Len Speier’s email signature includes an excerpt from a famous speech that Winston Churchill gave to students at Harrow School when he was prime minister. It reads “Never, never, never, never, never, never give up!”
This is the best description I can think of for Len Speier. At 87 years old he survived cancer and a major stroke yet continues to pursue his passion for street photography.
Len has been shooting on the streets of New York for most of his life. He’s personal friends with photographers like Bruce Gilden and William Klein. That’s the circle he runs with.
However. after suffering a stroke in 2003, Len has difficulty walking and maintaining his balance, which makes it very difficult to walk long distances.
Enter the M5 Bus. The M5 is legendary in Manhattan. It runs from the George Washington Bridge in the far north along the length of the island to the South Terminal on the southern end. Savvy travelers use the M5 bus as a way to orient themselves to the city for only a few dollars.
The M5 runs through every type of neighborhood you can find in New York. Len calls it in the egalitarian bus route because on it you can see wealthy people sitting with working-class folks, Wall Street executives, nannies with children, and senior citizens, all representing every ethnic group imaginable. Lucky for Len, the M5 runs right past his home.
Not to be beaten by his disability, Len uses it to his advantage to pursue yet another project. This time he is recording the lives of the people on the M5.
Len is able to walk out his front door jump on the M5 and ride as long as he likes. Due to his disability, he is able to sit in the longitudinal seats reserved for riders with handicaps.
From that vantage point he can photograph people as they get on and off the bus, riders across the aisle, the other longitudinal seats and everyone behind.
Len is ecstatic about the quality of the new small cameras. He began shooting on he bus with a Canon G10 until it was stolen from him. Then he used a Canon GX1 for a while, but most recently he picked up a Panasonic Lumix GX7. He says it’s perfect for the job.
Len’s favorite photograph from the project so far is what he calls “Dad Plus Kids”. Across the aisle from him was a man struggling with several small children. The scene caught Len’s eye so he took three or four shots.
Before the man left the bus, Len told him that he took an interesting photo of his family and asked if he would like him to email a copy. He was reluctant to share his email address so Len gave him his business card and said to write him if he wants to see it.
A week later Len received an email from him asking to see the photos. After he received the photograph he wrote to Len telling him that it was his favorite.
Shortly after that, Len entered the image in a photo contest at the Salmagundi Photo Club in New York. He invited the man to the showing but unfortunately, he didn’t respond and never showed up. Len took first place in the contest.
Len says that 20 years ago he would have had difficulty photographing people on the bus. But times have changed and since everyone carries a camera now and you see people shooting with their smartphones everywhere, New Yorkers seem to be almost oblivious to another person with a camera. He also feels that using a small camera makes him less obvious.
However, Len tries to respect other peoples personal space. Someone objects to is taking a photo he deletes it immediately. And he rarely takes photographs of the homeless and severely handicapped.
When Len’s not working on this project he continues to enter photo competitions around the country. In fact, his photo of the Volkswagen Bug which was featured as the cover of Issue 11 of this magazine just won first place in the Black and White competition of the New York Center of Photographic Art.
If you ever begin to feel sorry for yourself for whatever reason, remember Len and his motto, “Never, never, never, never, never, never Give Up!”