Paris-based photographer David Luraschi hasn’t spent time in New York City for a good while now, so when the opportunity arose to pass a few weeks wandering the city, visiting friends and snapping people on the street unawares, as is his wont, he grabbed it. “I kind of revisited my experience as an American in America,” he says. “I always forget how monumental it is – not necessarily the architecture but just the size and the amount of people. I think that is always surprising.”
As a image-maker who deals in anonymity and voyeurism, photographing fascinating characters from behind on his iPhone as he goes about his everyday life, the density of NYC’s population didn’t necessarily work to David’s advantage.
“I found it much more difficult than in Paris, actually, especially in Manhattan,” he explains. “Also I’m less familiar with NY than I am with Paris so I had to search for these pockets of demographic surprises. You could walk for a few hours through Brooklyn and not run into anybody.” He began to scope out his environment over the time he spent there, though. “If you do a few loops around Tompkins Square Park you’ll definitely find those poetic marginals that we’re all fond of.”
He doesn’t hesitate when I ask him what he’s searching for on these pilgrimages. “Characters. And characters are either defined by their personality, by their costume, or by their attitude,” he says. “In the best case scenario something magic will happen. I will be photographing them and all of a sudden the wind will blow and they’ll lose their hat or they’ll do something strange with their arms. That’s why I believe that you could almost do a great picture with anybody, if you’re patient enough.”
“In the best case scenario something magic will happen. I will be photographing them and all of a sudden the wind will blow and they’ll lose their hat or they’ll do something strange with their arms. That’s why I believe that you could almost do a great picture with anybody, if you’re patient enough.”
A photographer and college lecturer by trade, David has been photographing people he encounters on the street since the mid-2000s, but it wasn’t until iPhone technology developed enough to allow him to shoot more discreetly that it started to make sense to his practice. “You can get away with much more, I think,” he says, “I feel like it’s such a revolutionary tool for street photography, or photojournalism in general. This camera is in disguise as a phone. It allows great voyeuristic opportunities, and we all know that voyeurism is a big part of photography.” The tradition of street photographers of years gone by, who perfected the art of “shooting from the hip” with a blacked out Leica has moved on, then? “It’s funny that expression ‘from the hip,’” he laughs, “because now it’s ‘from the palm.’”
It’s far from using gaffer tape to camouflage a camera, but David has developed his own techniques for capturing his subjects unawares, using the volume button on his Apple earphones to trigger the camera shutter on his phone. “It’s very practical when somebody’s in movement, because by tapping the screen multiple times you can keep focusing, and at the same time you can push the volume buttons to activate the shutter. So I play along with this, and if somebody is suspicious of my activity, I pretend I’m on the phone, either with my mom or my lover or my friend. I’ll look up like a tourist at the street number or the crossroad and say ‘oh yes, I’ll be right there, I think I might have taken the wrong subway exit.’ So it becomes this whole game, really, because I’m casting these people as my characters and I’m just playing along.”
“If somebody is suspicious of my activity, I pretend I’m on the phone, either with my mom or my lover or my friend. I’ll look up like a tourist at the street number or the crossroad and say ‘oh yes, I’ll be right there, I think I might have taken the wrong subway exit.”
With a cult Instagram following of more than 35,000 followers, it was only a matter of time before one of David’s subjects caught themselves in his work. “It happened!” he tells me. “It’s quite an interesting story. I ran into this girl who had a tight American Apparel red dress on, very fitting, and she was walking a Jack Russell, and had a cane. For me it was incredibly cinematic; in the picture you can see there are pigeons flying, and there’s a magical moment when I photographed her where it just happened, it was unreal. I think I captioned it ‘I fell in love with the blind girl,’ and a week later I was at a party and a friend came up and she says ‘hey! You know that girl? She’s my friend! Would you like to meet her?’ So I ended up grabbing a coffee with this girl, who is actually not completely blind, but she’s very badly impaired, and she loves the picture. She was very happy to be part of the project.
“It’s funny because a lot of people always ask me if I ask permission. Obviously if I do ask permission I’m not gonna get these moments. I think the default is to think that people would find it rude, but at least in this case, she was very happy and flattered that I’d photographed her.”
The ethical question surrounding permission raises itself again and again in the series, David says. “I understand the whole debate, I don’t know how I would feel personally if somebody ran up to me and took my picture. But I guess if you’re discreet enough it’s not actually you in that picture, it’s the photographer. You need to make abstractions of these kinds of things.”
With a rich grounding in the history of his medium, David finds inspiration in a number of its founding fathers. “Gary Winogrand is one of my favourites when it comes to street photography,” he says. “Then, for the social aspect, I like to think of August Sander, the German photographer, who did wonderful photographs in Germany in some difficult times.”
Instagram itself presents some interesting restrictions as far as format is concerned, for which David’s reference is more academic. “Bernd and Hilla Becher were known for their extensive series of industrial buildings and structures, and they often organise in grids. So they have this typological system, and people often refer to them for that.
“You could almost break down the series into those three influences: the dynamic of Winogrand, the social of Sander, and the rigorous design aspect of the Bechers. That’s a good trio you have there. They’re all dramatically different.”
The most surprising element of the series, which he started on Instagram more than 18 months ago, is receiving images from other people all over the world, he says. “I think that’s the strength of the project; it’s clear enough for anybody to understand. People look at three images and they get it straight away,” he says. David is keen not to underplay the democratic nature of iPhone photography. “At some point it’s bigger than all of us.”