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ON THE BOARDWALK



IN CONVERSATION WITH CAROL DRONSFIELD


Carol Dronsfield began her career as an art director in New York City with a passion for photography. Drawn to her unique and emotionally engaging style, editorial clients began asking Carol to step behind the camera to shoot their ads. She has been shooting commercially since. Transitioning to doing more street photography, Carol’s work reveals a resonant moment that is brimming with life, with her knack for seeking out the humanity of her subjects with warmth and tenderness.


In this interview with The Pictorial List, Carol shares her ongoing series of portraits taken on the boardwalk at Coney Island and talks to us about her photography journey, and the motivation and inspiration behind her instantly recognisable street portraits.


 

"I love that Coney has come back to life this summer after having been partially shut down due to COVID-19 last year. It brings me such joy to meet and photograph these vibrant characters as I roam the boardwalk. Coney truly is a paradise for portrait photography. It never disappoints."

 

Hello Carol, firstly tell us a bit about yourself. When did you first consider yourself a photographer. How did you get your start?

I was born in Hartford, Connecticut and currently live in Brooklyn, New York. I started my career as an Art Director/Creative Director, working first in Connecticut, and then spent the majority of my career in NYC. I worked at various advertising agencies such as Chiat/Day, Ammirati & Puris, and Ogilvy. I’ve had an interest in photography since I was in high school taking photos of my friends. In college I worked for the University of Connecticut newspaper for a semester, sort of an internship. I was given photo assignments and would go and shoot the assignment by myself, mostly photographing portraits on campus. In those days I used a Nikkormat film camera. In one photography class, I spent the entire semester working on a project photographing an Italian bakery and the family who owned it in the South End of Hartford. Pretty soon I was photographing all the family celebrations. I presented my project in a bakery box, with a box of Italian pastries for everyone to share. It was an amazing experience.

While working in advertising, I always did photography on the side just for fun. I took a weekend photo workshop at The International Center For Photography in NYC, where I discovered the Holga camera: a mass-produced toy camera which cost about $25.00 at the time. It took 120 film-a 2 1/4” by 2 1/4” negative. I would take that camera with me whenever I traveled for business while at Ogilvy, and on vacations. When a colleague saw some baby photographs I had taken she asked me to photograph her upcoming Huggies campaign. From that point on, I was photographing ads at Ogilvy and building up a photography portfolio at the same time. After doing this for a couple of years I decided I wanted pursue commercial photography full time. I opened a studio in an old warehouse at Industry City on the Brooklyn waterfront. I still have my studio, although I have been transitioning to doing only street photography. I’ll shoot a portrait in my studio on occasion. The studio has become my creative nest.




How much does street photography in particular play a role in your overall photography experience? What is it that you love about it? Where or how do you find your inspiration?

I took a weekend workshop on “How to Approach Strangers On The Street And Photograph Them” at The International Center Of Photography in NYC and fell in love with street photography. I’ve been living and working in NYC for over 30 years and found that I never really had seen the city. Shooting the streets of NYC is like my own personal theater. There are many acts, never quite the same. I walk around with my eyes wide open; my mind open to what is happening before my eyes. I meet strangers who sometimes don’t like having their photo taken, and others who don’t want me to stop.


Engaging in conversation with these folks, I learn a bit about them, and I always offer to send them the photos I took of them. I can walk the same street everyday and always discover someone or something new. The city and its people are my inspiration.



Your street portraits have this intimate but candid vibrancy about them, how do you get so close to your subjects? Do you have any particular habits that are part of how you begin your creative process? Have you ever had a negative experience out shooting street? If so, how do you deal with it?

I find the more I photograph people on the street, the more I learn about people and how to read them. There are some people who look relaxed and are dressed in a way that makes me think, “This person is looking to be photographed.” Most of these images are from Coney Island in Brooklyn. On the other hand, people on the boardwalk closer to Brighton Beach aren’t as eager to have their photo taken. I basically will wave and smile and just keep moving to find another subject. Once I’ve made contact with a person, which could be me saying, “I love your look and I’d love to make a portrait of you,” or just pointing at my camera and then pointing at them, I’ll get a yes or no response. If I get a yes, then I can get close to my subject. This has worked well for me. I like to “warm up” before I really get shooting. I’ll check my settings, shoot for a few minutes. This gets me to relax. People respond better if I’m not looking nervous and fumbling with my camera.



As you work in the photography industry, do you ever get burnt out creatively? Explain how you keep the creative energy flowing.

I spend a lot of time on the streets and then in post-processing. Sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed trying to stay on top of it all. So far, I don’t really feel burnt out. I’ve been purchasing more photo books these days and perusing them for inspiration. I’ll also look for a new neighborhood to explore and photograph. There are so many wonderful places to photograph in the New York’s five boroughs to keep the creative energy flowing!

What have been some of your most memorable moments as a photographer?

My most memorable moment as a photographer was my first commercial shoot at Ogilvy. My colleagues had asked me to shoot their latest Huggies campaign. I was up on a ladder, shooting an overhead shot of a 12-month old baby. I turned around and saw the entire crew, creatives, clients, etc. behind me, I almost fell off the ladder. I couldn’t believe I was actually shooting this campaign. When I got down from the ladder and the baby wrangler was taking the baby off the set, the baby reached out to me for a hug. I guess we bonded beautifully.



What are some tips/advice you would give yourself if you started photography all over again?


Hmmm...probably to get out and shoot more. The best advice I’ve ever gotten from another photographer was, “Go out and shoot. Keep shooting!” That’s the way you learn to see, work with light, get to know and trust your gear.



Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?

Yes, of course! In high school I loved to look at Georgia O’Keeffe books; I was especially taken with her iris paintings. Her work influenced me to sit in my yard and draw the iris in my family’s garden. They were very detailed pen and ink drawings. I also loved David Hockney. A college art professor told me to look at his work; my drawings reminded him of Hockney’s. My favorite photographers are Josef Sudek, Francesca Woodman, Helen Levitt, Larry Fink, Ruth Orkin, Meryl Meisler, Gulnara Samoilova, Susan Meiselas, and Sal Taylor Kydd.



If you could choose just one photographer to shoot alongside for a day...who would you choose? And why?


Meryl Meisler. I love everything about Meryl. I recently saw an interview with Meryl and Gulnara Samoilova, the founder of Women Street Photographers (@womenstreetphotographers). It was fascinating and funny, not to mention the wonderful photographs she spoke about. She was born in the Bronx, was a NYC art teacher for 31 years, and her photography documented the 70’s in NYC. Very interesting times to photograph. She studied with Lisette Model, another photographer I very much admire and would have loved to shoot with.



Where are some of your most favourite spots to go photographing?

My favorite spots in NYC are Coney Island, Washington Square Park, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and Times Square. I’ve been going to Martha’s Vineyard, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts almost every summer since my teens, and I love to photograph there. Totally different vibe from that of the city. I also love to photograph in France and Italy.



Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? (What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?)


When I first went out shooting in the streets, I was using my Nikon D800 with a 24-70mm zoom. A fabulous camera and lens, but I soon learned it was not the most discreet equipment to be using on the street. I felt the size of the camera drew attention to me, and it was too heavy to use when walking the streets for hours at a time. I moved to a Fuji X-T30, another fabulous camera, lightweight and perfect for the streets. I had multiple lenses, but mostly relied on the 18-55mm zoom. I could be discreet when photographing people, zooming in without my subject knowing I was taking their photo. It was great practice for photographing people on the street. Right now I now use a Leica Q2 with a 28mm lens. Perfect camera and lens for shooting portraits and street scenes. Because it's more of a wide-angle lens, it forces me to get close to my subject to make a more intimate portrait. I really love interacting with my subjects!



What are you focusing on right now, in your work and photography? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?


Right now I’m focusing on my street photography, transitioning away from doing commercial work. I still shoot an occasional portrait in my studio; however, I prefer photographing environmental portraits. My studio has become more of a creative nest, rather than a commercial studio space. In five years I hope to still be walking the streets of NYC, discovering life as it unfolds before my eyes, meeting all sorts of people. I hope to travel to France and Italy to re-shoot the streets with my “new” street photography eyes.

I want to see what projects may emerge from my library of images, perhaps publish a zine and maybe even a book.



“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…

To browse my cookbook collection and find something delicious to bake. I find baking relaxing. Cooking stressful. I garden, make flower arrangements.(my Dad was a florist!). I also like to wander through museums. Being in NYC, I’m spoiled with so many amazing museums so close by. One of my favorites is a lesser-known one called The Morgan Library and Museum. It’s also great to people watch on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art."




Thank you Carol!


All photography © Carol Dronsfield

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