RICHARD SANDLER: NEW YORK STREET PHOTOGRAPHER
Interview by Jesse Hayes
Richard Sandler is an award-winning photographer/filmmaker, who shot the streets of New York City from 1977 until the early 2000s. A native New Yorker, Richard was born in Queens in 1946. At the age of ten, he was riding the subway into the city to take in the excitement of Times Square. In 1977, he decided to leave a career as a chef and then acupuncturist before jumping headfirst into photography. With no formal training, Richard soaked up any information he could find; books, advice from roommates, a photo history class, and a photo workshop with Garry Winogrand. After a short stint in Boston, he moved back to New York to shoot some of the sincerest photographs of that era.
Jesse: What drew you to photography in the beginning?
Richard: I was exposed to photography at a very young age, 4 or 5. My uncle, an amateur photographer, had a darkroom in his Bayonne, New Jersey basement. I don’t remember if I saw a picture coming up in the developing tray or not, but I was instantly intrigued. I believe that was the seed that sprouted in 1977, when I was 31. I was bit hard by the photo bug and began shooting passionately and obsessively.
Jesse: A good deal of your work was shot on the New York City subway. Were you commuting and shooting or was there a conscious effort to use the subway as a backdrop?
Richard: Sometimes I would go down there and look for pictures. I was on the subway all the time, so it was part of my life. Life in New York City means being on the subway, and that is the great humanist beauty of living in New York. All those faces, each unique, and many unguarded. Each subway car is a cast of different characters. You don’t know whether it’s day or night; you can only guess by how people are dressed or the amount of people there are. It feels like a collective consciousness. A continuous parallel underground reality.
I grew up on the subway and started riding it around age ten by myself or with friends. At first to Chinatown to buy illegal firecrackers and then to Times Square. I would get on the train, not tell my parents, and in 20 minutes be in Times Square. No supervision, going to first run movie theaters, sideshows, and penny arcades. It was a dream world. The subway was already part of my soul by the time I became a photographer. So, I would instinctively look for pictures there. The subway is a tough place to shoot. It separates the men from the boys because there’s nowhere to run.
Jesse: Did your photojournalism jobs influence your personal photography?
Richard: Because of my early street photography, I was able to get photojournalism assignments from two cool weekly papers in Boston and Cambridge, The Real Paper and The Boston Phoenix. From shooting on the street, I quickly understood that every picture tells a story and is in a sense “photojournalistic.” I loved assignments that visually illustrated the particulars of a written story. I enjoyed making my living while invariably shooting pictures for myself. It was a great opportunity.
The papers would send me to locations to make photo essays, like the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in Middletown, PA, in ‘79. Or the Democratic National Convention in New York City in ‘80 and San Francisco in ‘84. I think of my street work as photojournalism or personal journalism perhaps. I am always looking for “the story” in the picture, or on the street. The story that takes the pulse of the time in which I live.
Jesse: Why did you move back to New York City in 1980 and how did that affect your photography?
Richard: On account of the photo essays I shot in Boston, I got an agreement with The New York Times newspaper to shoot freelance for them. So, I moved to back New York City in 1980. It took some months to get regular work from the paper, so I took a job as a foot messenger. I didn’t make a whole lot of money, but it was a way to be on the streets and subways every day. I delivered packages and documents all over town, increasing my exposure to random happenings and new places to shoot. My work significantly improved when I moved back to New York City. I was finally back home in my element.
Jesse: Tell me about the three-day photography workshop with Garry Winogrand that you took the summer of 1977.
Richard: Six months into starting photography in Boston, I took this wonderful weekend workshop with Garry Winogrand. At the end of those three days, I felt like I basically understood everything I needed to know about shooting on the street. That happened just by observing him. I really vibed with Winogrand as a teacher because he was intelligent and articulate. We shot in downtown Boston for three days, developed and printed each night after class. I brought my prints into class and put them up on the wall. Amazingly, he really liked one of my photographs (photo above) which was a kick; it’s on page 155 in my book, The Eyes of the City.
In critiques, Winogrand would only acknowledge a photograph that he liked by wrapping it with his index finger. He was saying, “This has the energy,” and I somehow understood that concept. What is the energy? My sense was that the “energy” came more from the formal elements of the frame more than the subject matter. The best pictures are a dialog between the form and the content, wherein each threatens to overwhelm the other.
Two students got kicked out of the class because they hounded him for more feedback about what makes a photo work or not work. He wouldn’t do that. Garry would look at the work and mostly say nothing. When the two students asked him why he wouldn’t say much about the pictures he said, “Good photographs happen by a kind of magic,” and he did not want to offend the “muse” that creates this magic by talking about it too much.
Jesse: What was your first serious film camera?
Richard: In my first two months of shooting, I used a Minolta SRT 101, a single lens reflex camera. Then, I was gifted a Leica IIIf, red dial. A year and a half later, I bought my Leica M2.
Jesse: When you were shooting in New York, did you carry two cameras?
Richard: I always had two cameras with me. When I started to get work more consistently from The New York Times, I needed all my equipment with me. Which is to say a 90mm, 50mm, 35mm, 28mm lens, a light meter, and a Vivitar 285 flash. I had enough lenses with me, so that if I got a job, I was ready. I had a beeper for The New York Times photo desk. They might send me to Jamaica, Queens, to photograph John Gotti, who was on trial that day for beating the crap out of somebody that took his parking space at his favorite restaurant. Gigs like that. But to your question, I did use two bodies on the street, one (Leica M2) with a 35mm f/2 Leica Summicron and the other (Leica M4-P) with a 28mm f/2.8 Leica Elmarit.
Jesse: What’s the story with your black Leica M2?
Richard: I was on a job for Barron’s magazine, the weekly financial magazine published by The Wall Street Journal. I thought I put the M2 perfectly on my tripod. Somehow though it came unscrewed and fell to marble tiled floor… ouch! So, I took it to Leica New Jersey, and they said they could fix it. Originally a chrome M2, they let me know it needed a top and bottom plate. The technician came out of the workshop into the lobby and asked, “Would you like the top and bottom plate replaced with a chrome or black part?” I said, “Definitely black!” He re-engraved the serial number, which was originally on my chrome camera, onto the new enamel black top plate. If you look up the serial number, it is listed as a chrome body. But it’s a hybrid now, and a moderately unique camera. It’s the camera that I took most of my best photos with. I purchased my Leica M2 in ‘79 and it’s still going great. My Leica M4-P I wore out but got nearly 40 years of use out of it.
Jesse: I’m a big fan of your work using flash. It has inspired me to mount one to my Leica. What inspired you to start using flash?
Richard: My street photography mentors* in Boston, taught me how to use the flash with longer shutter speeds nearly from day one. New England winters are dark and that poses a “depth of field challenge.” Zone focusing becomes increasingly difficult at larger apertures, even with a wide-angle lens.
For instance, on a dark day where Tri-X at 400 ASA would yield a reading of 125th at f/2.8, I would instead shoot at a fifteenth of a second at f/8 and use the flash on a low power setting. Such an exposure setting would create a picture where the foreground was a bit brighter than the background, and the 1/15th shutter would make a blurred image that was superimposed upon the sharp one due to the flash going off.
What is happening essentially is two pictures; one tack sharp, and one blurry, that are bound together in one frame. Life and vision are like that, it’s both sharp and blurry. I shot that way for many years and felt it suited my style. Thank you, Russell Windman* and Clark Quin*!
Jesse: I often think of the Robert Capa quote, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” I appreciate how close you get to your subjects using wide-angle lenses, perfectly illustrated in this photo (above).
Richard: The guy on the right in this photo is just so bizarre. It’s a 21 mm lens in his face with flash. The thing about a 21 mm lens is that when an object is close, it distorts and looks larger. Everything away from the lens as you go deeper into the space looks smaller. It’s just experimentation. I didn’t know how to use a 21 mm lens when I got it in ’83 or ’84. The first photo we talked about with the woman behind the pole was also with a 21 mm lens (see below). Let’s go back to it for a second. I just want to show you one thing. You see the door on the left. It’s going off to the left. It’s falling away, right? That is the effect of the 21mm lens.
Jesse: What inspired you to include video so prominently in your daily shooting practice?
Richard: I started photography in 1977, I shot Kodak Tri-X on the street essentially every day. First in Boston, and then exclusively in New York City from 1980 until 1992. I always had a camera with me. By 1992, I felt really good about the street pictures I made in those 15 years of shooting, and I wanted to parlay that confidence in a new direction. As luck would have it, my East Village block mate and buddy, Steven Hirsch, (Instagram @stevenhirsch and @yoogeidears), who is a great street photographer, was already into making street video. He taught me the basics.
I was as spellbound by video, as I was by street photography. I continued shooting photos every day, but now video first, with still photography on the back burner. I made six New York City street documentaries on video. I want to mention three of them that are a trilogy: “The Gods of Times Square,” (1999), “Brave New York,” (2004), and “SWAY,” (2006).
Jesse: What is your approach to street photography?
Richard: Street photography is difficult and rewarding. Creating strong photographs of people in motion is a dance requiring athleticism, and a quick first step. I approach street photography intuitively, being experimental and taking chances, dancing on the edge of failure.
I’ve been going back through my photography and posting things on Instagram from my contact sheets, that I have never seen or rejected for one reason or another. That rejection seems absurd to me now. Who was that guy that rejected that photo on the contact sheet? Sometimes intuition precedes the intellect. You as the photographer can intuitively be advanced of your mind’s ability to understand it. These photographs are finally and righteously coming to life.
Jesse: This is an excerpt of a two-hour interview I did with street photographer, Richard Sandler, in January of 2022. It was an honor to hear about his process as a street photographer, tales of New York City, and a chance to learn from a street photographer that exudes experience. A true master of his craft, who has created an incredible body of work. If you get a chance, pick up his book The Eyes of the City. You will not be disappointed.
You can see Jesse’s other articles here.