One of the first “serious” photographs that Christine Osinski remembers taking was a portrait of a boy on a bicycle. Before she even imagined photography as a career, she shared the image with the Art Institute of Chicago’s legendary photography curator Hugh Edwards. Edwards had a history of encouraging young photographers to photograph people in the streets and communities of Chicago. He championed the commonplace, staying local instead of becoming a photographic tourist, and often spoke about photography’s ability to be contradictory and mysterious. Edwards’ ideas have manifested themselves in Osinski’s work over the past thirty years. They range from images that tread into voyeuristic territory, to momentary yet revealing ethnographic photographs of strangers, and prolonged work with New York City’s often overlooked communities.

Osinski initially wanted to be a painter, but during her final semester as an undergraduate at the Art institute of Chicago, the feeling of isolation and need for human contact in her led her to explore photography. “It was springtime, and I had just moved into a new apartment in a new area of Chicago,” she says. “I decided to explore my new neighborhood and found that I was more adventurous if I carried a camera. The afternoon spring light was magical and it felt so good to be walking around, engaged with the outside world.” While she had only taken a few photography classes, it was at this point that she began to see photography as a real possibility.

Osinski soon moved to New York City, and after her landlord decided to flip her Lower Manhattan loft, settled in Staten Island. It was there that she began her most famed series, Summer Days Staten Island, narrating the often-overlooked borough with pictures that span from classic street photography to almost-typological portraits. From 1983-1984, she wandered around the borough with her medium and large format 4x5 camera, making distant pictures of its neighborhoods. These communities reminded her of her hometown in Chicago, of people she grew up with who felt both unusual and familiar.

“The first photographs I took were essentially landscape photographs in which the people were a very small part of the larger image because I was scared to approach strangers.” One of these early images, which made the final edit of Summer Days, Staten Island is a quiet picture of a woman hanging laundry in her yard. The woman stands contemplative, mid-fold, unaware of Osinski’s presence. There is a level of cinematic voyeurism in the photograph, a sense of peering in to suburban life, a quality that transcends the “decisive moment” of classic street photography with quiet pause.

In another image, Men Fixing a House Near Staten Island Mall, a construction worker hammers on a roof while his partner climbs, one leg up, into their van, their gestures floating in entranced, almost concocted sync. Like the woman folding laundry, it’s a distant gesture, reminiscent of the work of street photographers like Cartier Bresson, yet elevated by the heightened realism of her large negative. “As I continued to work,” Osinski adds, “I got physically and emotionally closer as my subjects became more prominent in each image. I never spoke with the woman handing the laundry although she watched me as I set up my tripod. Once I was able to take this photograph without the woman objecting, my confidence was bolstered as I began to get closer and closer to my subjects.”

As she continued making this work, Osinski used the hulking peculiarity of her camera and tripod to get closer to her subjects who were drawn to its spectacle, and often would unconsciously perform and open up to her gaze. Whether the people she photographed looked directly into her lens, or stared off, there is a sense of closeness and direct connection between them and Osinski. In Young Worker Under A Tree, for example, a blue color worker rests his arm, half leaning on the back of a cargo van. He stares off, beyond the photograph’s frame, but we feel a line of communication hovering between them, a momentary pause of intimacy. While this type of photograph could veer towards contrivance, it feels unexpectedly natural: there is something casual and mid-thought about his posture and the way his hand loosely holds a cigarette.

While this work was made in the early 1980s, it was not published until 2015, largely because of some technical difficulties with the exposures of the negatives. Thanks to the higher quality film scanners of the past decade, Osinski’s monograph was published without a hitch, and quickly went viral in early 2016, with press spanning Slate, Vogue, and the New York Times.

Shortly after making Summer Days, Staten Island in 1998, Osinski began frequenting discount stores, supermarkets, and malls, candidly photographing shoppers without their awareness or permission. Unlike Staten Island, Summer Days, which evolved to rely on Osinski’s close rapport with her subjects, these pictures were hidden, angular, and invasive. One image captures a woman and her two daughters shopping for home goods. They stare off in mid-thought, nearly hypnotized by the moment, the middle daughter’s frozen gaze not unlike a store mannequin. In another image, an older woman walks through a supermarket clearance aisle, staring down between breaths as she balances a small plastic cup atop a store-brand cola can. The psychology in many of these images hovers between existential pessimism and bliss. While far from a comment on consumerist behaviors, they offer an empathetic view of these aspects of blue collar and middle class life.

Shot with a medium-format camera without a viewfinder, Osinski made these pictures with spontaneity and chance, removing the sense of control from her earlier body of work.

“I initially had to test many rolls of film to be able to judge focal distance because I never looked through the camera as I photographed.” She says. “Once I knew the focus worked out without looking through the camera, I began to photograph in earnest.”

Osinski would develop batches of rolls together, creating an ambiguous timeline on the project without a clear beginning, middle, or end. To this day, she remains unclear as to which was the first photograph in the series. Osinski cites Walker Evans’ famous subway images shot with a hidden camera, under harsh lighting, likening consumers to hunter-gatherers. “As I did this work,” says Osinski, “the promise of consumerism – gratification through shopping – clearly became an activity of diminishing returns as I too became a hunter-gatherer, but of images.”

Shortly after, Osinski began New York City Archipelago, a ten-year project capturing thirty eight small islands within New York City. This marked a return to the slowed down, intimate archeology of Staten Island Days and reads like its longer-term evolution. Wandering on foot, by car, and by boat, she explored the areas not commonly associated as New York City “proper,” often referred to as “secondary sites,” yet ripe with their own histories and identities. While this was an opportunity to give an identity to the city’s less represented communities, it comes across less like a formal photojournalistic document, and more like a literary mechanism to visualize the its untold stories.

“Most people experience the city only by land,” she says, “but New York City is actually a series of islands with unique histories and identities. As I pursued this project, the shoots of history mingle with my own sense of adventure as an urban voyager.”

One of the first pictures she made for this series was an image shot on Ward’s Island. While now known for sweeping greenways and picnic grounds, the island has a history of being home to psychiatric hospitals, asylums and waste treatment plants, and at the time when Osinski was photographing, it was a wild, overgrown place. “There were grassy areas that almost came up to my shoulders,” she says. “Homeless men fashioned walking sticks for themselves by tearing off tree branches.” In another image, a man hunches over a small hole in a cemetery in City Island. As she recalls, he was the cemetery’s owner, digging a hole to inter ashes into the grave, but out of context, the image and the strangely small size of the hole paint a shadowy narrative of the island’s history.

Like Staten Island Days, much of this work was about immersing herself in a completely foreign land, immortalizing its strangers, and moving onward. Each photographic encounter was brief, shooting a few frames at most before continuing her journey. While she was able to capture a sense of momentary intimacy her larger narratives were built around her subjects as fleeting moments, or chapter markers to a larger metaphor or storyline.

Concurrent to Shoppers and New York Archipelago, Osinski was gradually building Drawn to Water, a body of work about a Staten Island woman’s synchronized swimming group which she would continue for nearly two decades. The series began in 1985 ,after she saw a humorous photograph in a local newspaper advertising a performance by a women’s synchronized swimmers group. She was intrigued by the peculiarity of the image, with legs jutting in at different angles, so she attended the performance and began photographing the swimmers. Unlike her other series, Osinski spent prolonged periods of time with her subjects, developing longstanding relationships with them instead of capturing a fleeting narrative magic. She spent the first eight months of this series establishing a deep sense of trust.

“Photographing women in bathing suits is a loaded issue,” she says. “This group was composed of young girls of about eight through to older women in their late seventies and early eighties. There were all types of bodies attempting to swim in harmony, outside of the dominant cultural competition of perfectly sculpted bodies.”

As western culture and media rarely portrays women, especially in bathing suits, on their own terms, Osinski was moved to make images that represented these swimmers, with a range of body types, free from the problems often associated with outside gaze and representation. “These swimmers operated outside of society’s prescription for female perfection,” she says.

While Osinski’s work and practice falls neatly into the umbrella of “straight photography,” it’s difficult to reduce to a specific genre. She operates in the traditions of classic documentary photographers like Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark in her style of reportage, but branches into grayer, less classifiable territory, often resembling the portraiture of Judith Joy Ross. Throughout her career, she’s alternated between highly constructed images, slow gestures and open communication, portraits that breathe like open landscapes, and off-the cuff photographs that reek of spontaneous energy. Her work is threaded together with a constant and deep sense of seeing within her subjects. Understanding how the structure of a frame – whether meticulously organized through the viewfinder of a 4x5, or angular and off the cuff, contribute to how we understand people, place, and narrative.

Christine Osinski’s work has been included in recent exhibitions at The Brooklyn Museum, NYC; Alice Austen Museum, NYC; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece; National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; Arsenal Gallery in NYC’s Central Park; Joseph Bellows Gallery and Sasha Wolf Gallery. In 2005, Osinski became a Guggenheim Fellow and she received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation inaugural photography grant in 2015. Her work has also received support from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Graham Foundation and Lightwork among other grants. Photographs and reviews of her work have appeared recently in: The New York Times; The New Yorker; BBC News; The Daily Telegraph; The Guardian; American Suburb X among other publications.

Jon Feinstein is a Seattle and New York City based curator, photographer, the co-founder of Humble Arts Foundation, and Strategic Partnerships Manager at Shutterstock. Jon has curated numerous exhibitions, including Radical Color at Newspace Center for Photography, in Portland, Oregon; Another New York for Art-Bridge at The Barclays Arena in Brooklyn, NY; the internet-acclaimed New Cats in Art Photography; Aneta Bartos’ Boys at the Carlton Arms Hotel in NYC, and 31 Women in Art Photography at Hasted Kraetleur in NYC. His various projects have received high praise by The New York Times, The New Republic, BBC, VICE, Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, American Photo, Art Info, and FoxNews; and his writing has appeared in TIME, Slate, Daylight, GOOD, and Whitewall Magazines. Find him shamelessly on Instagram and Twitter