I was rushing to an appointment in a newly constructed building near the East River when I passed a knockout crystal sculpture cascading into the lobby from the upper floors. Luckily I was toting my camera. But I had already been stopped by one of numerous security guards and questioned about my destination the second I stepped into the building. Clearly the place was uber serious about its security. Which often meant: “Photography Forbidden!” With negative vibes on alert, it seemed smart to keep mum about asking to photograph the sculpture.
Instead, I decided to do what I usually did in this kind of situation, which was to melt into the background and swiftly grab a shot or two. If someone suddenly boomed, “No photos allowed here!” I would already have my few frames. After my appointment, I slipped onto the escalator and rode up to the floor where the sculpture was hanging from the ceiling. A young woman was stationed at a door welcoming people into what looked like a large luncheon. To put her at ease, I smiled and announced I’d be taking a few photos without getting in anyone’s way. To say nothing might have aroused questions or even caused her to check with security.
After taking photos from every angle, I was headed toward the lobby exit when one of the guards appeared to be giving me the once over. I gave her a sort of exiting smile. “Photographs aren’t allowed here,” she said, glancing back at the sculpture. “Really?” I replied all surprised. (So she had been watching me all along). “It’s a gorgeous sculpture,” I added. “Thanks very much for letting me take photographs of it.”
“Well, You were very quiet about it,” she said amiably. Luck had been with me. Had I asked permission at the beginning, I would have been shot down with an official “No!”
It was a different story at the Metropolitan Opera house where a big sign posted at the entrance warned that no photographs were allowed beyond that point. I understood the rule regarding photographing performances, which would distract and disturb both performers and audience. But why forbid non-flash photos of the beautiful upper lobbies with their great architectural curves and bursts of crystal lights. Now I’m not saying I did or did not take photos of those things. But just before the performance ended and I was alone in an upper lobby, I suddenly saw a plain clothes security guard talking into a receiver as he stepped purposely off an elevator on my level. Oops! Heading for the stairs, I abruptly realized as I swiftly descended, that of course cameras were probably stationed all over the place and anyone dumb enough to take photos would be instantly spotted. Enough said.
Taking shots of people is a different ball game. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, I prefer spontaneous photos and the second you ask permission to take someone’s picture, they go into “pose mode.” In public places it’s usually okay to shoot people without their permission as part of an overall scene (as long as they don’t mind) or if the photo is being used for editorial purposes. For any commercial purposes, however, photographers had best be armed with signed model releases.
Asking for permission to photograph people while traveling is colored by the country’s customs. When I traveled through East Africa, I was warned not to take photos of local people without first asking permission. Which apparently was rarely granted. The exception were the Masai, who usually charged for the privilege of capturing their dynamic, regal presence on visitor’s cameras.
Photographs Around the City: