In the gloomy tunnels of the New York Underground, a woman in dark glasses stares out from her carriage and straight down the lens of street photographer Richard Sandler’s Leica. Faster than the blink of an eye Sandler depresses the button and shoots the woman as she looks across at him.
“That woman was in another train,” He remembers. “My train and her train had both stopped and she was in the (next) train on a parallel track. There she was, sitting there looking enigmatic…and kind of beautiful. I was in my 30’s then, she was a good looking woman and interesting at the same time, and so the combination of intellectual interest and testosterone made me want to photograph her. You are asking me that question because you are attracted to it also, as the photographer I am trying to find that moment that others can relate to as well.”
New York-born Sandler’s voice tails off. He sounds a lot like another New Yorker : Al Pacino. Imagine, she, the mysterious, attractive woman, to Sandler’s frustrated Pacino cop? There is a connection, the street photographer, of course, is also a filmmaker. Sandler is responsible for a number of films including the excellent documentary ‘The Gods of Times Square’. But, the still of the woman in shades is not from ‘Carlito’s Way’, but one of the photographs from Sandler’s book ‘The Eyes of the City’.
“As I was preparing the book, I realised there were a lot of photographs where people were looking at me,” He explained. “I am trying to make pictures where I am invisible most of the time. That people were looking at me was a bit of a surprise to tell you the truth. I realised, as I was looking through all of my work that the photographs where people were looking at me, that the book was very much about their gaze ; they are the eyes of the city. But then there are also my eyes, and on some level I, like any street photographer, am the eyes of the city. It seemed to be a title that included all aspects of my process of street photography.”
The idea unfolds in on itself. The street photographer, apparently under some ‘imaginary’ cloak of invisibility, is, ironically, being watched by his public. This revelation becomes the title: ‘The Eyes of the City’ covers Sandler’s street photography in Boston and New York between the years 1977 and 2001.
“I was working as a freelance photojournalist in Boston,” Sandler told me. ”Then I moved back to New York City in 1980 to work for the New York Times. Their offer of a good amount of freelance work was enough to pay my rent.”
The book works as a collection of some of Sandler’s most iconic and critically acclaimed work. Stark, enigmatic photos of a solitary lady in shades on a subway train to a busy scene of people on the sidewalk looking out from beneath an image of Marilyn Chambers over the legend ‘Insatiable’ at a porn cinema. Four black nannies looking after four white kids in buggies ; a fascinating picture with a jagged, political edge to it, and a thought-provoking narrative from a bygone era.
“I like to make unposed pictures of people on the street,” Sandler tells me thoughtfully. “Photographs, that ask more questions than they answer. I like to make these semi-enigmatic photographs where there is a storyline in them. I like the pictures that live on the edge between me telling you what’s going on, and you know not knowing. I like photographs that allow YOU to invent the narrative.”
This two way mirror approach is very much Sandler’s style. The documentary ‘The Gods of Times Square’ works well as a social commentary about a particular era in the life of one of New York’s most legendary landmarks, and also as sharp perspective on mental health and well-being. Sandler’s strength is his attention to detail and his great determination to fill his street photography frame with meaningful imagery. I ask him why he thinks the edges of a photograph are so important?
“Because,” He responds. “To my eye, to my sensibility, a photograph whose edges have some of the most important information is an interesting balance. The reason I say that is because the knee – jerk reaction when you see something interesting, is to put it right in the middle of the frame, and you know you’ve got it. But it gets boring and it’s not a good way to use the rectangular space. I think the rectangles are more enhanced by putting things off centre. into play. Ultimately you want to use the entire frame.”
He is thoughtful, erudite, and harbours a great passion for street photography. He returns to his own particular ‘sea of love’, analog photography, and we talk about the diaristic value of film as opposed to the delete culture of digital.
“The beauty of shooting street photography” he suddenly starts up, “is that you respond before you have time to think.”
His words hang in space, it’s a great line from a great street photographer.
‘The Eyes of the City’ is published by Powerhouse books, and you can find Richard Sandler on his website.