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Who Says Old-Fashioned Street Photography Is Dead?

By Steven Kurutz

Jean Andre Antoine on his regular commute into SoHo.
Andre D. Wagner
Jean Andre Antoine on his regular commute into SoHo.

The corner of Prince Street and Broadway, in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, is one of the busiest pedestrian walkways in New York City. Dean & DeLuca, the upscale grocer, is on the southeast corner, while the Prada flagship anchors the northwest, and the two shopping meccas, along with the Apple store farther west on Prince, keep the foot traffic high.

Roaming there for the past six years, stalwart through the relentless rise of iPhones and Instagram, has been a street photographer named Jean Andre Antoine.

Like a fisherman working a tributary to a great river, Mr. Antoine sets up shop just outside the bustle, halfway down the block on Prince. On all but the days of harshest weather, he is out there leaning against the pinkish brick wall of the Dean & DeLuca building, which he uses as a backdrop in many of his photos. He sets his cameras and film on the fifth window ledge in. He calls the spot “the office.”

Mr. Antoine was mentored by another New York street photographer, Louis Mendes, and he similarly uses an old-fashioned Crown Graphic press camera and takes portraits with peel-apart instant film, for which he charges anyone interested $20 per shot.

But while Mr. Mendes goes around the city in a suit and fedora and approaches people on the street, Mr. Antoine remains fixed in one place and tries to be low-key. He never asks passers-by if they want their picture taken, instead waiting until someone is sufficiently curious to approach him.

Andre D. WagnerMr. Antoine's station on Prince Street, outside Dean & Deluca.
Mr. Antoine's station on Prince Street, outside Dean & Deluca.
Andre D. Wagner

“I’m like a monk,” Mr. Antoine said. “I just sit and listen to my music and wait. Because I have this thing in my head — I think there are kindred spirits. There are people that are on the same wavelength. In a crowd of 1,000 people, we’re going to recognize each other, the antennas are going to connect.”

On a recent afternoon, two young women walking west on Prince evidently were dialled to his frequency. Seeing the big camera slung around Mr. Antoine’s neck with its bellows and flashbulb, one of them asked, “What do you get here?”

Mr. Antoine gave the women, one of whom was carrying a digital camera, his gentle pitch. “I’m an analog photographer,” he said. “This camera is from 1947.”

The women, visiting from out of town, were told the price and agreed. Mr. Antoine posed them standing together on the sidewalk, and while they all waited for the photo to develop, Polaroid style, they talked. Then the women continued on their way holding a physical image of themselves.

Such fleeting interactions are what Mr. Antoine loves about photography. In a short documentary made about him in 2016, Mr. Antoine tells the filmmaker, “I’m not even selling photos. I’m selling more of my instant work of this person, on the spot. Basically, my impression of this person as I see them.”

At 35, Mr. Antoine is too young to have been around for the pre-mall SoHo, but he reminds people of the neighborhood’s more artist-centered past. Ricky Powell, himself a street photographer and downtown figure, called Mr. Antoine “a real classic New Yorker.”

Mr. Powell admires his dedication. “He’s out there every day with the cameras, man,” he said. “He’s the real deal. Very humble. Very down to get a good shot.”

Melissa Abe, a project manager for Airbnb, has been intrigued by Mr. Antoine’s quiet presence for years. “Jean Andre is not an outward person, but he captivates people,” she said. “He’s this good-looking guy with this cool camera, dressed cool. When you see Jean Andre, you’re seeing the old vibes of SoHo. He’s kind of a gem in our city.”

Andre D. WagnerPicture this: Mr. Antoine photographs a passer-by.
Picture this: Mr. Antoine photographs a passer-by.

Mr. Antoine grew up in Harlem and is of Haitian descent. He has full cheeks and warm, expressive eyes that are often hidden behind sunglasses. He wears a neat beard.

He prefers to dress in black: black pants, slim black coat, black and white Adidas sneakers and either a black beanie or a black felt porkpie hat like that of an old jazz musician. The jazz association is underscored by the little wireless speaker that Mr. Antoine sets on the window ledge to play John Coltrane and Miles Davis at low volume as he works.

“Coltrane represents the city,” Mr. Antoine said. “If you watch the flow of the people and traffic, up and down, he plays to it.”

The old-timey camera, the porkpie hat, the jazz music and philosophical musings: These elements could easily coalesce into pretension, a gimmick to sell photos to tourists. But with Mr. Antoine, they come across as genuine. You accept that he sees the world poetically.

In Ms. Abe’s view, Mr. Antoine proves himself through his constant presence on Prince Street. “He’s been showing up and doing his thing,” Ms. Abe said. She has hired him to give Airbnb guests an insider’s tour of SoHo. “It’s Jean Andre every day, on the street, creating beauty.”

Over breakfast at El Castillo de Jagua, a Caribbean restaurant on Rivington Street, Mr. Antoine told of how in 2008, he was supporting himself shooting family barbecues and parties, weddings, some red-carpet stuff. He was also doing patient transport at New York University hospital two days a week for the steady income and health insurance.

He had been introduced to photography in a community college course. After that, he dropped out of school. “I just wanted to shoot,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything else but shoot.”

Andre D. WagnerPedestrians in pink accessories stop to chat with the dapper Mr. Antoine.
Pedestrians in pink accessories stop to chat with the dapper Mr. Antoine.

This proved difficult during the financial crisis. The gigs dried up, the rent was due, and Mr. Antoine was scrambling. It was around this time, on a visit to B&H, the Midtown electronics store, that Mr. Antoine met Mr. Mendes, who often works out front.

Digital technology was remaking photography. The era of the darkroom and film was passing. Everyone, including Mr. Antoine, was switching to digital gear. The vision of Mr. Mendes with his bulky old camera and flashbulbs seemed anachronistic, if not absurd.

“I almost dismissed him while he was standing in front me,” Mr. Antoine recalled. “Like, ‘Dude, get with the times.’ Louis tells me, ‘You have a Polaroid camera. Why don’t you come out in the street and do what I’m doing?’” Mr. Antoine regarded himself as an introvert. “I’m, like, ‘No way I’m coming out in the street.’”

But he was impressed with the images Mr. Mendes’s antique camera produced. And further impressed when he watched the older man pull in $100 with a few shutter clicks. For the next three months, Mr. Antoine shadowed Mr. Mendes, becoming his pupil. The lessons weren’t about aperture settings but attitude. He learned how to make a living in the street.

“He would be in my ear: ‘You should do it. You should stop being afraid,’” Mr. Antoine said. “He was hard on me. He reminded me of my father, that rough love. He’s a big part of my life these last years.”

Mr. Mendes, 78, was ill and unavailable for comment. But his manager, Ray Ortiz, said there are dozens of photographers out there whom Mr. Mendes has taught, including himself.

“When I first met Louis, in 1996, he was working with a Polaroid Spectra and a Speed Graphic. He steps you up from one camera to the next,” Mr. Ortiz said. “Some start to do it, they do it for a few years and then stop. Whoever it is, if they’re willing to learn, he’s willing to teach them.”

Andre D. WagnerFrom left, Mr. Antoine and his mentor, Louis Mendes.
From left, Mr. Antoine and his mentor, Louis Mendes.

Of Mr. Mendes’s protégés, Mr. Antoine is perhaps the most committed, and most resembles his mentor in his lack of appetite for career networking. Although commercial assignments have come his way in recent years, including from Nike and Tiffany, Mr. Antoine does not aggressively pursue such work. Until someone suggested the idea, he never thought to post his photos to Instagram.

“If I took your photo and you enjoyed it and I enjoyed it, that’s it,” Mr. Antoine said. “I didn’t care about whoever else seen it.”

He lay his Crown Graphic, which he bought from a neighbour for about $200, on the table at El Castillo. Like many antique machines, the camera was built ingeniously and durably. It is basically a metal box with a glass lens. No electrical parts, no battery. Fully manual. Ten iPhone generations from now, it will still produce beautiful photos.

The peel-apart film Mr. Antoine favours (Fuji FP-100C, a film stock ideal for commercial test shots) is another story. Three years ago, Fuji stopped making it. The fleeting quality of Mr. Antoine’s street photography, “the closest thing to a slice of time that I’ll ever get,” as he says, is made more ephemeral by the fact that one day, possibly very soon, he won’t be able to do it.

Some photographers of his ilk have switched to Instax, another Fuji instant film widely available at stores like Urban Outfitters. It produces images that are smaller in scale and, to Mr. Antoine’s eye, inferior in quality. It isn’t compatible with the Crown Graphic, either, so the charm of his presentation would be lost.

Like Mr. Mendes, Mr. Antoine has been stockpiling the discontinued film. He buys as much as he can get, wherever he can get it, and uses it up quickly. But scarcity has caused the price to skyrocket on the secondary market, from $8.99 for a pack of 10 sheets to $45 and rising

Its eventual extinction is a source of concern for Mr. Antoine. He has a girlfriend and an infant daughter and rent to pay on an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. His family’s livelihood depends on that film. When the last camera store sells the last leftover roll, what then?

Andre D. WagnerMr. Antoine at home on a Saturday morning.
Mr. Antoine at home on a Saturday morning.
Andre D. Wagner

“I have a couple of different avenues I’m pursuing,” Mr. Antoine said, adding that he will have his first gallery show, at the Brooklyn Bank, in May.

For now, he has grown more cautious with the shutter button, aware that every shot he takes “will be one shot less in the world.”

Mr. Antoine’s first “office” was farther north, on Broadway at Houston Street, but he found the intersection so busy, “sometimes I’d have anxiety attacks right there.” Seeking calmer turf, he moved to the sheltering facade of Dean & DeLuca six years ago and has been there ever since.

He works as much as possible in the warm, late-light summers, to save enough money to last him through the hibernating days of winter, a strategy he learned from Mr. Mendes. But even in the cold, Mr. Antoine tries to be on Prince Street, because “people almost expect me to be out,” he said.

On a recent weekday, Mr. Antoine got to SoHo around noon. The temperature was a relatively mild 45 degrees. He bought tea from his favorite food cart vendor on Broadway and then crossed the street to set up. He unpacked his cameras from a duffel bag — the Crown Graphic, a similar camera for a backup, a 35 millimeter camera for personal work — and placed them on the window ledge.

Next, he began sticking photos on the brick wall. The color portraits of stylish men and women of every race and background, taken by Mr. Antoine, serve as advertisements to passers-by.

He sipped his tea and pasted up his photos while listening to Coltrane through the little speaker. He took the better part of an hour to open for business.

Without ever leaving the block, Mr. Antoine has photographed film and music stars (Spike Lee, Michael Rapaport, ASAP Rocky), artists (Mr. Brainwash) and fashion-world figures (the costume designer June Ambrose), but his main customers are out-of-towners, like the two young guys from Milan, Italy, who approached him wearing matching Yankees caps.

Andre D. WagnerHis collection of cameras.
His collection of cameras.

Mr. Antoine guided the Italian tourists into the street to pose. His photos are souvenirs, not art shots. He makes sure to include what he calls “remnants” of the city (a yellow cab, say, or the facade of a loft building) so that people can look at the image later and place themselves in New York.

Mr. Antoine’s talent is reading his subjects and getting the exposure and composition correct on the fly, in traffic, with a manual camera. With autofocus and Instagram filters, it’s a forgotten skill. Once, a teenager told Mr. Antoine that his photography looked “simple,” to which he replied, “I want you to take this camera and take one simple shot.”

Mr. Antoine had no more takers beyond a vacationing couple from Puerto Rico. Foot traffic was slow this day. He didn’t seem especially bothered, or lonely. Several people who work or live in the neighbourhood recognized him and came over to talk.

One of them, Lawrence Schwartzwald, a photojournalist, stopped by to see what was new. He called Mr. Antoine “the Dorothy Parker of Prince Street,” proclaiming of his window ledge, “This is the Algonquin Hotel right here.”

Mr. Schwartzwald left, and Mr. Antoine spent the rest of the day leaning against the wall with his Crown Graphic, “fishing,” he said.

In a world that has increasingly moved indoors and gone virtual, he seemed a man out of time. The cars and pedestrians whirred by, and Mr. Antoine did what people in New York rarely do anymore: He stood on the street and watched.