As if it was the most common request

When I was kicking around the idea of photographing some of the interesting people I meet throughout the Northwest, I didn’t think I could actually approach strangers and ask for their photograph.  Not many anyway.  Not successfully.  Who would say yes to a total stranger?

Three months ago I was browsing the shelves at Powell’s, the giant downtown bookstore in Portland, and saw this young woman reading quietly on a bench at the top of a stairway.  Catching my eye was her jet black hair, matching shirt, jewelry, and poise.  She seemed absorbed in the book.  She was — how do I say this? — reading with intensity. Her surroundings were interesting.  Even the fact that the seat was available next to her excited me about the possibility of a photograph.  I loved every detail of the scene.  In my mind’s eye it was as if the viewer might know her and could simply walk up the steps and join her. But I didn’t know her and that seat beside her was not for me, and there was no way that I, an older man she didn’t know, could persuade her to be photographed.  I walked on.

Then I wandered back, looked at the scene again, and walked away again.  A few minutes later, with the photograph still snapping in my head, I decided to give it a try.  I’d ask, she would say no, I’d move on.  She probably wouldn’t even be sitting there by the time I came back in the room.  My luck.  She was still there, still reading.  I asked if I could take her photo for a street portrait project I was considering.  She looked up at me and said ‘yes’ as if it was the most common request in the world.  Really?  I was stunned, but wasted no time.  I told her I’d go half-way back down the stairs so I’d be at ground level and take three or four pictures of her.  She could continue reading.  No posing.  No staging.  I lingered on the steps a moment as other people passed, but her patience held and I got the photograph I wanted: a “candid” moment in her day.  I thanked her.  She smiled and returned to her book.

I left the room believing that maybe it wasn’t so crazy to ask the intriguing people I meet to participate in my street portraits,  It wasn’t impossible.  It was possible with this young woman reading at Powell’s.  And it has been possible with (nearly) every person I’ve asked since.  I took this photograph in early July, and saved it until now.  She was a turning point for me and her photograph needed to be a milestone.  After three months, this is Northwest People portrait #100.

(Portland, July 2014)