Over the last seven years, Melissa O’Shaughnessy has photographed daily on the streets of New York. The best of her work is published in “Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs.”
As a female street photographer, it is interesting to see people through her eyes: she particularly focuses on capturing connections between family groups.
It is hard to get good photographs taken randomly on a crowded street, but O’Shaughnessy repeatedly achieves this through close observation, aided perhaps by her unobtrusive, non-threatening appearance as a five-feet tall 60-year-old woman (“I really do look like a tourist.”)
I interviewed her about her approach…
Andy Sillett (AS): Was there a particular thing you did to overcome your shyness, or alter your technique that elevated the results of your work, or was it more of an evolution?
Melissa O’Shaughnessy (MS): It was definitely an evolution. I think everyone starting out with street photography has to overcome their shyness when photographing strangers. At first you feel like you’re going to offend, or that someone will notice you and object to having their picture taken. But after a while you learn that that rarely happens, especially in crowded cities.
Once I had a handful of what I thought were successful photographs, I realized that I wanted the picture more than I feared the potential consequences of taking it.
The undertaking is also akin to getting in good physical shape: it takes time, dedication, and many miles walking the streets and observing the behavior of people and their environment to start making interesting work. And taking—and learning from—thousands of your own crappy photographs along the way.
AS: As a woman you say you are less threatening to strangers but might you not also be seen as more vulnerable? Do you get many bad reactions from subjects?
MS: Early on I thought of myself as more vulnerable, but as my confidence grew that feeling waned. Now I think I have a distinct advantage in being a woman: I’m fairly short and petite, dress unobtrusively, and occasionally put on the clueless expression of a lost tourist. It’s as near as I can come to being invisible.
I’ve had very few bad reactions over the years. I’ve learned that if someone asks why you’ve taken their photo, a smile and an honest compliment puts people at ease, and can turn a potentially negative encounter into pleasant conversation. If you like people (which I do), and are interested in them (which I am), it comes across in your body language. It’s subtle, but essential for me.
AS: What are the main techniques you have learned that have produced such brilliant results?
MS: I’ve alluded to some of them above, but there really is no secret sauce. More than anything, I think I’ve put in the time and the miles. I’ve learned to be very tuned into my surroundings, and on days when I’m able to clear my head and go out with no expectations, pictures happen. It’s really about observing your fellow humans, trusting your instincts and responding to those people and situations that spark your interest.
AS: What camera do you use?
MS: I use a number of cameras, most often the Sony A9 and Leica Q, occasionally the Leica M10 and Ricoh GR III.
AS: Do you shoot in burst mode?
MS: Never. I can’t imagine culling through so many photographs of a scene that unfolded in a second or two. The challenge, for me, is to hone my senses to respond to a specific moment. If there’s time for more than a one-off shot, I might take 3 or 4 shots as a scene unfolds, but then I move on.
AS: Do you crop?
MS: Sometimes, a bit. But as many have said, no amount of cropping is going to save a bad picture. I also try to resist the urge, which I’m prone to, to tidy up the edges too much. Often it’s the edges of a photograph that make it more interesting.
AS: Do you have go-to camera settings, or do you alter them frequently to deal with shadow and light?
MS: I usually set my shutter speed to 1/500th, higher if it’s sunny, and adjust everything else manually.
AS: Has your approach to street photography evolved through repetition?
MS: I’ve probably repeated myself too much, frankly. The challenge is to stretch yourself to make pictures you haven’t made before.
AS: Now you have nailed street photography, what next?
MS: The great thing about photography is that there’s no such thing as nailing it. It’s elusive, ephemeral, endlessly fascinating. I strive to make better, more emotionally compelling and complex images.
As for the “next,” I’m ready to travel again and embark on new projects in new places. But New York City is home, and if I could only photograph here for the rest of my days it would be enough.