Street Photography Ain’t Simple

A while back my friend Sebastien blogged about a foray into street photography after picking up a new camera. I took umbrage at what I saw as a gear related, throw-money-at-the-problem answer to a question that has not much to do with gear or money, resulting in a comment thread including French translation and disemvowelment. Revisiting all that is fun and I was unfair, everyone’s approach to their own work is valid right? Or maybe there is a right and wrong. Anyway, unless he is planning to be the next Vivian Maier it looks like the street bug hasn’t bitten him in a while which makes me sad.

In retrospect what really got me going was the fact that by that time I’d been practicing candid photography — trying to define “street” is like wrestling a grizzly bear covered in Crisco, you’ll never get ahold of anything and just end up worse for the effort — for a couple of years and here this French guy picks up a new camera, snaps a few frames, and suddenly has something to say about it? Kind of galling. That was unfair too, and I need to remember to focus more on making my own work and less on what others are doing. He has the same right as anyone to share his thoughts and experiences. I’m going to take advantage of that right too, and probably regret it a year or two from now.

Larkfest 2009

So this is one of my earlier attempts. I did what a lot of people do at first, faced with the terrifying prospect of actually interacting with people in public, and fired off a hipshot instead of using the viewfinder. Thankfully there was no hope of this photo being anything but terrible, but the hipshooting made it worse. lesson learned.

2009 Scott Kelby Photo Walk, Albany NY

The annual Scott Kelby Photo Walk is a thing, and I did it in 2009, with the intent of taking candids to show the people and daily life of Albany, rather than macro flower photos or something. I used a really long telephoto, and you can see how that turned out, there’s something really creepy about this photo. This one is even worse. I decided very quickly that I don’t like candid telephoto. A macro flower photo was picked for the photo walk that year.

So I played on the title of Sebastien’s post because after a couple years of doing this stuff, I think it really is easy. That is, it’s accessible, anyone can try it, there’s virtually no barrier to entry. If you are reading this you have some kind of picture taking technology and live in a society where people play out some of their lives in public. In fact this might be the most democratic of genres, because traditionally technical merits can be and often are overlooked in the case of a good photo. Flickr proved this. Don’t get me wrong, I have a spot in my heart for macro flowers too, but that requires specific, often expensive equipment and some technical knowledge and experience. For street, something with minimal shutter lag is about all I would ask for, and even that’s optional. If it’s not already I expect the iPhone to be the most popular street camera in history soon.

Balboa Park, San Diego California

So in that sense, it’s easy. And I kept working at it, carrying my big, heavy, obvious, definitely not for the street according to some camera everywhere I could, taking occasional photos like this. After a while the fear wears off, by which I mean I don’t have the excuse of hipshooting to explain what went wrong here. And I learned that while it’s easy, it’s not simple at all. It took many, many tries before I started making photos with something I liked. They’re still few and far between. Some of that is thanks to lessons learned, like that an interesting subject doesn’t necessarily make an interesting photo (in fact there’s usually an inverse relationship), and that even with a huge camera to your face most people actively try to ignore you (as in the “pick a fight” scene in Fight Club) and those who don’t almost always have something interesting to say if you just talk to them, with negative confrontations very rare. Working on this kind of photography has brought me out of my own shell, so even if I never make an excellent photo I’ve gained something. But the other side of the not simple equation is that you’re working with (or against) the full entropy of the universe. Good photos are everywhere but they can vanish as quickly as you can get the camera up. The unexpected is what you’re looking for and what ruins almost every frame. This is not a still life you can set up and shoot from fifty different angles (Weston I still love your peppers). You control only where you point the camera and when you press the button. The rest is not up to you.

Troy River Street Festival 2011

Shooting events is largely responsible for reigniting my interest in photography a few years ago, and it’s a good entry point into street. Stop shooting the parade and start shooting the crowd. Even better, the lessons you learn from that complex problem will make your photos of the parade better too. These days when I go to a street fair I take very few photos of what’s on the tables and stages, instead the people behind and around them. It’s more challenging partially because the obvious — the parade, the bent fork sculptures, the girls in tank tops hired by a promotional company — are designed to be eye catching. The other stuff is not, so you have to find what’s interesting about it.

Soapbox Derby, Albany NY

Where’s this all headed? I don’t know. I’m not ready to call myself a street photographer, but there’s a long history of folks dropping the genre after a couple of decades of work. The famous Henri Cartier-Bresson finished his days as a painter, not a photographer. Maybe if I ever get to the point where it’s not a challenge, I’ll get tired of it, the same way I became interested in it because photos of fireworks and abandoned factories are not challenging anymore. In the meantime, I’m actually getting positive feedback here and there, which is nice; this year I entered three street photos in the Mohawk-Hudson Regional and was awarded the Albany Center Gallery Board of Directors prize, for which I’m very grateful.

St. Patrick's Day 2012, Albany NY

That was one of them. I’m no Winogrand either.

Shortly after writing a draft of this, a not-Sebastien friend who takes excellent candid photos of family and friends started a conversation about street photography. It began with the telephoto issue but we covered a few other bases. I eventually summed it up as well as I could by saying that I’m part of the society and world that I’m photographing, there’s no way to separate myself from that, and I want as little distance as possible — not just physically — between me and what/who is in my photos. Well, I didn’t say it that clearly. But that approach, which I learned through an interest in street, has fully influenced all the photos I make.

Washington Park, Albany NY

Then again, Capa said “If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” and he stepped on a land mine.

Troy, NY 12.04.2011

“Stepping on a Land Mine” would have been a good title for this because I’m sure I’m doing that.

Street photography, or at least a street “approach” (christ, if I can’t define “street” I should probably avoid phrases like that), is the only thing that convinces me to pick up the camera some days. But also, the fact that it is so not-simple, and that I still haven’t made a photo that I’m really, truly, 100% happy with, causes a monthly crisis of confidence. Following a few really great photographers on flickr doesn’t help that (though it helps a lot of other things). Mostly this style of photography is just fun as hell, and the world is so interesting even though I don’t understand it much. Making these photos is partially an attempt to figure it out.

Lake George, New York

I put together a street set on flickr, which shows me some trends in my own work. I could build bodies of work around the following subjects:

– dogs
– people getting their photo taken
– people taking photos
– people leaning on railings
– butts

Washington Park, Albany NY

At some point I’ll get all five of those in one photo and then I’ll probably quit.

That’s probably enough from me for now. There are lots of good resources out there for street photography, all of which have better photos than I do. The Hardcore Street Photography flickr group has an excellent pool, with hit-and-miss discussion. A few other good flickr groups, not all dedicated expressly to street but with a general focus on that aesthetic: La Familia Abrazada, At War With the Obvious, Sharpness is Such a Bourgeois Concept, SeriousBalloons (yes really), and Rule of Third Beers. The number of websites dedicated to street is staggering, but a few I really like are iN PUBLiC, Blake Andrews, La Pura Vida, American Suburb X, and holy crap, a lot more. Michael David Murphy doesn’t update his blog much these days but his Ways of Working series is still a great intro. If you want more web stuff and use Google Reader email me and I’ll export my 200+ feed photo folder.

There are some great books out there too, and I can’t recommend more highly the act of physically looking at prints, even in book form. Bystander is sadly out of print but as close as it comes to a history of the genre by people who know what they’re talking about. Street Photography Now includes more contemporary work with an outstanding bibliography. There are lots of how to books out there but most of them are crap by bandwagon jumpers looking to make a buck. Be careful. If you’re near any small or larger metro area local libraries can be a surprisingly good resource, find the branch that has the best photo selection and block off an hour or so to pull a couple big books down and just look at photos.

Oh, there’s some good stuff on Youtube too, try a search for Bruce Gilden, Joel Meyerowitz, or Garry Winogrand for a start. And Bill Cunningham New York was a great movie! And as for that crisis of confidence thing earlier, this Ira Glass interview helps.

That’s all from me. For now.

2 thoughts on “Street Photography Ain’t Simple

  1. Jess

    Funny coincidence: I’m about 99 percent positive that the girl with pink hair in the top photo is my stepsister (well, my day’s girlfriend’s daughter.)

  2. B

    Huh! Well keep in mind that was 2009. Though through sheer odds I’m sure I’ve taken plenty of photos of people who people I know know.

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