Mr. Mermelstein described the appeal, for him, of “straight photography,” of capturing critical or surprising moments in real life. “What has gotten me most excited making pictures is taking pictures of what’s in front of me, without changing it, with all the ingredients of spontaneity,” he said.
All three artists shoot in color and primarily use film cameras, not digital ones, for their street work. Mr. Stuart said he used to shoot in black-and-white in emulation of his heroes, Frank and Cartier-Bresson, but realized that it was not fruitful to try to emulate their signature styles. For him, color represented newness; for Mr. Mermelstein, who recalled growing up with television images around him, color has always been an integral part of his work.
One of the most interesting topics in the talk was the discussion of how to take images unobtrusively; all three artists have shot images that are startlingly frank, but in which the subjects seem utterly oblivious to the presence of the image-maker.
Mr. Powell, who is 6 feet 5 inches tall, said his height means “I really can’t do that invisible thing so much.”
Mr. Stuart described the death of Princess Diana in 1997 as a turning point in the public’s awareness of — and attitude toward — photographers. “Photographers were bad guys,” he said. “I remember the day and I just said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to go out and take pictures.’ And people got really aggressive. A lot more people will say, ‘Hey what are you doing?’ ”
Then there are concerns about terrorism; nearly all street photographers have been stopped by the authorities and asked what they are doing. In London, subway photography is no longer permitted, although in New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority backed down from a similar proposal.
Then there are concerns about privacy. Mr. Mermelstein recalled parents who have scolded him in the mistaken belief that he had photographed their children. Mr. Stuart said that Roger Hutchings, an acclaimed British war photographer who has done work in numerous conflict zones, was physically assaulted at a pond in his South London neighborhood, Clapham, by a man who thought that Mr. Hutchings had photographed his child.
Mr. Stuart said he often handles complaints about being photographed with a smile and a compliment. “If somebody comes up and asks me what I’m doing, I say, ‘Oh, I really like your hat,’ or, ‘That’s a great coat.’ If you compliment someone, it defuses it.” Mr. Powell said his attitude helps. “Honestly, when I’m taking a lot of these pictures, I’m usually not trying to do something that is ironic or pointing at, making fun of something,” he said. “I’m pretty much always responding to something that has been seduced me or that I’ve been moved by.”
Sometimes, Mr. Powell said, he will just “pretend to be a Dutch tourist” and remain silent if asked what he is doing.
Mr. Mermelstein has a similar strategy. “I rarely talk to anybody I photograph, because I know I’m going to lose,” he said, adding that “if someone is going to engage me,” it’s because that person believes the photographer is doing something wrong. Mr. Powell interjected, “But do you feel you’re doing something wrong?”
“A little bit,” Mr. Mermelstein replied, jokingly.
In the age of Flickr — which Mr. Stuart called “a great thing” — is the fine art photographer’s role being eclipsed by the masses, or is photography simply becoming more democratic?
“The intelligence of people with cameras has risen immensely,” Mr. Powell said. “You’ll see someone taking a picture, review it, delete it and then remove themselves to a better vantage point.” The proliferation of images “means there’s going to be more work for the curators,” he predicted.
Of course, truly great — even good — pictures come across rarely. All of the photographers spoke about shooting scores of rolls without necessarily expecting even one suitable image to arise from their contact sheets.