Howard French stands in a narrow alley, peering down into the black box of an apparatus that dangles from his neck at waist level. The apparatus resembles a cross between a miniature traffic signal and an old stereo speaker. French sees, through the box, a perfect square image: peeling walls, parked bikes, shuttered windows, hanging laundry, and, just outside a doorway, a shirtless man in sandals.
â€œA lot of my work is centered on a notion of intimacy, and of entering what I think of as the real private world of my subjects,â€ says French, a former New York Times reporter and, since 2008, associate professor of journalism at Columbia. â€œYou wonâ€™t find pictures of mine where people are posing for the camera or, generally speaking, responding to my presence.â€
French is tall and thin, with the solemn, searching air of a traveler who has landed peacefully on this planet to observe and chronicle how we live. He grew up in Washington, D.C., spent college summers in Ivory Coast (his father was a doctor with the World Health Organization), has lived on four continents, speaks seven languages, and seems, in his composed, penetrating manner, to have universalized himself into a spectral eyeball. He meets you on his ground, which, you soon find, is your ground, too: a relaxed but serious place where human beings can make inquiries and learn.
In 2003, the Times sent French to China to be its Shanghai bureau chief. French spent his first six months in Shanghai immersed in language study. The daily training was so rigorous and exhausting that French, seeking escape from the thickets of speech, did what came naturally: He began wandering the streets during his off-hours with his 1956 Rolleiflex camera. He loves the Rolleiflex, which produces a distinctive square frame and has manual functions that require slow, deliberate operation. Over the next five years, French haunted the alleys of Shanghai, discreetly recording a vanishing way of life.
In 2009, back in New York, French showed his street pictures to his friend and mentor, the photographer Danny Lyon, who advised French to take his notion of intimacy a step further by entering peopleâ€™s homes. French agreed. That summer, he returned to Shanghai with his Canon 5D Mark II, a digital camera that responds well to low light and doesnâ€™t require a flash. For three months, French knocked on doors, gaining deeper entry into those private worlds.
â€œWhen I walk outside with a camera in my hand, Iâ€™m a different person,â€ French says. â€œMy head is screwed on in a different way, and itâ€™s almost a personality change. Iâ€™m not casually out with a camera; Iâ€™m there to take pictures. From this has grown a sense of license, or authority. Thereâ€™s no question in my mind of whether what Iâ€™m doing is OK, or what people are going to think about it.â€
French, who got his first camera as a child from his father, has long been acquainted with the privileges conferred by the press badge. Over his 22-year career at the Times, he wrote dispatches from Red Hook and Rwanda, Port-au-Prince and Pakistan, Tokyo and Tanzania, empowered in his role of newsperson to ask strangers incisive questions. Itâ€™s a mode that translates well to his photography.