8 minute read
Capturing Essence: Street Portraiture and the GFX50S II
For this photographer, the latest addition to Fujifilm’s GFX System unearths a world of possibility and potential
Shuffling to balance a camera on the dashboard of a moving car, Gregory L. Morgan Jr cuts a kinetic impression amidst the humdrum of bustling New York city traffic. Known colloquially as ‘Shotti’, he’s one of the most adept street photographers currently based in the Big Apple. Brimming with verve and enthusiasm, a soft morning sun cuts through his windshield; a marked contrast to rainfall that riddled the city with torrents of floods just days earlier. Abandoned vehicles cast lonesome shadows in the cold light of day. He jokes and jibes about the iconography of I Am Legend before steadily settling into the conversation. What follows is an impassioned, freewheeling discussion – one that begins in the Bronx, and concludes on the streets of Brooklyn.
The intrigue lies in the uniqueness of Shotti’s perspective and, more notably, the overarching message of his work. With characteristic thoughtfulness, Shotti pauses before defining his outlook. Perusing his website, one appreciates the introspection of his subjects. His response speaks to this quiet sense of contemplation.
“I tend to gravitate towards the unspoken aspects of people and their personas. I wouldn’t define it as stoic, but there’s something interesting about those consumed in thought. I think those moments speak to an authentic reflection of personality. It’s a more expressive way of determining who somebody truly is, as opposed to a forced smile or contrived pose.”
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF80mmF1.7 R WR, 1/200 sec at F4, ISO 640
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF80mmF1.7 R WR, 1/200 sec at F3.6, ISO 640
Indeed, there’s nothing showy about Shotti’s portraits. Intensive close-ups speak to the internal monologue and its hushed realities – exposures that channel through the eyes and into the interior. “I try to photograph in a way that renders an illustration into an individual’s thought processes. I like to think of it as the photographic equivalent of X-ray glasses. From an early age, communication was something I didn’t properly engage with. Maybe that’s why I find it so fascinating now. It’s definitely something I seek to explore.”
Encapsulating the spirit of an individual remains one of the challenging aspects of street photography. It’s a feat Shotti’s undoubtedly mastered. “Generally, I like to let magic happen naturally. I try to avoid inorganic processes. When it comes to the general vibe, I want to be deliberate in my output, but hands-off with regards to posing and structure. I prefer a generalized direction, letting the subject decide where that path leads. For instance, I used to photograph a lot of rappers. They’d always adhere to three of four poses, no matter who they were. I would step in and stop them if I noticed those cliches emerging. With experience, I also came to appreciate that it’s important to let individuals determine their own approach. Ultimately, it’s a balancing act.”
Shotti’s keen on cultivating an environment where the subject is allowed the space to be. Supervision and distance are delicately balanced, and the ensuing results are beautifully compelling.
“I definitely set parameters, but I try not to be too strict. For me, it’s about providing the subject with a distraction. My aim is to get them out of their head. If they’re overcompensating, I’ll try to get them to do less. I still want to catch the subject in a moment, but at the same time, I don’t want them to be overly self-conscious. I often find myself considering the psychological factors at play when taking photographs.”
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF80mmF1.7 R WR, 1/1000 sec at F2, ISO 640
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF80mmF1.7 R WR, 1/500 sec at F1.7, ISO 640
Concerned with the more emotive facets of his craft, Shotti muses how the pandemic has affected and informed his mindset. With proximity diminished, he describes how he found himself longing for more intimacy.
“In that initial fallout, I became a lot closer with the people in my life. I think I went six or seven months without even touching a camera. I meditated a lot. I took a long hard look at myself and the person I want to be… the relationships I wanted to have. That prolonged period of reflection really helped to facilitate my approach. As we return to a state of normalcy, I’ve started to recognize the benefits. In the end, being a more attentive communicator is only going to make me a more adept photographer, and that helps me create better portraits.”
The effects aren’t just individual, either. Shotti’s connection to his city is pronounced and passionate, and he eloquently outlines the ways in which solidarity has prevailed in the Empire State.
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF45mmF2.8 R WR, 60 seconds at F14, ISO 50
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF250mmF4 R LM OIS WR, 50 seconds at F7.1, ISO 100
“Whenever we collectively experience a tragedy, people slow down and appreciate the commonalities that unite us. In New York, I think individuals can be selfish and consumed with their own lives. Most are just trying to make ends meet, and they simply don’t have time to think about anybody else. But when events like 9/11 or Covid-19 happen, we step up and abandon that sense of ego. I think we realize how much we actually need something communal in our lives.”
As he moves on to the topic of the GFX50S II, it’s clear that the technological prowess of this equipment has abetted Shotti’s eye. The benefits of large format photography are perhaps most acutely perceptible when revealing the nooks, crannies and nuances of human expression, for here is a camera that really caters to minutiae. “If I’m trying to present a particular kind of expression, that added level of pixel density obviously helps, right down to something as subtle as a misty-eyed gaze. Put simply, it adds more depth and detail to the story I’m trying to tell.”
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF80mmF1.7 R WR, 1/250 sec at F2.2, ISO 640
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF80mmF1.7 R WR, 1/250 sec at F1.7, ISO 640
Returning to the indelible effects of Coronavirus, Shotti expands upon the camera’s versatility, commending its functionality when photographing movement. The ordinariness of this everyday occurrence has only recently started to re-emerge across the city, yet its protracted absence has produced a palpable contrast worth documenting. “Traditionally, I used medium format film. I found the equipment especially slow when it came to experimenting with shutter speeds, and that meant my approach was dampened as a result. The city doesn’t afford you the luxury of elongated prep times. You’re constantly on the move, always on the lookout for that fleeting moment,” Shotti explains. “You don’t have time to set up a tripod. You have to exist in the here and now, or you’ll miss an opportunity. The IBIS of the GFX50S II helps massively with that process. I also think there’s something to be said about its portability. I feel like I’m working with a DSLR. The ease of use is great.”
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF23mmF4 R LM WR, 18 seconds at F18, ISO 100
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF23mmF4 R LM WR, 1/800 sec at F11, ISO 640
Doing away with cumbersome prep and arrangement, the GFX50S II has also simplified the way in which Shotti conducts his process. “Having multiple autofocus points is also invaluable. I want to ensure I’m focusing on the subject, and more importantly, attaining the best image. It cuts out the complexities, making it much easier to focus on what really matters. The precision is superb. Over the years, I’ve grown to acknowledge when to leave well enough alone. I’ve been able to significantly reduce the complexity of my setup, thanks to the unbelievably low noise of this camera at high ISOs. The result is comparable to what I was achieving with a fully-fledged lighting system, which is extraordinary. I don’t have to waste my time tinkering with artificial components, and that in turn produces a better image.”
For a seasoned professional, Shotti’s open-mindedness is refreshing. The quality of his imagery hasn’t hardwired a staunch, unbending outlook, but rather a willingness to be bold and experimental. He’s also self-aware enough to acknowledge the absurdity of his surroundings, delineating his answers with consistent wit and humour. Of course, many of these pictures retain the solemnity of his ‘internal’ interests, but there are also projects that speak to a more comical sensibility. It’s this adroitly managed balance that keeps his photography truly engaging.
“When I started out, I had more of a specific idea of who and what I wanted to focus on – my perspective has morphed and changed over the years. I try to remain curious and avoid pigeonholing myself.” Moving away from the conventional has also been beneficial for Shotti. “I’ve found that unorthodox subjects can often be the most engaging people to photograph. I’ve been surprised numerous times. As for humour, I think comedy has always played a substantial role in determining my outlook. When I was a kid, my family and I would replicate the improvisational skits of shows like Whose Line is it Anyway? It was great fun. My work has often been subtly informed by that sense of sarcasm and playfulness.”
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF23mmF4 R LM WR, 1/400 sec at F5.6 ISO 320
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF80mmF1.7 R WR, 1/250 sec at F8, ISO 100
Photo 2021 © Shotti NYC | FUJIFILM GFX50S II camera and GF80mmF1.7 R WR, 1/400 sec at F18, ISO 100
As we near the end of our hour-long exchange, Shotti’s keen to explore something slightly more philosophical. In a recent interview, he alluded to the concept of art as catharsis, and the need to create in times of adversity and hardship. Expounding on this concept, his departing message is just as lucid and communicative as the images he creates.
“I’m baffled when people are divided by temperament. I’ll often hear talk of the ‘creatives’, and how they differ from the ‘non-creatives’, but I’ve never understood that perspective. Everything you do is a matter of self-expression and externalization. That’s what matters. As for catharsis, negative experiences are an inevitable part of life, but I think they aid growth and foster a sense of mutuality – especially when you share that expressivity with people who’ve undergone similar hardships. The relatability is what’s important.”