by Charlie Hill
…you see I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Although it is true that we might have certain natural advantages. I think one of the things you have to be able to do is—now what’s the best way of saying this?—be fully present in a scene—to inhabit the moment, if you like—and at the same time, to absent yourself, so that none of you encroaches into the frame. Now you’ll hear people talking about this as though it’s difficult to get right, but I don’t think it is, not really. It’s just what we do, isn’t it? Most of us anyway. It’s what’s expected of us, how we’re supposed to be, there but not there, not there but there. Us women, I mean, not us photographers.
Having said that, we do have to make some adjustments. I’ll always remember something Walker Evans used to say to me, when I was just starting out. He had a way with words did Walker, and this was obviously something he’d thought about. He said to me—and I’ll never forget this—‘you have to stare.’ By that he meant that although there were other ways of looking at what you’d decided to photograph—a child playing tag, say, or two people having an argument, or a policeman moving someone on—although you could glance or peek or pretend to be looking at something else, if you’re going to train the eye, to properly train the eye, to make sure it sees what it needs to see in any scene, you have to be able to stare. And I mean literally stare. And I struggled with that at first because we aren’t supposed to look at people like that. We’re supposed to be looked at, to be the subject of a person’s attention, a mere object of regard if you like. Not the ones doing the regarding. If you’re a woman and you stare, people think you’re crazy.
I can tell you a story about that actually, something happened to me a few years ago. In fact, I can tell you exactly when. It was ’51. I remember that because it was one of the last times I used my old Standard. Do you remember what I said about my old Standard? Anyway I was going down to Spanish Harlem a lot that summer, but I’d also started poking around the Lower East Side. I don’t know if you know it? Do you know the square down there? It’s got a circular stone fountain in it…begins with an ‘S’…oh, what’s it called?…Yes, yes that’s it. Straus Square. I’d start at Straus Square then head up Canal, or north along Essex. Essex was my favourite. There was just so much going on down there, so much movement, it was just so good for all kinds of shots. I remember there was a paint shop near the square—it’s probably still there—Schames it was called, and it had an enormous sign for Dutch Boy Paints, with this little boy with long bright yellow hair and matching clogs, and every time I saw that it put a little spring in my step, you know? Just up from Schames there were tenements, then there was the market, on the corner of Delancey I think it was, and the Good Samaritan’s Dispensary that took up a whole block. Further along were liquor stores and pickle shops and hardware stores, racks of clothing and carpets on the sidewalk, fruit and veg carts. The light seemed to change every hundred yards or so, particularly in the summer, you know? There must have been something about the arrangement of the buildings—or the building sites!—but more than that I think it was the people that made it special. You’d see Chinese tailors and well-to-do Jewish women with these angular hats, and big, strong women from Armenia who worked in the factories, there’d be Russians and Poles and blacks, people selling watermelon, panhandlers, street performers. Everywhere you looked there were the most brilliant surprises. And the best thing was although there seemed to be no order to it, you could see it if you stared, this strange sense of everything being in its place, exactly where it belonged, however crazy it might have looked at first.
Not that it was always that easy of course. This one day—it was very hot, so it must have been August, I guess—I was walking along Essex and I wasn’t seeing anything. Although there was the usual commotion there was nothing quite coming together, and I was wondering what I should do, whether I should carry on. You have days like that, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Because if you keep going, you run the risk of trying to force things into a scene, and when you do that you end up drawing attention to yourself and that’s no good because then you become conscious of being a woman on her own, on the street. Staring. Looking crazy. And as soon as that happens you’re not going to take anything worth taking because you can’t remove yourself from the frame. Plus it’s not a good idea. I mean it’s not as bad as people make out down there, certainly not in the middle of the day, but still—there are all sorts of reasons you don’t want to be drawing attention to yourself on the Lower East Side.
Anyway, that was the way I was feeling. I wasn’t having a good day. And then, through the crowd, through this bustling mass of everyday surprises, I saw a girl buying soda from a cart on the corner of Essex and Canal. She was wearing a pale yellow dress, lemon yellow, and one of those wide-brimmed hats, that look like they’re made of straw but aren’t. Very respectable. She had the most queer features, I mean the most distinctive nose, but that wasn’t what stopped me in my tracks. No, it’s the way she looked at me. I recognised it as my stare, you see, even though I had never seen it, I mean I could tell straight away what she was doing there. Sure enough, after I met her eye I saw she had a camera, hanging at her hip. Not only that but it was a Rolleiflex—I’d know a Rolleiflex anywhere—so she wasn’t your average shutterbug either. So I stared back. I had to. I couldn’t help myself. And there we were, looking at each other, barely ten feet apart, in the middle of all this noise and distraction, and it all seemed to stop. It was like there was something between us, something that was very… potent somehow. As if we knew each other, like we were old friends, and we belonged in that exact moment, in that exact place, doing what we were doing. Staring.
And that’s not all. The strangest thing was, after we’d stood there for what seemed to be an age, she smiled, picked up her camera and made as if to photograph me. So I did the same. Now we’re looking at each other through our lenses, pointing cameras at each other, stock still and smiling, ready to go. But for some reason I didn’t take the shot. Even after all that, I didn’t take the shot. And I don’t know why, I mean to this day I have no idea why I didn’t take a picture of this woman, this fellow crazy, this fellow starer, whoever she was.
I often think about it though, wonder how it would have turned out if I had pressed the button. Because when she walked away—and this is something else I remember very clearly—I carried on up Essex and had just the best day. I know! I know! That’s a strange way to put it but it’s true. One minute I was having a bad time and the next I was walking along the street feeling like a million dollars. There was no reason either, I mean it must have been connected to what had happened somehow, and god knows I’ve thought about it, but I couldn’t tell you what it was or why. All I know is, I had the absolute best day…
Charlie Hill is a critically-acclaimed writer of short stories, novels and memoir. His latest book—The Pirate Queen—is an historical novel about Gráinne Ni Mhaille.
His website is here: https://www.charliehill.org.uk/.