Street photography is profoundly weird. It’s a type of photography without a specific definition. It can be the antithesis of perfection. It can be unvarnished and raw. To become adept at street photography takes years of practice, and even then mistakes and missed shots continually overshadow success. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like fishing; spending all day on a boat or bank, feeling intuitively that you’re casting a lure in the right spot, but never certain you’ll get a bite. If you wait long enough, eventually you’ll get a fish; and if you keep fishing, you’re bound to end up with a lunker that others will continually measure against.
Jeff Mermelstein, New Jersey suburban kid turned witty big city photographer is arguably the most talented fisherman, err street photographer, alive today. Some might even argue that he’s the best there ever was. While that’s subjective, one can’t argue with the fact that he’s been casting his lure into the pond of life’s banality long enough to come up with some of the most iconic street shots of the last thirty-odd years.
He’s worked on assignment for some of the nation’s largest publications including The New York Times, LIFE, and The New Yorker, and has earned countless fellowships and awards. The majority of his images not only represent an idiosyncratic sense of humor, but they provide the viewer with an overwhelmingly compassionate and insightful glimpse into life on the streets of New York City.
Given his vast body of work, choosing five favorite images was next to impossible, but here are a few that resonate with me.
Reflection in Sunglasses
Mermelstein often speaks about the element of surprise in his work. When shooting on the street, one doesn’t always see everything that’s captured when the shutter’s released. It’s not until the image is viewed later, and up close, that hidden surprises may reveal themselves.
With street images (more so than any other type of photography) it’s the viewer’s job to interpret what they see, and if so inclined, manufacture a meaning for it. But that meaning may not be what the photographer saw or even intended when making the photograph.
It isn’t entirely clear where the meaning lies in this photograph. At first glance, I’m immediately drawn to the sharp reflection of the buildings in the woman’s sunglasses, but then my eyes begin to make out the woman’s out-of-focus face and body. It’s so striking that I almost don’t see the busy street and people behind her at all, and it makes me wonder what Mermelstein was thinking when he took this.
Had he intended to photograph something behind her when she turned around? Had she been looking his way and he just fumbled his settings? I imagine that in this case, the precision of that sharp reflection can be chalked up to sheer luck. I’m sure Mermelstein was as surprised to see this shot when he viewed it through his loupe as his subject was when she spun ‘round to look straight down the barrel of his Summilux.
This image could have been taken anywhere, and sadly it speaks volumes to the eventuality of urban decay. Quite simple in its composition, every element in the image has stood the test of time, yet each part continues to live on in a somewhat miraculous symbiosis.
A worse for wear pigeon taking center stage, it’s framed by a rusted out automobile, still chugging along thanks to tireless hours at the hands of its owner. A bloodied sidewalk, cracked, colored, and worn, ready to be abused yet again by the pounding feet of thousands of pedestrians. A cigarette butt, snuffed out inside its plastic holder, discarded trash for an eternity.
And then, of course, the pigeon. Regarded by some as “rats with wings,” this symbol of disgust for many stands and stares straight at the viewer as if to say, “yep, still here.” It’s a brilliant yet sad portrayal of the impact that humankind’s thirsty consumption has played on an outwardly oblivious and innocent animal that, ironically, has become for many so synonymous with loathing and decay.
Cop Outside Sex Shop
If there is a single image about which one could say Mermelstein’s mind was (amusedly) in the gutter, it would be this one. A beat cop stands in front of a sex shop, his billy club draped across his shoulders, with the stub handle of the truncheon just in front of his agape mouth.
The police officer, a symbol of justice and good behavior stands juxtaposed in front of a symbol of unsuitable behavior, yet it appears that he himself is now fully enthralled in it. Classic irony, timed to perfection.
One of my favorite images on so many levels, it takes a bit of careful consideration to fully understand the brilliance of this shot. At first glance, it appears that a man is casually lying on the sidewalk, feet crossed, while being partially occluded by a bus stop advertisement. Upon further inspection, however, the out of focus ears of the man in the bunny suit create enough contrast to provide a rather in-focus reflection of the world behind the viewer; revealing a police barricade that reads, “Police Line. Do Not Cross”.
The viewer is now left with a sense of confusion as to why this man is lying on the ground, and why he’s dressed in what appears to be dress slacks and shoes. Comically, the image is made even more dark by the clipped text just above the man. It reads, “Mr.” but the end is obstructed, in parallel with the upper half of the man’s body. All the while, the man in the bunny suit looks on, seemingly amused.
From a story that ran in The New York Times, this shot’s power resonates with me on so many levels, as I’m sure it does with many who either watched or experienced the events of September 11, 2001 first hand.
The statue of a business man, covered in ash and debris from the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, sits as intended on a bench, briefcase open, staring into it blankly. Camouflaged by the fallout, he sits dumbfounded in an ocean of rubble, unaware of his involvement. Yet at first glance, there’s a moment of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to whether this person is real or not. That doubt amplifies itself through the wave of emotions warranted by the horrific event that had just taken place and is intensified by the concerned glances of the two firefighters in the background.
It may be hard to imagine; a business professional, placing the importance on their work above all else, including their own family, health, and safety. Or is it? Do we know people like this? Is this us? Whether you’re able to identify with it or not, it is a powerful metaphor for a bitter and concerning characteristic of American society.
Even if street photography isn’t your bag, Mermelstein’s vast body of work undoubtedly has something for everyone. Even today, in the world of instant social gratification, Mermelstein has something significant to offer. He seems to be inclined to let his beloved Leica MP sit in exchange for the iPhone as a weapon. The work he currently curates on Instagram may be overly anti-aliased, but his knack for the unusual is still very much present. I encourage you to take a look.