as quickly as possible before I crash for the night.  I try to edit, process, post and shut down in 30 minutes or less. (That’s why I might not respond to all comments, though I read them all and take to heart all critiques.)

How is your site built?

Movable Type. And beyond that I’m pretty clueless; I have no HTML experience. of chromasia.com built the site and Graham of streetsie.com updated the design and maintains the site for me.

Do you ever get hasseled by the NYPD or MTA for taking photos?

Yes, the MTA was trying to outlaw photography in the subway, but after the NYPD made it clear that it was not necessary they gave it up. Now, I get stopped a couple of times a month instead of a week. Still though I carry a print out of the current Rules of Conduct, which dictates all laws subway riders must obey and spells out the photo laws clearly. So now when I get stopped, I can almost always talk my way through it. It’s just annoying. My issue with the now failed photography ban was that as a photographer, I’m the best eyes the MTA could hope for on the train. So why tell professional watchers (photographers) to stop looking? I used to plug into my music, bury my head in the newspaper, and tune everything out. Not now. I’ve even started to recognize more and more of my fellow commuters and train conductors. I’ve had passengers who have seen me before ask if I work for the MTA and could I help them. (No, I don’t know who to talk to when there is no heat on the 7 line. Sorry ma'am.)

Why did you start this project?

As a New Yorker who lived through 9/11, I’m very concerned about security. New Yorkers feel like targets. Many of us don't feel the current federal administration is doing enough to ensure our safety-quite the contrary. I think the more we as individuals communicate directly with each other the better the chance we have of understanding each other. I felt by photographing not just the subway, but specifically during the commuter hours, I could relay a picture of the working masses of NYC. Just like every other place on this planet we slog our way back and forth to work, trying to make our mark. Our difference is that we do it on a packed train, elbow to elbow and cheek to cheek.

Any other questions?

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Photography by © 2004-07