Eight Million Stories: Street Photography in NYC

A Society member’s perspective on his side project while working on assignment in the Empire State.

M. David Mullen, ASC

A Society member’s perspective on his side project while working on assignment in the Empire State.
At top, a view of Manhattan in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy took out power on the Lower East Side.

Essay and photos by M. David Mullen, ASC 

“At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands before our camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect — a sense of inclusion.”  
— Robert Adams

Mullen's photo below became the cover of AC's June 2021 issue focusing on still photography.

Oddly enough, I was a cinematographer for nearly two decades before I became interested in taking photographs on a regular basis as a creative outlet. In 2011, while living in Los Angeles, I was hired to shoot a Manhattan-based TV series called Smash; up until then, I had managed to avoid work that required me to live away from home for more than a few months — the length of a typical independent-feature shoot. During my two years working in New York City, I discovered that it really is a photographer’s paradise — it has dramatic weather patterns that sweep through the sky, it has imposing architecture (both classic and modern), and at the street level, it has people, lots of people, from all walks of life. Also, everything is reachable by subway and then easily walkable from there. You don’t have to plan a photo expedition and load up the car; you just have to step out your door with a camera. In terms of photographic opportunities, it’s what some would call a “target-rich” environment.

Escalator passengers at the East End Gateway of Penn Station head toward the light in the spring of 2021.
Escalator passengers at the East End Gateway of Penn Station head toward the light in the spring of 2021.

Because I had an apartment with a rooftop community deck, I started out mainly taking pictures of the Manhattan skyline in all sorts of weather, including one showing the power outage on the Lower East Side in 2012, days after Hurricane Sandy.

As you’d expect, my initial photographs were often postcard views of famous landmarks. Even today, I do not avoid those kinds of shots; now, I just try to find some interesting activity in the foreground that speaks to daily life in the city. However, it took me a while to figure out how to shoot people moving about the city in any sort of interesting manner. 

In late 2016, I returned to New York to serve as DP on the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. During the months of shooting per season (we’re in the fourth season now), I found myself taking increasingly longer walks through the boroughs, simply hoping to become more familiar with the city at large, while honing my craft at taking still photographs. Some of these hikes were quite epic in length; one took me across the entire width of lower Brooklyn, another across Queens from Astoria to LaGuardia Airport. I actu-ally broke my ankle on one of those walks, just by taking one step back to line up a shot and planting my foot in a pothole. I then walked so much over the next two months that the sole of the rigid medical boot I had strapped on completely wore out. (Two years later, I’m not sure the ankle is completely healed.)

An infrared photo of a passenger on the Staten Island Ferry, taken in spring 2019.

I currently own four digital cameras: a full-frame Nikon Z6, an APS-C Sony a6400 (partly because I wanted a backup camera), a Sony a6500 converted to 720nm infrared, and a small Fujifilm X100F. The full-frame Nikon is great for night photography; it’s clean enough at high ISOs to allow me to shoot without a tripod at a decent shutter time. For day exteriors, I sometimes use the smaller Sony a6400 instead, especially for street photography where shallow focus is less of a benefit. Occasionally, when I want to be very low-profile, the tiny Fujifilm camera is great for street scenes in daylight, as long as I can live with the focal length of the fixed lens. I also love using my black-and-white infrared camera when there are interesting clouds in the sky, along with some foliage. Otherwise, amid an all-concrete city environment, it makes more sense to shoot normal color and convert to black-and-white later. 

Midtown Manhattan, winter 2019.
Midtown Manhattan, winter 2019.

With my increasing amount of photographic gear, I often head out from my apartment for a photo walk having limited myself to just a few items, in order to stay nimble — and to save my back. If I’m intending to shoot mostly daytime street photographs of people, I’ll take a zoom lens; if I’m doing night shots, I’ll maybe just take a fast prime, often my 50mm Nikon Nikkor f/1.8 lens. 

I’ve discovered, as with any undertaking, that you get better over time through repetition. There’s no magic trick that can quickly im-prove your photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” He was perhaps an optimist. You learn to really look at your environment carefully, at small details and large panoramas, or patterns of color and light, or anything ironic and unusual. I stop often and take the time to look down at my feet and up at the sky, and then look behind me as well, trying to not miss anything. I don’t have any sort of personal style that I try to adhere to; I take pictures reflexively of anything and anyone passing by that has some element of visual interest. One recent photo, for example, simply shows a pure blue sky meeting a bright yellow wall, but with the dark branches of a tree intersecting both planes of color.

Study in Yellow and Black, spring 2021.

I’ve never felt particularly unsafe, even when I’ve walked through some desolate areas in the outer reaches of the boroughs. I’ve only been accosted once; while exiting the subway station at Canal Street, I noticed that the sun coming down the stairs was throwing shadows of the stair climbers before or after they came into view. I started to snap away when a couple walking from behind me crossed in front of my lens. A passing man announced, “Guy just took your picture!” and the couple spun around and started shouting at me, then pushed me against the wall and tried to take my wallet. (They were so intoxicated that they couldn’t manage that.) The lesson learned that day was to be more aware of my surroundings, and to keep moving.

Another thing I’ve learned: Shutter speed is everything when it comes to photographing people moving on the streets; for daytime work, I usually set a shutter speed of 1/1000 or 1/500, along with a fairly deep stop, and then switch the camera to Auto ISO (with a compensation to slightly underexpose the image to preserve highlight details.) At night, I use a fast lens nearly wide-open and a high ISO setting so I can shoot around 1/100 if possible. With a full-frame camera, I can get away with very high ISOs and, if necessary, denoise the image later. But the short shutter time is the only way to quickly react to something happening right in front of the lens; too often in the past, I discovered that I wasn’t steady when I swung the camera over and snapped some action going by. Of course, I’m not saying anything a sports photographer doesn’t already know!

“I call this one Subway Ghosts,” Mullen says. “It was taken in 2019, shortly before I was accosted by a pair of passing pedestrians.”
“I call this one Subway Ghosts,” Mullen says. “It was taken in 2019, shortly before I was accosted by a pair of passing pedestrians.”

Patience is a virtue, too, when it comes to street photography; sometimes you find a great background, but you have to wait for someone to cross the frame to give the image some life. Luckily in New York City, you don’t have to wait long. I’ve also learned to snap the shutter immediately if some fast-moving subject blocks my view momentarily, because you never know if some fascinating composition will result. And if a car is partially obstructing my view, I try to use the reflective elements of the hood, roof, bumper, etc. in the foreground as part of the composition.

A Times Square subway platform, summer 2019.
A Times Square subway platform, summer 2019.

Clearly, photography is a creative outlet, but how does it tie into cinematography? To some degree, they are very different art forms. Photography is more about freezing a tiny moment in time and then having a lot of time later to examine all the elements in the frame, whereas in cinematography, we capture longer moments in real time, just to have them appear only briefly in the final cut — and they cannot be re-examined unless you watch the movie over again. For this reason, I believe that cinematic compositions often have to be simpler and more graphic to have any impact, due to the short duration a viewer is given to review them and absorb their meaning. Imagine being allowed to look at Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico for just three seconds. Of course, photography can serve as a sketchbook for visual ideas that can be referenced later by a cinematographer. And one can think of taking pictures regularly as a form of daily exercise for the visual thinker; as Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” Certainly, I think composition is a particular aspect of image-making that is best learned through continuous practice — perhaps even more so than lighting.

Where I think photography and cinematography converge is when the composition and light in a photograph suggest a narrative, or when they serve to support (or stand in contrast to) an emotional quality conveyed by the subject. Of course, the actual narrative in a street photograph is often a mystery — New Yorkers are always on the move, and one can only guess at where they are heading and why. But thinking about such things allows the viewer to consider our common humanity, how most of us are out there daily, heading to work or looking for work, seeking companionship or enjoying it — or, like the photographer, walking alone and observing everyone else.

Follow Mullen's continuing work via his Instagram account here. You'll find his personal site here

He most recently contributed to AC with this feature on his creative approach to shooting the cult feature The Love Witch.

An infrared still of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, spring 2018.
An infrared still of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, spring 2018.

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