Exploring Street Photography, part two

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Part 2: Snatching Order Out of Chaos by Olaf Willoughby

What makes a good street shot?

A recent article in the Huffington Post was entitled, ’Street Photography Has No Clothes’. As the author clearly intended, it sparked a lot of controversy. In it, he decried the lumping together in one category, of the work of time-honoured masters with the ‘hundreds of thousands of dull, hackneyed candid images of random strangers by hopeless photographers’.

Let’s set aside the sensationalist language and put it down to a Bruce Gilden-like attempt to bring out the ugliness in others. There’s an undercurrent in society today that yesterday there was a better quality of life. Today everything is being ‘dumbed down’. Does that apply to Street Photography too or is the author just taking a cheap shot?

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As with the debate over photo manipulation, we’ve been here before. Edward Weston wrote critically about, ‘… hundreds of tired businessmen, tradesmen and idle women who play with photography as a holiday hobby – and then offer their results as art’.

And on the subject of art. Regarding the introduction by Kodak of the hand camera in 1888, John Szarkowski, MoMA noted, ‘It was a common article of faith that art was hard and artists rare; if photography was easy and everyone was a photographer; photography could hardly be taken seriously as an art’.

So the author of the Huffington Post article was following in a tradition of criticising the democratisation of photography? Except for one thing. The situation today is radically different.

First, the so-called ‘hopeless photographers’. Think bandwidth. The ubiquity and convenience of the web and the iPhone have changed our visual culture and in the process, photography forever. Consider the narrow media options available through the first half of the 20th Century. People showed prints in a photo album, sat in a dark room to watch a Kodachrome slide show or joined their local camera club. To get work shown nationally or (almost unimaginably) internationally; meant being featured in a magazine or a gallery show, both of which were hard.

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Then, in 1992, the world changed. The first photo was uploaded to the internet. Lulu and Blurb print on demand came along in 2002 and 2005 respectively when Flickr also started. In 2015 we’ll take 1 trillion photos and by 2016, 2 billion people will have Smartphones. We can no longer compare like with like. Go and stand in a busy street. Look around. We have become a screen based culture. Image trends like selfies mark the evolution of a new visual shorthand where the globe is our gallery.

Where Weston spoke of ‘hundreds’ we are now talking ‘millions’ and as Facebook had 1 billion users on line on Aug 24th, no doubt that will grow further in the next few years. Of course in this avalanche of images it is  easy to criticise a lack of artistic intent. But the new reality is that taking a photo is a natural part of everyday life. Possibly these people don’t want to be Winogrand, Maier or Erwit? Maybe they just enjoy taking and sharing pictures? And why not?

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Let’s turn our attention to the ‘time-honoured masters’. So, when did great Street Photography cease? Yes many of the great names were and still are geniuses but here’s an interesting thought. I believe there are many photographers today who are the modern day equivalents of the great masters.

The problem is they are hard to find because of internet fragmentation and the fact that the biggest gallery, curator, critic and collector communities prefer conceptual or cause related documentary work over contemporary street images. In fact we are in the midst of an explosion in photographic awareness and education and it is my contention that Street Photography is alive, well and flourishing with modern masters. Check these websites for examples:

http://www.theleicameet.com/ – (disclosure, I am one of the founder members of this group)

https://www.lensculture.com/ – a truly authoritative resource for contemporary photography

http://www.in-public.com/ – whose aim is to promote/explore the possibilities of Street Photography

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Let’s return to the opening question.

What makes a good street shot? Let’s assume technical competence and a measure of originality…i.e. more than just a picture of people in the street.

Good Street Photography should contain the same basic qualities that make any photograph or indeed any work of art successful. It possesses an energy, something which attracts and engages the viewer. This can be as momentary as a humorous gesture or as meaningful as posing a question for the viewer to answer. After all, one definition of art is that it leaves space for the viewer to interact with the work.

Henri Cartier-Bresson gives us a clue as to what lies in this space. In the mid 1960’s, HCB went through his life’s work at Magnum intent on destroying most of it. Martinez, Delpire and Gassman persuaded him to let them edit his work instead. Even then he still rejected images he felt were, ‘too perfect – they don’t have enough ambiguity’.

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Good street shooting achieves this ambiguity by recording a split second which symbolises our humanity. A hand movement, a look, an interaction which is instantly recognisable when we reveal it to others. We pass through a thousand of these moments of drama everyday, mostly without noticing them. We screen them out to get on with our lives.

There are dozens of ‘split seconds’ on the street to choose from. In this post I’ve chosen eye contact. It can of course be posed or candid. As I mentioned in part one of this series, I’m comfortable with a loose definition of Street Photography, so either works for me. However the images posted here are all candid.

I used two main techniques; shooting from eye level and from the hip. (If you’re a seasoned street shooter please look at the photos and skip to the end. You’ll know most of this already!)

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Shooting at eye level is straightforward, although I prefer to move slowly or even station myself somewhere and wait for an interesting moment. I feel less intrusive if people come to me, rather than me appearing to be ‘stalking and hunting’ for images. But this is purely personal taste. Your style may vary.

Shooting from the hip, chest, elbow is based on zone focusing. So I set my Leica M240 to ISO 800 and my favourite 24mm Summilux focusing ring at 2m. Then I know that at f4, everything from 1.4m to 3.4m will be acceptably sharp. It’s as good as and arguably better than auto focus where I can’t be sure where the focus point will lock.

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The magic of shooting Street Photography is that we become attuned to noticing and capturing these brief instants.

The wonder of viewing Street Photography is that it snatches a moment of order out of the chaos of the commonplace.

In fact let me edit that. I’ll take a hint from HCB and change that last line to ‘snatching a moment of ambiguity out of the chaos of the commonplace’.

In part 3 of this series I’ll be looking at different approaches to capturing that ambiguity in Street Photography. I hope you are enjoying it so far.

PS: Street can be a divisive and emotional subject. There are no eternal rules of right and wrong. All artists and genres of art shapeshift through time and this article simply represents my opinion at this moment. I appreciate that your views may vary and that’s fine.

Tech note: all images made with Leica M series cameras, except the opening street scene (iPhone).

Olaf Willoughby

Olaf and Eileen McCarney Muldoon are co-teaching a Street Photography workshop, “Destination Brooklyn, Unlocking Mysteries”, Sep 21 – 24th. email me at: olaffwilloughby@gmail.com or more information: https://slate.adobe.com/a/z6nZD

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5 Comments

  1. I would love to have the courage to pursue street photography. Vivian Maier’s images leave me breathless, the way your photograph of the gentleman looking straight into your lens did. My fear of intruding on a stranger’s moment holds me prisoner, however. Have you ever photographed someone only to have them protest?
    Thank you for an inspiring and informative post!
    ~Dori

    Reply

    1. Hi. It has happened but only rarely and then prior to the shot being taken. In that situation it is obvious that I would be intruding so I wouldnt take the picture. Shooting from the hip/shoulder or while looking the other way gets around this quite neatly. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks.

      Reply

      1. Thank you for responding Olaf. Maybe I’ll gather my courage and try this soul-sharing form of photography. Thank you also for your great hints on how to go about it humbly!
        Best,
        Dori

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