Photoessay: Semiclassical NYC street photography, part two

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Today’s photoessay continues my exploration of NYC’s streets in black and white. Perhaps I’m being masochist in continuing this series after the dissenting opinions expressed in the comments in Part one (found here) – but once again, photography is subjective interpretation and each observer has their own views and preferences. I happen to like the precision and perfection others call ‘clinical soullessness’ – and I’d argue that the lack of imperfection is a style and skill of its own; consistently being able to find ‘perfect moments’ in a sea of uncontrolled chaos is extremely difficult indeed – which anybody would know if they’ve tried it. Enjoy. MT

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  1. Dirk De Paepe says:

    Great shots, Ming! Indeed, I totally agree, finding those unique moments and capturing them in perfectly composed and executed pictures is trully great photography (IMO). It’s also a matter unique to photography and therefore contributes greatly to the art (or the world) of photography (again IMO). Anyway, in this discipline you really shine!

    • Thank you. But all the same, I’m always open to experimentation and exploring the possibility that I might well have missed something – that’s the only way to improve…

  2. I think that these are superb. They do appear more polished than much current street photography–and in a good way. I think that the degree of finish reflects greater technical skill.

    In terms of composition and the choosing of the “decisive moment”: all of these are strong. Number 3 is probably my favorite, but I can make arguments for virtually any of them to be the best of the lot.

    Let me just say that I’d be very, very happy to have taken any of them!

  3. Well, I’m sick of all this messy street photography that seems so popular today but your stuff is a treat for the eyes!
    Please keep up with the ‘clinical soullessness’, at least you’re being heroic by bucking the modern belief that art doesn’t have to be about beauty – you even manage to find beauty in NYC.

  4. The fact that these pictures produce such a wide range of responses is a good thing. I spent most time looking at 1, 10, 11 and 12 – most likely because the balance in these is more pleasing to me. On a slight tangent, for those who have yet to discover the NY Times stories project, have a look at It is interesting to view the photographs first without and then with the sound and to note if and how this affects your emotional response.

  5. I love your interpretation of B&W, it’s very modern without being needless retro and derivative of traditional street shooting. I like that you can tell that it’s a modern digital camera, and the way that the light and contrast are handled… and despite the fact that the colour aspect is removed, you can tell that the images are very much of our age in the way that the image quality and potential is maximized. Too often,you see B&W street photography that tries to ape a bygone era, ie, trying to take a modern instrument and blunting the result to mimic film. I also like that your own photographic style shows throw in this set, the use of contrast and directionality of the light in forming the image.

    • Thank you!

    • silasslack says:

      Interestingly, Ming manages to get this effect from film too. Contrary to what a couple of people were saying on another thread that seems like a personal style to me.

      ‘Street photography’ has become the most misused term in photography. You don’t need to ape the look of anything old to make your work fit any arbitrary definition.

      Lots of people hide terrible photographs behind aggressive post-processing. None of that here. I especially like no. 3 (with the legs and polls).

      Interesting work, thanks!

  6. pwright92 says:

    I found the comments on the lack of soul in the previous post interesting. Having lived in NYC for a couple of years your images have a very different feel and fib than do mine. I can certainly see echos of the other portfolios you have posted from home and Japan. Perhaps the soul is in the nuance? If you are looking at the images as street photography as opposed to landscape, one could not differentiate between one street work and another. But if you look at your street work versus mine or Cartier-Bresson, the character of your work shines through. You have a keen eye for geometry and structure and seem to favour these above, as an example, whimsey. I would never mistake your work for that of Garry Winogrand even though you are shooting in the same city. In art, as in everything else, knowledge of the medium and its nuances lends to better appreciation of the art and its nuances. BTW, very lovely work.

    • Thanks Peter. I’m confident I achieve the intention I initially envision, but this does not mean that a) there isn’t room for improvement and b) I have to satisfy a greater audience – the reality is that street photography is always going to be personal work anyway, since there’s no commercial market for it – not to mention the fact that it’s impossible to sell any of the images because you’re never going to get model releases!

  7. Precision in itself can reveal emotion. As always, your photos emote a true dedication to your craft. That is not to say that the photos themselves do not show emotion. Just look at the eyes of the guy about to light a “joint”. As a lifetime New Yorker, I have trouble shooting these scenes as I see them all day, so it’s nice to have them brought to life again by someone such as yourself that can find the beauty in my everyday life. Great job Ming.

  8. Sergey Landesman says:

    Love both parts! Very good,though could not get completely your post processing technique yet.
    Hopeful to attend your class in person.



    • A good chunk is seeing live application, and an equally greater chunk is practice. Processing in my style might not necessarily fit your photographs or style of seeing, either. But there will be more workshops!

  9. Beautiful work, Ming.

  10. Nice pictures, although that almost goes without saying!

    I see you got “nailed”, as Jay Maisel puts it, by the guy lighting his cigarette. How do you deal with it when someone very clearly sees you taking their picture and they don’t seem entirely pleased by it?

    • Smile, wave and say hi, and if necessary, explain what I’m doing or do something unexpected like tell a joke. People are so used to expecting confrontation that they’re totally disarmed by friendliness. Perhaps it’s a sad commentary on the state of the world that we expect all strangers to be hostile…

  11. You know, this episode reminds me of a story I heard about French chef and food writer, Thing Mein:

    Thing Mein owns a restaurant but also cooks meals for complete strangers free of charge from time to time. Usually they are grateful and complimentary, and occasionally these guests offer critique, too. But once, a guest, a Julia N., finished eating one such free meal prepared by Thing Mein and sniffed, “Food without heart, some of them are ‘nice’, but no soul at all. Sorry.”

    When pressed for an explanation, Julia N, “Oh, I wasn’t being rude, just noticing that your food has no soul! This isn’t *real* French cuisine; you’re just a cook who has some familiarity with the cuisine, that’s all. And I wasn’t being rude!!”

    Fellow dinner guest Ven Swe chimed in, “Yeah, totally. You know what I really like, this other guy’s Italian cuisine. You can clearly tell *that* guy’s food has *soul*!”

    Third dinner guest Babe Davsky piped up, “You know what you should do: you should take up cooking Spanish food over a fire pit in the countryside using only your hands and the seasoning you find scattered by the wind! That would really teach you how make humble, soulful food!”

    Julia N replied, “Just cook like I do: I make sure to put lots of LOVE into my food, you should totally try it.”

    Thing Mein’s feeling were bruised, and he responded somewhat defensively. “What does that even mean?”

    “Look, I just know, okay? Sheesh, you can’t take any criticsm, can you, Thing Mein?”


    Suddenly a fourth voice shouted from another corner of the room; everyone turned around to see IkkyBubble sitting on the floor chewing on paint chips and screaming, “HOW DARE YOU DISAGREE SO VEHEMENTLY WITH THESE GUESTS WHO PAID YOU NOTHING TO EAT YOUR FOOD?? YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!” And then he ran from the room, screaming.

    • That’s hilarious! And perhaps the most sensible thing any of us has said so far.

      The chef would wtill like to know what it all means though: because a) he cares, and b) would like to learn something. But so far, the critiques have not even been actionable – it is impossible to even try making a better dish, because nobody can say what should be better – or even what they didn’t like!

      • A short note about the critiques not being actionable (because nobody can say what should be better): perhaps the dominant language used at this site to discuss a picture (composition, perspective, diagonals, contrast, etc.) isn’t the most suitable language to discuss (perceived) emotion. The two languages might be incommensurable, without simple translation options. Trying to express an idea or concept from one domain in the language of another domain usually results in both sender and receiver feeling unsatisfied.

      • Hi Ming. I am following your blog for a long time and I appreciate what you are sharing.
        I have read the prior post’s discussion and was amazed to see the discussion catching fire and becoming way close and (absurdly) personal against your lack of soul. The strange thing is, it hit a spot in my brain too. Because I am sometimes unmoved by your street stuff, while other images are absolutely amazing.
        So I’ve been scratching my brain, in search for a reconciliation of this dissonance. Something that perhaps is actionable. Though my suggestion is anyways: do your thing, there will be those it speaks to, forget the others. Then it hit me: isn’t it perhaps that your supercontrolled, zero shake, zero mis-focus style is (a) underappreciated on small screens, so not your fault (b) a symptom of your personality (you seem to agree somewhat), thus not your ‘fault’ either (c) the byproduct of your pro signature as a product/architecture work, so not your ‘fault’ either, simply YOU.
        Most times, we associate STREET to something much less controlled, often with marginal focus precision if any, extreme light ranges, everything you are NOT because… because! People and life are not perfect, not controlled, moving fast. Speedmasters are. I love your speedmaster photos (I love the Speedmaster too). I also love your Japanese zen garden images, they have their own precise soul. Skyscrapers, I don’t care much for but I like your detail images (my father is an architect after all). But people are different, and street is people. You are very good at portraits, which you control better, and when you shoot your wife it’s clear she touches your soul (her portraits are less controlled!). Street is different. That’s why people are telling you they see no soul. It’s cognitive dissonance between what is most times seen as street, and your übercrisp images.
        I suppose what’s actionable is: let yourself go when you do street. But there would be two Ming styles and we all strive to have a unique look. Do street under a pseudonym, and just shake that camera in dark alleys… We shall find that guy and say whoa!, he’s good. Who’d recognize him as that Ming Speedmaster lover!?
        Take care, and ignore the rants…
        Best, Giovanni

        • (a) underappreciated on small screens
          That would make sense. Some of my work has been enlarged to 2x3ft and up, and it’s a very different experience – the traditional ‘blurrier’ style starts to look ropey and undefined; with mine the details start to show. I’ve always gone about reportage (and by extension, street photography) in a way that attempts to bring the controlled tonality of Ansel Adams to the uncontrolled world – which is at odds with reality and technically very challenging. After all, you’re not going to stand out by doing the same thing as everybody else – and why would I?

          People and life are not perfect, not controlled, moving fast.
          It’s cognitive dissonance between what is most times seen as street, and your übercrisp images.

          Aha! Now I think I understand. That makes sense – but it isn’t my personality, or my aesthetic preference.

          I suppose what’s actionable is: let yourself go when you do street. But there would be two Ming styles and we all strive to have a unique look.
          I’m not sure I could; that would be rather bipolar. And not at all intuitive for me – I’d certainly try it, but it’s very much at odds with everything else I do, which I suppose widens the dissonance further.

          Thanks for that, Giovanni.

    • Henry — try again. You missed the point of my post, as did several other people. I added a few more comments the next day to further explain my first post. Regards Sven (aka “Ven Swe”).

  12. Hello Ming,

    I have followed your blog since almost day one. I do think you are a very talented titan in your own right. So I strongly disagree with Julian’s accusation of “soul-less” or “style-less”.

    On the other hand, behind the precisely executed frames, I somehow agree that there is a weaker side of your street photos: lack of strong emotions, which could be either reflecting strong emotion of the subject, or provoking strong emotion of the viewers, or imposing strong emotion of the authors. Emotions can include happiness, sadness, loneliness, love, sympathy, etc. Of course I understand that photos with strong emotions can fall into a totally different category from your style, so it is entirely up to you whether you want to pursue it or not in your street photos. But isn’t it true in general that it makes your photos more powerful if added with strong emotions?

    Please take no no offence here, you are doing great in what you are doing, you take great commercial product photos, and the precision in your street photos reflects your talent and ability. However, emotional impact can be so desirable and beneficial in any artistic format. So maybe you can take this as a challenge for yourself, take an assignment of taking 10 street photos to show one of the emotions, happiness, to start with for example. Again this is just a friendly suggestion, it is entirely up to you whether you want to do it or have time to do it or not. It may or may not make any commercial sense or be viable commercially. It also does not deny the fact that you are very talented and are doing well in your own style.


    • It’s a conscious choice: people in modern society are nameless, faceless machines who are commoditized and expected to be perfect. I choose not to show emotion because that’s not how I see the world; I suppose in that way it does reflect me.

      “But isn’t it true in general that it makes your photos more powerful if added with strong emotions?”
      Yes and no – it depends on what you’re aiming for. I think a cinematic-style image that is designed to evoke an emotion in the viewer is far stronger than one that merely is a photograph of one.

  13. I just Love all these images.
    On the very first shot with the woman standing in the doorway answering her mobile. I noted that the reflection in the glass over her left shoulder shows a couple kissing. That would have made a good shot also? Just an observation though.

  14. Love the third one. What book is she reading as I cannot read the cover because of the image size?

  15. Great street photography.
    I like all of your shots, but the series in black and white are my favourites, particularly those with reflections and portraits.
    There’s a small problem in the link to ‘Part one (found here)’. At the end is ‘%20’ standing what leads to ‘Page not found’.
    Greetings, Jacques

  16. Architecture can approach perfection, though probably not the precision of watches (and a few other mechanical things). People are often far less precise. There is some contrast in balancing those things, though as you say, preference is another issue. The precision in your images is something that (to me) is your signature style.

    I read through the comments of the first part, but I don’t think using an example of staged and posed images makes a good comparison to images of city life. Of course historically many city life images were staged and posed, such as those by Ruth Orkin. Slightly more modern we can look at Stefan May (Lance Lensfield) for a rougher view of city life. The comparison is really one of style.

    The camera points both ways. Your images speak of your enjoyment of precision and light. No need to worry about everyone getting it, or even liking the images. Images made for a purpose, such as in advertising, are often heavily planned and staged affairs; that look is extremely tough to pull off randomly while walking somewhere; people really need to try this more often to get a true appreciation of what it was like to be you, there, with a camera. Keep on doing what you do, because you do that very well.

  17. Excellent hiding your reflection in #1

  18. All excellent ! If any critic here, this must be the feeling of underexposure / 2D / overall too low global contrast in some of the images : 2,3, the sitting blonde.. They almost look like taken many years ago and gone flat on the paper, the punch is missing somehow ..

    • I think it might be your monitor. I can eyedropper them and find 255 and 0 levels in all images…

    • chipbutty says:

      I tend to agree with Ilko but exposure is such a subjective thing. Personally I’d have opened the shadows up a little in that particular photograph of the blonde lady. Though my eyes are drawn to the display of lightbulbs behind her and the slogan. It seems somehow fitting with the exposure! All very interesting pics. I like them.

  19. Tom Liles says:

    I liked every one, but the two of the smokers are my favorites. I quit just over a year and a half ago and am having serious, serious pangs just recently [up until now, and except for the first few weeks after quitting, it had never crossed my mind to smoke again—I just didn’t feel the want or need].

    So seeing them getting a fix, was vicarious and jealous in equal measure.

    Miss the cigarettes 😦

    • Tom Liles says:

      Sheesh. I’m sorry to have left such an idiotic comment at #1.

      The photos were a treat Ming—bet you there’s a lot of love for the book reader 🙂

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