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Even in the selfie age, old-school photo hustlers are still snapping.

On a recent Wednesday night, just as the last of the Broadway crowd trickled into theaters, Alexandra Santana strolled West 42nd Street looking for work. She wielded a 35-mm Nikon camera and offered a service that, if not dead, is on life support. “You guys want to pose for a picture together?” she asked a...
Time: 23:03     Date: 14.07.2018
US Living News: Even in the selfie age, old-school photo hustlers are still snapping. NY Post 24 - US News

“You guys want to pose for a picture together?” she asked a decked-out couple on a date. “I’ll take it for free.”

As Santana tried convincing passers-by to stop, her partner Sam Fong kept an eye on a laptop computer and Canon inkjet printer — hidden inside a wooden box on wheels — from which she produces pictures on the spot. During this era of selfies and iPhone filters, they rank among the last of an old breed: New York City’s photo hustlers.

“There are not as many [other photographers] out here as there used to be,” Santana told The Post, explaining that the competition has shrunk from dozens to just a handful. “Years ago, I shot 50 people in one night. Now, 20 people” — generating revenue of $400 or so — “is a good night. The iPhone caused the end of it.”

Santana, 30 years old and living in Brooklyn, has a day job as the housekeeping supervisor at the New York Film Academy and said that her work on the street is about more than money.

“You have to be devoted to the quality of the picture and enjoy meeting people,” she said. “Times Square is the biggest photo studio in the world. You put people where the light is — using headlights, police lights, street lights. You can’t beat it.”

She moved to New York at 15, coming on her own from Philadelphia, where “I didn’t have a stable family situation.” Five years later, a photographer on 42nd Street took her under his wing, taught her the trade and even bought her a camera at B&H. She would make as much as $150 per night helping him out.

The gig brought moments of unexpected excitement, including the time she captured a man arguing with a woman and pushing her in front of a car. “The police came and tried to take my camera,” Santana said. “I gave them a chip with the footage and it got used in court.”

The picture-hustling job has her carrying on a long-standing tradition that dates to the Civil War. “You had photographers on-site who would sell tintypes to the soldiers,” said Geoffrey Berliner, executive director of the Penumbra Foundation, a photographic arts and education organization in Manhattan. “If the soldier survived, he had a keepsake. If he got his head blown off, he could be identified.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, photo hawkers made their way to beach resorts such as Coney Island. Others ventured out into lower-income neighborhoods “where the people couldn’t afford cameras,” said Ray Ortiz, a former “Good Day New York” producer. He ushered at the Apollo Theater in 1980s and remembers several hustlers working under the marquee.

Alexandra Santana editing photos she’s taken on the streets of Times SquareStefano Giovannini

The business enjoyed a bit of a bump in the 1970s when the advent of affordable Polaroid cameras allowed street photographers to provide instant snaps to customers.

“I’d get my picture taken whenever I had a new haircut, a new suit or a new girlfriend,” added Ortiz.

And while the smartphone boom was a big blow, there’s still a surprising sweet spot: People want slick, high-quality photos to show off on social media — and they’re willing to pay someone such as Santana to capture them posing in the middle of 42nd Street traffic. (The deal is that they don’t pay Santana unless they like the image they see on the laptop screen and want a print.)

Back on 42nd Street, Santana snagged the attention of 16-year-old Kavron Ford and his 15-year-old girlfriend Cassidy Cruze. “I’ve never done this before,” Cruze said, leaving the impression that being photographed with a real camera — not a phone — and getting an actual print can seem special. Her boyfriend took the hint.

They posed against a backdrop of city traffic and Santana was all fawning compliments, building the couple up. Seeing their photo printed out, Ford marveled, “I look like a grown man.”

Cruze selected one that posed them cheek to cheek. “That’s going on the wall in my bedroom,” she said, leaning in to give Ford a kiss, clearly appreciating the sight of a physical photo.

They paid their $20, strolled away and Santana summed up the beauty of her all-but-antiquated job: “It was like he gave her a flower. She loved the romance of it. You don’t get that with a selfie.”

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