Clay Benskin weaves his way through the crowded sidewalks of Lower Manhattan, apparently invisible to the people streaming past him. He is not a small man. Yet even as his camera gets to within inches of someone’s face, the person doesn’t flinch.
“People will stand in front of me and not pay me any mind,” Mr. Benskin said. “I guess I have no presence.”
His photographs, on the other hand, do. Since taking up photography a little more than three years ago — almost on a dare to himself — Mr. Benskin has proven to be adept at street photography, a genre he insists he had to look up online. His images are noirish scenes of city life, from people emerging from clouds of steam, wacky T-shirts in the middle of a crowd or reflections in the morning light.
Not that he considers himself to be a street photographer, even if he graduated from a smartphone to a high-quality compact camera. He’s been known to abruptly stop posting images on social media, only to return weeks later. He insists he does not care to exhibit, since it would be too much work.
“To me, it’s just a hobby,” he insists. “I just take pictures. I like doing it for the hunt. How close can I get to somebody before they see me.” His day job — which he has had for 25 years — is at a Tribeca apartment building, where he now works as the superintendent. Among the residents is Mick Cantarella, a photographer who, one day, was showing Mr. Benskin work from a recent photo shoot.
“He was showing me pictures of some models and stuff,” Mr. Benskin recalled. “I told him I could take better pictures with my phone.”
He began by doing still lives, but he ventured into the street, too. He showed the images to Mr. Cantarella, who remarked they were in the tradition of street photography. Mr. Benskin had to look up the term, which is how he learned about the work of Garry Winogrand, among others. He was fascinated by a video he saw of Mr. Winogrand, even if he thought some of his methods were “creepy,” like when he pretended to be fiddling with a lens to lessen suspicion.
Mr. Benskin relied on those distracting moves until he realized one day — when he stood in one spot and made pictures using a flash — that no one really bothered him. (Well, he is a big guy.) As he walks down the street, he scans the sidewalks, sometimes crossing over when he sees a background that can be interesting.
Mr. Cantarella — his erstwhile inspiration of sorts — likes Mr. Benskin’s images.
“I think they’re great,” he said “He’s a civilian, but he has a great eye, clearly. He has a certain look that he has honed.” Part of that look comes from Mr. Benskin’s fondness for film noir, a holdover from years of watching classic films. His photos often rely on dark tones, with figures obscured by shadows.
But his look also depends on his getting as close as possible, holding his camera to the side, out in front or arching overhead, composing on the fly using the camera’s flip-out screen. Sometimes he knows right away he got the moment. Other times, the frame reveals itself – and its details — only when he reviews his pictures.
“I get so excited, I want to see everything,” he said. “That’s why I don’t like putting the viewfinder to my eye. My eyes are open. When I put the camera up it’s like my eyes can’t breathe. I want to see everything.”
So, how does someone manage to slink around city streets and not be noticed?
“I grew up going to clubs,” he said. “I’d pick a wall, stand against it and watch people. I guess I must blend.” lens.blogs.nytimes
All images © Clay Benskin