2005_12_whitemanlg.jpgBrooklyn resident Lisa Whiteman has photographed everything from weddings to basketball players, but what she loves best is going out on the street and capturing the faces and lives of ordinary New Yorkers. Venturing into barbershops, subways, and countless New York neighborhoods, she captures images that may look familiar in their ordinariness, but take on a luminescence when photographed with her unique eye, capturing silly, striking, adventurous and, most notably, realistic portrayals of city life, one frame at a time. She’s documented the Christmas light extravaganza of Dyker Heights, the Coney Island boardwalk, and taken publicity photos for basketball player Julius Hodge, author Edith Layton, and others. Her work has been used in publications such as Inc. Magazine and Time Out New York, as well as for promotions for comedy shows such as How to Kick People. In addition to her photography website, starting this week, you can view Whiteman’s work at the Museum of the City of New York, and in January at Williamsburg’s M. Shanghai Den. Here, Whiteman talks to Gothamist about the nature of street photography, her favorite subjects, and the work a good photograph should do.

When did you start getting actively involved in photography?
I didn’t start paying attention to the pictures I was taking until college, when a friend of mine invited me to be a photographer at the university newspaper. It was a pretty sudden shift; I went from taking rather thoughtless snapshots to being given assignments for publication.

Working on assignment made me instantly much more aware and objective, partly because often I was photographing subjects that were new to me, and partly because it meant someone else cared about the pictures I was taking–photography turned into something that could please (or displease) another person.

That’s also when I began learning how to use a camera, which is what probably enabled me the most. Prior to that I’d had an appreciation for photography, but it hadn’t occurred to me as something I could actually do myself. Figuring out how it all worked felt a little like someone turning the lights on.

What are your favorite types of things or people to photograph?
Street photography–taking pictures of strangers, urban areas, accidental patterns, graffiti, etc.–is what I enjoy most. I like photographing subjects that I discover rather than designate. The majority of my pictures are of people, most of whom I don’t know.

I wasn’t fully aware of what types of street models I was drawn to until I started noticing a pattern in the pictures I brought home: as it turns out, I tend to take pictures of minorities, kids/teenagers, eccentric-looking people, and older adults–essentially, people who are different from me. This realization has made me a little more self-conscious, and lately I’ve been trying to expand my range a little, not because there’s anything wrong with being attracted to people who aren’t my peers, but because I think it’s probably a good idea to approach my limitations.

Part of the reason I’m inclined to photograph certain groups (I have a thing for breakdancers and old Puerto Rican men who play sidewalk dominoes) is because it makes me feel somehow connected to them. It gives me both a reason to talk to them and something to say, even if it’s just, “Do you mind if I take your picture?”

You participated in a 200-person photo project capturing “A Day in the Life of Brooklyn.” Where did you go and how’d you decide what to capture?
“A Day in the Life of Brooklyn” was a project in which participants were assigned a particular Brooklyn neighborhood to document; I was assigned Prospect Heights. We were limited to a continuous 24-hour period, and we were told to concentrate on taking photos of people. The project was kind of a turning point for me, because it required me to photograph strangers, which I’d been reluctant to do before. It also taught me that most people are quite willing to be models, and if not, the worst that they can do is say no, or drag you into a tiresome conversation.

Does asking permission change the tone of the photograph?
Asking permission can definitely affect the picture, since most people have trouble completely ignoring the camera, and can’t conceal their awareness in their body language. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because the subject will give something of his or herself to the photo that an unaware subject doesn’t have the option to give. It can also ruin a shot, of course. I occasionally take pictures on the sly, but I always feel a little guilty, or at least afraid that I’ll get caught. I also tend to like my spy photos less, because I don’t have the luxury of time, multiple shots, or precise framing.

What’s the usual reaction when you ask to take a stranger’s photo? Do people ever give you a hard time about taking their photo?
The responses I get really vary. The people who give me a hard time about it generally do let me take their picture; they just want me to work for it. The ones who refuse, on the other hand, tend to be the most concise. A lot of people are surprised that I’d want their picture and are curious to know the reason why, or what I’m going to do with it.

The easiest subjects, and often the best ones, are the people who are disarmingly calm and give me permission with a silent nod, as if they get asked to pose for photos all the time, even when I'm pretty sure they don't. While I like that response, I find their confidence a little mysterious, mainly because I’m not sure I’d be quite as self-possessed if roles were reversed.

Sometimes people will notice me taking pictures and ask if I wouldn’t mind photographing them, too, even though they realize they’ll probably never see the results. Occasionally someone asks how much money I plan to pay them, and I get requests for prints. Once in a while, I get asked if I’m a cop or a reporter, or if my pictures will make them famous. (I tell them yes, absolutely.)

It takes a lot of energy for me to approach people, and I won’t do it unless I feel prepared to field a million questions. The social interaction is both what often prevents me from taking photos, and what makes taking street photos really fun. It kind of depends on the day.

Is photography something that anybody can do? Does one need specialized training, or is practice the most important thing in terms of getting better? For someone just starting out in photography (for fun), what advice would you give them?
I think training is never a bad idea, but I don’t think it’s always necessary. Really, it depends on how you learn, and what sort of photography you’re interested in. I’d recommend reading your camera manual at the very least (so that you aren’t limited by your knowledge of the equipment), and taking as many photos as possible. Digital cameras can make the evolution process a little faster, I think, because you have instant feedback, and because they free you up to experiment.

One good exercise is to take a photo of a single subject over and over again, making adjustments on the camera until you have a feel for what the camera can do. You can also try taking several angles of the subject, which helps you improve at framing and gives you a lot of shots to choose from. Try to take note of everything in the frame and how it relates to your subject. (For example, did you accidentally chop off your model’s feet? Does the tree behind her look like it’s growing out of her head?) Get comfortable with your camera in your spare time, rather than cramming just before a vacation or a big event.

Should and do your photos tell the whole story, or are you ever inclined to add captions or further information?
I think a good photo should be able to stand on its own, but that captions can make a photo more compelling and are great for steering the viewer in a certain direction. They enable you to point out a tiny detail that might otherwise go unnoticed, tell what you interested you about the subject enough to photograph it, or make a clever observation about the relationship of the things in the frame. On the other hand, a bad caption can be distracting or even damaging, particularly when people feel they have to make every caption “hilarious.”

How do most of your clients find you? Are they people you know or do they discover your site and then want to use a specific photo?
I’ve been very lucky so far, in that a lot of the work I get comes to me from my websites or from referrals. My clients are pretty evenly split between people I know and those I don’t, and people who want to hire me for an assignment and those who want to purchase an existing image. I don’t really do anything to promote myself, other than putting my photos online, and that gets me a relatively steady amount of work. That’s a really good thing, because I’m absolutely terrible at self-promotion; in fact, I’m almost apologetic about it.

What’s been the most exciting or interesting professional photo project you’ve worked on?
Sometimes the best projects are the ones I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) give myself. For example, about a year-and-a-half ago, I was assigned to take outdoor portraits of then-college basketball player Julius Hodge while he was visiting his family in the Bronx. It was different for me, because I’m not really a sports fan, and prior to the shoot, I didn’t know who Julius was (though my dad and brother were excited on my behalf).

I spent the afternoon with him and his family, taking pictures, watching everyone play on an outdoor court, and catching kind of sweet moments between them. Between locations, I remember sitting in the back of a cab, crushed between the door and one of Julius’s cousins, and riding around Harlem with the windows down, thinking, how the hell did I end up here? It made me feel really grateful, actually, that someone would give me that opportunity, and then would actually pay me for it. That seems crazy to me.

You do web design for a living, and I’m curious as to how that fits in with your photography; are the two compatible in terms of your artistic impulses? Do they have any relation to each other or do they use separate parts of your creativity?
Artistically, I’m not sure that photography and web design have a lot to do with each other, beyond that they’re both pretty visual. But knowing how to build websites has helped me tremendously, since it’s given me a cheap and easy venue to show my pictures, it’s helped me learn to identify myself as a photographer, it’s gotten me most of my work, and it’s motivated me to improve and take more photos. For me, web design is a much more functional, problem-solving type of creativity, and photography is (for lack of a better word) more expressive. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be building websites if I didn’t have any content to put on them.

What are you working on next?
I have two exhibits coming up, one at M Shanghai Den in Williamsburg (January through March), where I’ll be hanging street portraits, and one at the Museum of the City of New York (mid-December through May), where I’ll be showing some New York night photography. Lately I’ve also been getting into video editing and production, though I haven’t figured out what I want to do with that just yet. I'm glad I keep finding creative projects that interest me; I just wish I had time to give them all exactly enough attention.

Photo by Jena Cumbo

Visit lisawhiteman.com for more information about Whiteman, and lisawhitemanlens.com for photography samples. From December 21st to May 7th, her work will be on display at The Museum of the City of New York's "Transformed by Light: The New York Night" exhibit, located at 1220 Fifth Avenue and sponsored by The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. The exhibit "reveals how illumination shaped the legend and experience of the 24-hour city." Starting January 3rd through mid-March, Whiteman's street portraits will be on display at M Shanghai Den, 129 Havemeyer Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.