A few months ago we asked our readers to submit a street photo and the story behind it. Here are a few of our favorite submissions:
The Brief Encounter by Carey Winfrey
The most commercially-successful photograph I ever took—actually the only commercially-successful photograph I ever took— had nothing to do with any journalistic endeavors. I shot it through the window of my CBS Magazines office overlooking Times Square where, as director of video development, I was producing cable television pilots for CBS’s stable of special interest magazines (Popular Photography, Audio, Cuisine, American Photography, Road and Track, Stereo Review, Car and Driver, Flying, Boating, etc.).
Through that window one day in late 1982, I spied two sign painters starting work on a seven-story billboard on the east side of Broadway, of which I had an unobstructed view. Starting at the top of the billboard and working their way down, they hadn’t gotten very far, but I immediately recognized they were replicating a photograph that fashion designer Calvin Klein was using to advertise his new line of men’s underwear. The photograph, taken by Bruce Weber, was of Olympian pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus, sunbathing in a pair of Calvin Klein briefs.
Since the full page ad had appeared in many magazines, I knew it well, and I realized that at some point in the coming days the sign painters would reach a critical juncture. So I brought my 35 mm camera into the office, set it up on a tripod, focused on the billboard—and waited.
The day the painters closed in on the critical spot on Hintnaus’s briefs was overcast and gloomy, so I loaded my Olympus with high speed Ektachrome film. Just before they reached the decisive moment, the sun broke through the clouds, one of the painters stretched his brush to the precise spot over his head, the other leaned back against the platform railing to survey what the two had wrought, and I pushed the shutter. The resulting photograph was exactly what I had hoped for.
A few days later, I sought the opinion of it from my CBS colleague Sean Callahan, the founding editor of American Photographer. It just so happened, he said that Dan Resnic, a New Orleans publisher and distributor of fine art posters—including the best-selling poster of Richard Avedon photograph of German actress Nastassja Kinski posing nude with a Burmese python—was coming to New York the following week. Sean said he would introduce us.
Resnic came, saw and pronounced the picture “sensational;” within a week of our meeting he had written to propose we co-publish it. Flattered but wary—I lack even a malnourished entrepreneurial gene—I eventually agreed and, after taking a few deep breaths, sent Dan a check for my half of the printing costs.
In late March, 1983, Resnic sent me the first copies of “The Brief Encounter.” A month later he told me that it sold some 3,200 copies in the first 10 days after it went on sale, a record for Resnic’s Gallery Prints company, surpassing even Kinski and her python.
Then, to my astonishment, People magazine ran a picture of it in its May 23,, 1983 issue with a squib deeming it “one of the hottest selling art posters around.”
By June, we had paid off the printing costs, and, as the months passed, I grew increasingly impatient for the postman to arrive with my monthly dividend—by September in the thousands, an enormous windfall in 1983 dollars! November provided the best payday ever, just in time for Christmas. As they say in Resnic’s New Orleans, “Let the good times roll.”
But Christmas doesn’t last forever, and the New Year often brings reckonings as well as resolutions. After the good months, sales began to taper off, and in May, 1984, Resnic was contacted by photographer Weber’s attorney instructing him to “recover the posters and other copyright infringing material from all to whom you have distributed it.” and “to destroy immediately all stocks of infringing material.” He also wanted back payments for all posters already sold.
As a favor, Sean Callahan consulted his magazine’s attorney who said that since I had been granted a copyright for my photograph as an “original work…that incorporates a photograph widely used to advertise Calvin Klein brand underwear and includes two sign painters in the act of painting the billboard,” Weber had no case.
“It’s a bluff,” the attorney said.
Seeking confirmation, I contacted another attorney specializing in copyright law. He told me that should the case go to court we would undoubtedly win it. But, he added, the court costs could run as high as $40,000.
Instead, with my acquiescence, Resnic negotiated an agreement to pay Bruce Weber a royalty on all future sales, which had begun to decline, as had Gallery Prints’ overall revenues. Within a few months, Gallery Prints had filed for bankruptcy protection, and I had stopped waiting for the mailman. Though the poster remains available to this day—don’t ask me how—from various online retailers (at $100 per), I never made another dime from my brief encounter as a poster boy. I guess it was just too good to last.
Postscript: One day after lunch a year or so later, I was leaving Joe Allen’s restaurant, the theater and media hangout on West 46th street in Manhattan, when I ran into Carrie Donovan, the fashionable fashion editor of The New York Times. I had gotten to know Carrie when, as a Times reporter, I covered the 1978 kidnapping and rescue of her friend Calvin Klein’s 11-year old daughter Marci.
Carrie was with a man I thought looked familiar, though I couldn’t place him.
“Oh Carey,” she said smiling, “Do you know Bruce Weber?” I gulped. “Know him?” I finally managed to say. “He’s suing me!” Though not strictly true, it allowed me to make a swift, strategic exit.
Sanremo Colours by Pia Parolin
I was on a photo walk with a group around the two Italian well-known street photographers, Mario Mencacci and Massimiliano Faralli during the first Sanremo Street Photography Festival.
Sanremo is a city on the Italian Riviera, and its known for a music festival in February, its flower production in the countryside, and its beautiful city architecture and northern Mediterranean lifestyle.
We walked through the beautiful old town, not many people around beside us, extremely hot day, and those who know the city brought us up to one of the most beautiful spots, a tourist hotspot.
We all started to take some photos of the architecture. However, I realised at once that there was this particular combination of red and green tones and took a completely different position than most of the other participants of the photo walk.
My focus in Street Photography lies more on atmospheres and colours and contrast than on details of people or architecture or faces.
So what caught my attention was this green frame with a wall painting and the red colour of the houses. A sunray fell right onto the green part.
I quickly found my frame and waited for someone to give a nice silhouette. I had my composition ready and just waited. Several people came, and this one was the one I liked most.
The difficulty was the light background, I did not want the lights to blow out. And I still wanted to have the beautiful colours in front. I set my settings to a big underexposition of -2. It worked pretty well and I did almost nothing in post production, I spent less than a minute on it – just to increase the contrast and black tones a bit.
I used my little Ricoh GR3, with the settings: 1/125, f8, iso 200, correction -2.
I always take photos in three steps:
- I roam the streets to find something particular, something that catches my eye.
- Then I stop and search for the perfect frame, trying different angles and stepping back and forth and left and right until I get it.
- Then I wait, and then I repeat.
So, I took several frames in that moment, and I would go back on another day if I was not satisfied with the outcome.
I like this photo and its composition, although it can always be improved, I’m sure. So I might be going back to the same spot. It’s truly on my list because the light will be different, maybe the sun falls onto a different detail. I’m looking forward to it!
Is it Only a Dream? by Sj Barrymore
An orange tabby cat lay on a long slotted board window sill of a Scuba Dive Shop. As I approached with camera in hand, we made immediate contact. I didn’t know the cat’s name, so the cat behind the window glass became known in my imagination as Scuba Dive Cat. We met on several occasions, after the dive shop had closed for the evening, greeting each other from our sides of the window.
While walking the street I would pass by this shop and see Scuba Dive Cat napping. I wondered, does Scuba Dive Cat actually dive. Even if only in a dream, to Scuba Dive Cat … it’s probably real.
Bonding Through Contrast by Ed Jimenez
When I walk the streets I see patterns: little pieces of what it means to be human, plastered all over the walls, on the sidewalks, on the hanging signs, on people’s clothes, their body language, their behaviour; endless repetitions of what we all have in common, of what makes us all the same while each of us attempts to be the protagonist of our own movie, we strive to be our own unique character, surrounded by extras, aloof and adrift, buying into the idea that there’s no-one else alike. But are we really that different from each other?
Just as in photography the juxtaposition of bright and dark areas creates the contrast that helps us make sense of what’s in the frame, it is by virtue of our disparities that we get to see both sides and appreciate what we have in common, and even though this is not the only way of making this association, contrast is an elegant and somehow poetic way of bonding: sometimes it works as a bridge that reaches across two opposite edges and sometimes it works as a mirror that couples who we see with who we are.
Part of the beauty of contrast is that it doesn’t have to be obviously divergent, as it can also be found more subtly through the common elements, within the pattern itself, allowing one of those little pieces that makes us human to break the fourth wall and speak to us on the other side of the mirror, telling us that it is possible to cross the river of cultural differences and moral conjectures if only we could focus on what we see instead of assuming what is not there.
Sometimes all we need is something as simple as the color pink, resting upon the heads of two women, one younger and one older, one less moderate and one more discreet, one showing more than the other: the obvious appearances can only take us so far, but despite the ample room for speculations, we cannot truly confirm any by just looking at them.
The acknowledgement of our differences doesn’t have to be detrimental, insofar as we use it as a first step towards common ground. We could make an educated guess as to how these two women differ from one another and never know for sure if we’re right. One might be a tourist and the other one a local, one could be a mother and the other one have a twin sister, and they would probably question each other’s fashion choice or maybe they could even envy it and wish they did the same. The possibilities are endless. On the other hand, being aware of this provides us with the certainty we need in order to highlight what they do have in common: they both like to wear pink on their heads. Isn’t that enough? Why linger on the shadows?
Figuring out what makes us different can drag us down an endless list of reasons to judge each other, but it only takes noticing one little thing in common to extend a connection, just like the arm of one of the women cuts through the dividing line drawn by the pole, as a symbolic gesture that only you and I can possibly understand. They will probably never find out about any of these metaphors. They kept going their way after the light turned green and that was the end of it. The moment lasted just a few seconds and yet here we are, reading between the lines and trying to get some meaning out of it and maybe even trying to attribute meaning to it. Why not? Isn’t that what life is about, finding meaning?
They say most pictures are worth a thousand words, some say the good ones tell a thousand stories, but what about the special ones? I say those are the ones that ask a thousand questions. This is my philosophy, at least the one that works for me when it comes to photography. I have reverse engineered my approach, and instead of outlining how my images should look like, I let them talk to me, ask me the questions that must be answered and give myself permission to let go of those distractions that stand in the way between what’s there and what I see.
I followed these two women down the street trying to get the ideal shot but I had to settle for a less than ideal framing and a heavy crop because the ideal shot sometimes just doesn’t happen and you must work with what you’ve got. Sometimes these little accidents are what make a special photo. That’s the beauty of street photography: it’s unstaged and serendipitous. This might not be the only story of this photo but it’s the story of what I felt then and what I see now. So, what do you see?
Editor’s Note: We thoroughly enjoyed receiving your submissions for “The Story Behind the Photo” and would love to make this a recurring feature in SPM. Please keep sending us any street shots with an interesting backstory for our consideration. Happy shooting all!