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When winter storms sweep the streets clean, most people make themselves cosy at home in their apartments. This does not apply to Adam Miller: in fact, it is unpleasant weather that draws the photographer out onto the streets of his hometown. Following the premises of classic street photography that are characteristic for this city, he reveals that the most adverse conditions can give rise to the most exciting moments.

LFI: How did you come up with the idea of photographing people in blizzards? What fascinates you about blizzards?

Adam Miller: The winter is probably my favorite season to shoot in the street. I love how the low barreling sunshine and super long shadows of the short days interact within the narrow corridors of New York City. There are so many ways that the shadows and natural contrasts can be used to create unique photographs. It is a season for thinking outside of the box and letting your creative juices flow.

In this vein, about six years ago, I did some light shooting in a couple of the snow blizzards that we had in NYC. I’ve always been fascinated by how New Yorkers – many of whom are woefully unprepared - hurriedly scuttle around the City while trying their best to navigate the slippery ground, blinding snow pellets and strong wind. I love how the snow, often shifting the axis across which it flies around the air, forms a veil in a myriad of different patterns over our beautiful city. It is all so surreal. After observing the mayhem first hand, I was naturally drawn into the action with my camera and fell in love with shooting it!

It must be tough to take pictures in these extreme conditions. How do you prepare yourself for these photo expeditions?

I will admit that, at first, I was somewhat intimidated by the strong wind and cold, wet snow. I didn’t know how my camera and lens would handle these extreme elements for prolonged periods. In that first blizzard, I took plenty of cover and shot very conservatively. I instantly fell in love with the results, although they didn’t quite resemble the “up close and personal” approach that really defines my style. After a little more experience under my belt, I realized that my Leica gear withstood the moisture and cold just fine (knock on wood!), and I consequently garnered more confidence in my gear’s ability to withstand the elements. Since being freed of my initial inhibitions, I’ve been able get out in the middle of the action with the “up close and personal” style that I love and for which I am most known. I am now in my 7th year of shooting blizzards, and my enthusiasm for my project continues to grow and develop with each blizzard!

In terms of physical preparation, I wear lots of layers underneath my heavy winter coat and pants. I wear a Gortex waterproof rain jacket over my winter coat and typically wear snow pants and boots. I stuff my pockets with numerous extra-large hand warmers and pack plenty of film and extra batteries for my M7 and flash - just in case! I try my best to keep my camera tucked away inside my rain jacket whenever I am not using it. Even with all of this exhausting preparation and weather-appropriate clothing, I still manage to get completely soaked from head to toe by the time I get home after a day of shooting!

Generally, street photographers wait for hours for the right moment – I guess that this might be much more difficult in the winter. What is your photographic approach when you go outside, and how do you and your camera master these conditions?

My general approach is to seek out people who look interesting to me, get up as close as I can while still maintaining some context, and shoot them in a total candid fashion with a pulsating flash. I love capturing interesting expressions, the behavior of struggling through the extreme wind and annoying snow pellets, a particular fashion statement (or lack thereof!) or anything else that embodies New York City. I use only film for this shooting. I really love how film adds that three-dimensional look to the images. Lots of details are captured in the background beyond the reach of the flash, yet they are rendered differently – namely less saturated and even painterly - than the main point(s) of focus. I find the juxtaposition of the main subject(s) and background very special and something that really sets my images apart. I often incorporate a sense of motion in my images as the result of the slow shutter speed that I am pretty much forced to use due to my on-camera flash, which does not have a high shutter speed sync feature. Thus, the fastest shutter that I can use is 1/45. This is quite slow; however, I have in many ways turned this from a weakness into a strength. With the use of the flash and a good zone of focus, my main subjects come out acceptably sharp even when I shoot while my subject and/or I am in motion (which is typical). At the same time, the residual motion that often appears in the background helps capture the surreal energy of the moment.

Do you have favourite camera gear to take out into the cold?

I use Leica M film rangefinders because, in addition to the exceptional quality of their construction, I have total control over what I’m focusing on and my shutter speed. I use the M7 for the snow because I find that the internal electronics pair very well with the flash. As for the lens, I typically use an old pre-aspherical Leica 28mm Elmarit (the fourth version), as it is relatively low contrast, great for film and not too expensive to replace if it freezes or drowns to death! I use the Leica SF-24D speed flash.

Are there any plans for future projects? Would you like to stay in urban areas?

Blizzard shooting-wise, I hope to keep my pace for another 10-20 years and add 10 or so keepers per year to my NYC snow blizzard portfolio. In the meantime, I feel that the body of work that I have amassed so far is ripe for a book, and I’m in the process of scoping out suitable publishers.
As for street photography in general, I will continue my love affair with New York City and its people, and shoot them in my up-close-and-personal style as often as I can.

As of late, I’ve been rather fixated on tattooing a silhouette of me and my fedora hat on the chests and backs of people, thanks to the low barreling light of the winter sun.

All images on this page: © Adam Miller
Equipment: Leica M3, Leica M7 with Elmarit-M 28 f/2.8, Summicron-M Dualrange 50 f/2, Leica SF-24D Speed Flash
© Adam Miller

Adam Miller

The streets of the Big Apple are his stomping ground: Adam Miller enjoys both a love of photography and a love of the pulsing life of New York City. His very classic pictures, taken with analogue Leica equipment, capture the zeitgeist of the city that never sleeps – from its iconic skyline and the street art, to the people that make this metropolis unique.

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