This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, their stories, goals and learnings along the way.
John DiGiorgio, a photographer based in New York, shoots in a pure documentary style, capturing the excitement, beauty and diversity of the human condition on the city streets.
Q: To start, can you give me an overview of your project, its title and its main theme?
A: My project, “New York Street” offers a view into the character of New York City’s diverse inhabitants – a crowded city where people live life in public with lifestyles ranging from the seemingly mundane to the wonderfully extraordinary. Venturing out directly into the bustling, dense parks and streets, I am able to capture images of the people who congregate in a particular location. I believe that the diversity of my approach reflects the diversity of my subjects. Discreetly, I record private moments unfolding in public, performers on display, or everyday people in ordinary moments. There are times that I am able to capture those rare opportunities when a stranger stops to gaze at the camera, welcoming a moment into his or her world.
My photographs provide one brief glimpse into a longer narrative. We might imagine the moments just before, or after, as the characters navigate through the timeline of the scene – romantic to ethereal with a soft diffuse glow, gritty and grainy with deep rich blacks, representing the range of human emotion and experiences. I strive to go beyond a collection of average candid street images, to tell the story of what unfolds on our busy, vibrant streets.
Q: And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?
A: I am immersed in the enormous wealth of cultures that make up New York City, capturing the humor and diversity can pinball the story into the direction the city inspires me to take. The vast cultures consist of the neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, the East Village, the boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx, Spanish Harlem, and Harlem – not forgetting Coney Island, the water fronts and the tourist destinations. When photographing, I try to change things up creatively with a new look, a fresh interpretation.
Q: Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?
A: My projects typically fall within both personal and commercial use. For example, “New York Street” initially started (and continues) as a personal project, but has now expanded into commercial as well. I’ve had many requests from interior designers for images for both residential and commercial purposes. Other projects are now in the final editing stage and negotiations for publication are in hand.
Q: What photographic choices have you made (color palette, composition, use of flash, etc.)?
A: I primarily work in black-and-white because the images feel more homogenous when shooting in varied lighting situations. For me, black-and-white is a departure from reality as most people see life in color every day. I shoot all of my work wide open, meaning if the lens choice is a 50 mm 1.4 then I’ll shoot at 1.4 and if it’s the 35 mm 2.0, I’ll shoot at 2.0. I also set my cameras to shoot in DNG & JPEG, and the film mode is set to B&W. This always gives me the option of color or B&W in case a client wants one or the other for publication. In addition, Lightroom, lets you see color and B&W images side by side.
Street photography requires me to be focused and to concentrate at all times. I rely only on natural light. I do not use flash, nor do I even own a flash unit. I am always aware of the light patterns as I am walking and seeking my next capture. There are unlimited light patterns and reflections dispersed by the architecture of the city. That’s what I love most about photographing in natural light on the streets.
Q: What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?
A: My vision for “New York Street” is to be able to share the enormous wealth of diversity of this amazing city through the faces, attitudes, behaviors and clothing of the individuals who live, work and visit here. For me, success would be that viewers connect visually and emotionally to the images and to the story I’m trying to tell.
Q: Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?
A: Inspiration for my work has come from studying some of the great historical photographers of our time like Cartier-Bresson, Eugène Atget, and Martin Munkácsi. Also, the works from Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, and Roy DeCarava have caused me to reflect deeply on how I approach each project. I imagine how they found and captured those unique and poignant moments.
Q: Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?
A: I experience an adrenaline rush when I’m out on a project. I always have a highly personal view of how I want my projects to develop, so I’m never really happy with the work. I’m constantly thinking, “What am I missing and how can I make it better?” My approach is to capture real moments with little to no interference, because I am completely dependent on real moments happening. The main thing I learned is to go with my gut at the time of capture and always strive for that special photograph.
Q: Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?
A: I love capturing the images; however, downloading and cataloging can become tedious. The biggest challenge that always arises is, how do I disqualify an image from the final cut? It’s tough to remove my natural attachment to my work. I’ve realized that I cannot entirely undertake this myself, so I enlist the help of my wife/editors to ease along the process.
Q: What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
A: I usually carry two Leica bodies. My M9 & 35 mm Summicron and M (Typ 240)/EVF & 50 mm Summilux with a 3-stop ND filter. Depending on the lighting conditions, I use the EVF on the M (Typ 240). In addition, I always have several batteries and at least four 64GB SanDisk cards. If I go out with one body, it’s always the M (Typ 240) and 50 mm Summilux with a 3-stop B&W filter. If necessary, I have my iPhone to use as a sound recorder.
I like working with my Leica because it is unobtrusive and allows me to be a photographer without looking like one. The high quality lenses enable me to capture images in ever changing conditions. The small size of a Leica kit means I can walk for miles allowing me to capture the real life moments that I am seeking.
Thank you for your time, John!
– Leica Internet Team
John DiGiorgio’s earlier worked focused on wildlife and the environment. His work as a photographer, author and filmmaker brought awareness of wildlife and their causes and told stories of the human connection to both. Now as a freelance photographer, he strives to capture the human condition in the street and the natural environment. He shoots in a pure documentary style, striving to capture that extraordinary moment which can best express his vision of realty as it unfolds in front of him – that moment of excitement, beauty and humanism in the modern condition. Connect with him on his website and Nature’s Art Productions.
Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to almost 8,000 members. If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.olafwilloughby.com.