Renowned photographer C. Stephen Hurst provided the “something extra” at this year’s holiday party for tenants at 50 East 19 Street. The property management company hired Hurst, who lives in the building, to take professional, take-home holiday portraits for every party guest.
Hurst set up his camera in the building lobby on the evening of December 16 with a simple aim in mind. “I want my subjects to be free,” he said “I want to connect with some part of them that’s real and unfiltered. And I want to honor the trust they give to me by being in front of the lens.”
Hurst, who first drew attention as a street photographer, recently won acclaim with a series of fashion shoots staged aboard active subway trains, many along the Q line. “That’s my most beloved line, both practically and artistically speaking,” Hurst said. Writing for the Phoblographer, critic Chris Gampat called the images “some of the most inspiring work. . . so far this year.”
Hurst teaches at the International Center of Photography, but he moved to New York 25 years ago from South Florida to study cinema at NYU. Soon enough, he was exploring Brooklyn, where his grandparents met and fell in love 90 years ago. “My mother was born in this great borough and attended Erasmus High School circa Barbra Streisand’s attendance.”
Next, Hurst moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where “it felt like a perpetual wheel of land grabbing, displacement, demolition, and construction,” he said. “This is a citywide problem but in Bed-Stuy, it felt omnipresent and suffocating.”
Almost three years ago, he found respite in Ditmas Park. “[I] was immediately attracted to mixture of cultures, cuisine, and commerce that lends itself to a vibrant set of visuals along the sidewalks and streets,” Hurst said.
That visual vibrancy was especially important to his work as a street photographer documenting urban landscapes. “For me, Church Avenue from Bobby’s to Flatbush is a gold mine,” he explained. “Almost always I choose faces and expressions over structures and symmetry.”
An image from the corner of Church Avenue and 17th Street shows Downtown Natural Market jutting dramatically into the foreground, the camera tilted to give a chaotic swirl to the street scene. But it’s the penetrating gaze of Hurst’s model that steals our attention, a vivid anchor amid the motion.
In parallel to his documentary work on the street, Hurst developed a facility for fashion photography. Where the street work is spontaneous and real, fashion shoots are carefully prepared and artificial; nothing happens without make-up.
“That very dichotomy is why I need to photograph in both disciplines,” Hurst said. “They inform and rejuvenate each other. Fashion is about control and direction of purpose whereas street photography is about submission, unpredictability, and often failure. In other words, street photography is a pop quiz whereas fashion is a researched essay.”
One of Hurst’s most celebrated photo series combined both practices: Photos shot on subway cars in-motion. A favorite image from that series was taken aboard the Q train and features musicians that neighborhood riders will likely recognize.
“I wanted to challenge myself to see if it were possible to convert the main arteries of our subway system into an urban and mobile studio space that is part photo shoot and part performance piece with rider participation (or not),“ he said.
That took engineer-level planning. “I scouted the train lines, measured times between stops, metered ambient light in various areas of the train. I developed a shorthand sign language so the model and I can be efficient moving through the train car,” Hurst said. “I calculated estimates of how long after the doors close it would take to communicate to the people on the train what we are about to do, to place the model, setup, and shoot, and then to pack it up and keep moving.”
Hurst also combines the aesthetics of street photography and fashion work in another of his endeavors; he’s a popular wedding photographer. “There are different rules of engagement for each genre. For wedding work, the practice of candid street photography is essential. But then again, the prep, coordination, and lighting acumen required to produce a fashion shoot is also essential.”
All of these skills came into play for the holiday party photos at 50 East 19th Street, where each family got a digital and print copy of their family photos.
Shamco Properties, the Christmas party sponsor at 50 East 19th Street, is the management company at 15 buildings around Ditmas Park, Prospect-Lefferts Garden and Flatbush. When property manager Alan Shamah wanted to do something to mark this year’s holiday building partyt, he thought back to his own childhood.
“Many years ago, getting one’s portrait was a great event, and many times a family outing,” he said. It’s very special to get your portrait taken; it’s not just a picture; it’s a formal event.”
In Shamah’s eyes, Hurst did all that and more. “It spread a lot of goodwill and joy, and it gets people together.”
All photos included with permission from the photographer.