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Ways of Working #4 (Repeatability)

Street photography is whatever you want it to be. You can be aimless and wander; you can bring your lights out onto the street and get pedestrians to sign model releases. Whatever works for you and your tastes. One approach that’s brought me some satisfaction is to have projects that are location specific and calendar-based (meaning they can only be done on certain days, or at certain times of day, at a particular spot) and before I leave the house, I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m going to do there. I don’t have to think about mechanics. I know what kind of gear I’ll need and I have an approximate understanding of what the light will be doing.

Once you’ve got the location wired and the mechanics down, you’re free to relax and get the shots you need. There’s nothing left to consider, frankly. Things are wide-open; it’s just you and the subject. By answering as many questions as you can ahead of time (where to shoot? when to shoot? with what camera shall I shoot?) you give yourself a wide base on which to stand. You become a nimbler, more aware photographer. You’re prepared and on point. You begin to see patterns in the chaos. You know what to do when the light changes here right now, because it happens every time. You know that when the light dies, it’s going to be really sweet a half-block to the north.

Controlled chaos. Planned accidents. Managing luck. Street photography’s variability is what makes it interesting. Anything can happen. It’s right in front of you, it’s behind you, it’s around the next corner. Sit and wait, wait and watch, watch or leave or not. You can only be in one place at one time. Do you let the streets come to you, or do you take it to the streets? So many styles, asthetics, philosophies, but it’s all about the same thing — taking a good photograph.

In art, formal considerations purposefully limit expression. “Anything goes” steps down to “anything goes as long as it’s done on canvas in oils.” Poets talk about how writing in forms (rhyme & meter) keep a part of the poet’s brain occupied in such a way that frees another part, and allows for surprises emerge. True expression can come from anywhere, when you least expect it.

In photography, form is dictated (in part) by your equipment, but what you shoot and how you shoot is more important than what kind of gear you use. Form can bring structure to chaos, and one way to address form in photography is through repeatability. “On Saturday’s I’ll only photograph people above the waist,’ let’s say. Or, “I’m never going to crop anything; full-frames only.”

A lot of writers talk about how they like to rent studio space so they can go to work with everyone and feel like they have a “normal job” — that there’s a separate space away from home where their task is to be creative and bang it out. I feel the same way every time I head out to No Flash Corner. I’m going to work (in a sense) and I’m going to be surprised and challenged and I’m going to learn something new. I’m focused, with a plan.

I imagine that’s the lure of studio photography. To know your lighting rigs and how you’ll set things up to get great shots, regardless of the model. Studios increase creativity by reducing variability. Studios are all about repeatability.

Recently I was talking to a photographer who talked about having to leave her camera at home because she was getting manic about photographing *everything*. This, this, THAT! By picking a location and discovering its sweet spots, you develop (for lack of a better word) a relationship to a place — and you know you have a job to do when you get there, which gives you the freedom to pass-up distractions along the way.

Working at the same location week after week girds you for what you can’t control; the wildness, the questions from strangers, pigeon shit, the self-conciousness inherent in standing in traffic, checking the strength of shadows cast by your hand.

Everyone has a camera these days, but few explore what can be done by returning to one small spot on the globe, time and again. Try it. Try it while you’re still able.

Obligatory self-links to three exercises in repeatability:
No Flash Corner
Closer Than
Moonshot

1. Get Over It
2. Relax
3. Know Your Gear
4. Repeatability
5. Honesty
6. Masking
7. Study
8. Develop
9. Persist
10. Share

Tag: Ways of Working