I once knew a musician who didn’t like to listen to anyone else’s music because he didn’t want it to influence his creative muster. Conversely, I knew a poet who liked to copy her favorite poems (by other poets) in her own hand, to get the feel for them.
When it comes to photography, you can have your eyes closed to influence, or you can follow the exact recipe that’s worked for photographers you admire (as in “needing” a Leica with a 28mm lens). Either (or) might work for you; I’ve found that a path right up the middle works well.
A few times a month, I make a point to carve out a couple hours and go to the library (usually between 10-2, when the sun’s high and the light’s uninteresting), or a museum bookstore, so I can spend time with books that are too expensive to own.
Monographs, compilations, histories, explorations. My local library is (literally) stacked with all kinds of photo books, so I just grab a big stack and head to a desk and plough through them. There are a few books that have really opened my eyes when thinking about street photography, so I figured I’d mention them here.
And again, you might find enough direction and inspiration by watching television or flipping through fashion mags — I’ve found books to be the best way to study the history of photography, to realize what’s been done, and to think about new ways to approach the age-old issue of photographing on the streets.
A few years ago in a gallery, before I started taking photographs seriously (I used to think of photography as “an easy art”), I saw a few images from Philip Lorca DiCorcia’s “Heads” project. I remembered them when I opened-up DiCorcia’s book. Although DiCorcia’s methods (expensive lights, cameras and lenses) may be beyond your means (or interest), the results are stunning, and get at the core of what street photography is all about; people as their elemental selves.
I’ve found much guidance from compendiums, specifially Magnum Degrees (and more recently AP-20). In the larger compilation-type books, you’ll find photographers who are new to you, and perhaps aren’t as popular as the biggies you already know. I hadn’t seen Martin Parr‘s work before seeing it in the Magnum book, or Gueorgui Pinkhassov‘s incredible street shots of Tokyo (including the inside cover).
Sure, there are more Bresson books than you can shake a stick at, and even if you’re tired of looking at his work (or Winogrand’s or Meyerowitz’s), there’s much that can be learned from slowing down and taking on a particular image and figuring out why it works.
Let’s look at an image of Winogrand’s, from his project on zoos. You’ve probably seen it before – and that’s part of the problem, try seeing it again with fresh eyes. We can still learn from iconic images if we keep looking closely.
A friend recently asked me what I liked about this particular image, and rather than talk about the obvious cultural relevance (an interracial couple in 1964) I remembered how much I love its amazing details, and what they say about Winogrand and his abilities as a photographer.
Positioning, positioning, posititioning. Everyone talks about the perfect moment in relationship to street photography, but you can’t have the perfect moment if you’re a block away, fiddling with your flash card. Being in the right position is great composition, especially when you’re not a compulsive cropper. It’d be interesting to see the contact sheet from this roll to examine where Winogrand was in relation to this couple before and after this shot. My hunch is that this isn’t the only picture of them, but it’s clearly the best. Why? Because he’s close enough to make the subject matter.
A quick list of what’s going on, or what Winogrand (through perfect positioning) was able to capture:
- Monkeys are being held like children
- Monkeys are dressed like humans
- Monkey’s left fist clutching woman’s sweater
- Child on right, below monkey, clutching human hand
- Monkeys not wearing hoods –>
- Child wearing hood/hat –>
- Woman wearing paisely scarf/hood
- Man wearing suit & tie
- Both monkeys looking down and to the left
- All five foreground faces in perfect light
- Indifference of crowd in background
- Photographer’s shadow doesn’t block key subject matter
- Expressions on the couple’s faces; stern, focused, compassionate
- The “normality” with which the couple shoulders the animals
- Perfect place / perfect time
One thing I’ve learned from this image that I try to apply to every photo I look at; can you imagine how it was created? Did Winogrand just happen to be there, walking around? Possibly, but I doubt it. Yes he was working on a zoo project. He was probably in the vicinity with cameras, which is half the battle. (We’ll get at this next, in Ways of Working #8 – Develop.)
Perhaps this was some kind of “adoption day” at the zoo, and he read about it somewhere, and showed-up thinking that he might get an interesting picture or two. He couldn’t have foreseen this particular scene, and that’s the unpredictable joy of street photography. What I’m trying to say is there are three ways you can take pictures. You can sit on your butt and take pictures of your feet; you can step outside and see where the day takes you; you can keep your ear to the ground and find out when/where interesting things are happening, and/or do some research and seek them out.
Winogrand’s photograph continues to teach me the second and third ways.
Keep your eyes wide; visit your local library if you appreciate the tactile feel of books and their high-quality images (so much better than the Web); look at old stuff even if old stuff bores you – figure out why it’s working compositionally at least; when you find something you like, make a list of everything you like about it. Then try it with one of your own images and don’t cry.