Sandra Jetton is a 5-foot, 3-inch blonde with a friendly face. Her smile, however, turns edgy when she’s asked for a photo.
Still, the 67-year-old Upper West Sider describes herself as “kind of outgoing and sort of adorable,” charms she uses to her advantage when she needs to ask permission to take a picture. A street photographer drawn to, in her words, “people who are just a little different and circumstances that are just a little off kilter,” 16 of her monochromatic photos are on view at St. Agnes Library.
The photos are part of her collection titled “Street Theater: Scenes From the Show,” shots taken from New York, Havana and New Orleans that capture the theatrical and unusual. They line the stairs from the first to the second floor, commanding attention from passers-by. There’s a still of a man in a polka dot sundress and combat boots lighting a cigarette, one of a woman holding up a dog to mask her face, and another that captures a Brooklyn teenager’s quest for the glamorous selfie.
Her photos are mostly “shoot and run” — Jetton withdraws within crowds, steps out when she sees a moment she wants to capture, then blends in once more. It’s not a challenge for her to go unnoticed, she says. “Sometimes people are very deep in their own thoughts,” she says, “and you can walk up right to them and shoot and they’re not focused on anything.”
She never poses her photos either. The first picture showing on her website is one of that older woman holding up her dog.
“She was sitting on a bench outside a restaurant on the Lower East Side,” Jetton recalls, “and had this very elaborate blue eye makeup. I did ask, ‘Would you mind if I took your picture?’ and she said, ‘Of course my, dear!’ and she bent down and picked up her dog and put it in front of her face. I took a couple of shots and I thought, ‘well that was a waste,’ then I got home and I said ‘Oh no! It’s so much better this way! It’s really wacky and crazy!”
Jetton began working on “Street Theater” in 2011, six years after she had left a 20-year career in banking during which she had risen to senior executive posts at Citibank and Chase Manhattan. She then spent time in Sullivan County, and rediscovered her childhood passion for photography there. But Jetton and her husband, Academy Award-winning film producer David Picker, eventually moved back to New York. It’s here that Jetton does a majority of her photography, inspired by the grittiness of the Lower East Side and uptown, above 125th Street.
She had moved to New York from Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1970s, driven by dreams of singing at the Metropolitan Opera. The city’s grit and gruff also enticed her. One reason she shoots in black and white is to give her pictures an anachronistic texture, one that captures a timeless moodiness. Opera was her first passion, though, but after a few shows she realized she could be pretty good, but not great. She left the stage and began working nine-to-fives in the banking world. A taste for the theatrical never left her.
“I was never drawn to landscapes or pretty things or colorful things,” she says. “Even travel photography. You know, we’re in Havana and I’m shooting the people.” That’s another reason she works with black and white. “If you strip away the bright colors,” she says, “it takes you more to the story.” Removing distractions allows the audience to see the person in the story, she says.
She’s lately been drawn to abandoned spaces. A collection titled “Left Behind” is a series of photos that captures old and shabby deserted places.
Jetton’s features soften as she recalls a trip to the former Contagious Disease Ward on Ellis Island. Abandoned in 1954, the hospital housed newly arrived immigrants who were deemed physically or mentally unfit to enter the United States.
“There’s something about the feeling that’s left behind when you think about all the people who passed through there. What was their life like? There’s this one shot of a big waiting room that’s all empty now, but you can see the Statue of Liberty right through it. So you’re thinking of these people who were getting shuffled off the boat and they see it through the window, you know it’s that close. Are they going to make it?”
“Street Theater: Scenes From the Show” is on view at St. Agnes Library, 444 Amsterdam Ave., through Feb. 29. As for Jetton, you might find her, among crowds, shadowing the unusual and the obscure.