Ways of Working #9 (Persist)

I’ve been hesitating to write this up for a few reasons, but most of all because the idea of “Persist” can be summed-up in a sentence. Do what you do, keep at it, and eventually you’ll do it well.

At the risk of sounding like I live in California, I’m going to describe an afternoon a few weekends ago when I was out with my camera. There was a big outdoor event (with war machines) happening in the city. I’d been out for a few hours on my own, wandering around, taking the occasional picture, but the light was really harsh. Everyone was backlit, and I just wasn’t getting any good shots. Or rather, the shots I was getting were too typical for my taste; it was as if I’d shot them all before. I wasn’t getting anything new or extraordinary. I wasn’t stretching myself.

A bit discouraged, I decided to head home. The minute I made this decision, my mood lifted, and as I was heading back to my bike, I stumbled across a scene (for which I had the wrong lens) but it was exactly the kind of thing that interests me visually, so I took a couple photos. And that’s when I started seeing. There were decent shots all around me, in this random place, away from the main crowds.

Then a friend called from across town, and I went to meet-up with him, and we had a great afternoon, hanging-out and watching people, and by then, I was really getting lucky with being in the right place at the right time. When the day was over, I returned home with a couple pictures I was pleased with.

Now here’s the California part; I’m beginning to think that street photography, and one’s ability to take successful street photographs, is dictated by what you bring to it. When I go out and I’m tired or my mind is elsewhere, my shots tend to be scattered and unfocused. When I go out and I’m excited to shoot and be outside for the afternoon, the pictures (at their best) have the chance to reveal that excitement, that energized way of seeing.


Sure, there are exceptions — when the streets change me and turn me around, in either direction; but generally, the city’s a canvas: it can only show you what you’re willing to see.

Given that, if you persist, something good will happen. Eventually. If you’re out shooting, and you’re only photographing people’s feet, or the backs of their heads (or worse, their butts) tell yourself you’re not going home until you take five pictures of people straight-on, from the front, at close range. (If those are the kinds of photos you like.) Push yourself. Try something that’s uncomfortable, that will stretch you.

When I first decided to start making these portraits of people in their rear-view mirrors (very much in progress), I was on my Vespa, and saw the great light, noted what time it was and the relative angle of the sun, and came back the next day at the same time, on foot. Taking photographs while standing in nervy traffic that’s revving-up for a green light is dangerous. But I keep at it, and have developed a few techniques to increase my safety, eventually getting in synch with the rhythm of the changing lights themselves.

Now I can go out there (or in the Spring, when the light returns) and I’ll know exactly what to expect. The location is mine. I know the size and shape of the canvas and what brushes to use – the rest is up to the subject.

In preparation for the 2001 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong rode 6-8 hours a day. When he played for North Carolina, the amount of time Michael Jordan spent practicing was off-the-charts. Tiger Woods is apparently the most driven on the PGA tour, practicing as soon as the sun’s up, and hitting the putting-green at dusk, after playing 36-holes. When Garry Winogrand died, he left behind thousands of undeveloped rolls of film. If you’re going to do something, and you want to get better, you have to persist. As Americans, we’re surrounded by lots of crap that make our lives comfortable, which makes it really easy to just give up when things are difficult. There’s always the couch, a television to turn on.

If you don’t think you take good pictures, you’re in a good place. That means you’re thinking critically about what you’ve done, and have an idea about what kinds of pictures you’d like to be taking. You’re halfway there. The other half will figure itself out, but it requires drive, consistency, and the willingness to persist, especially when things are gloomy. (Frankly, I don’t know what I’m going to be able to photograph this Winter with all the fog, crappy light, and aggressive schedule at my day job.)

This past weekend a photographer told me not to concern myself with the flavor-of-the-month in the art world. I wasn’t, but it’s good advice, still. Street photography is passe, yo! It’s all been done before. She told me, “they said, Phillip Lorca DiCorcia ‘reinvented’ street photography, but who knew it needed reinventing!” I really like stories about Gary Stochl, or other “outsider” artists who are generally self-taught and spend decades laboring in obscurity because they love the process, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Disclaimer: I can be a ranter (especially when it comes to sports, art, or ethics) and again, I’m no expert; I’m just learning all of this on my own. So here’s some grains of salt to take this with.

Street photography’s dead. Long live street photography.

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

21 thoughts on “Ways of Working #9 (Persist)”

  1. Your writing is truly an inspiration. I was actually there at fleet week, and felt the same kinds of feelings you expressed in this post. I’m glad I’m not the only one dealing with these struggles. I especially know that my photos need refining all the time, and try to stretch myself whenever I can.

    Thanks for starting this eye opening blog, it’s definitely been a must read.

  2. great point by nicolas king. i didn’t start “street shooting” until i got to seattle. i still feel like a tourist; things are still new to me here after 2 years.

    thanks so much for this website. i hadn’t been here i think since i got off vacation, and i haven’t been terribly inspired to shoot out (i know it has a lot to do with the changing weather, and the fact that my primary camera’s in no man’s land).

    visiting again has inspired me. i need to take a long lunch this week.

  3. Thanks, Jon. When I go back and read this stuff (never, except tonight, right now) it makes me grimace a bit. It was heartfelt when I wrote it — now it reads treacly. Glad the point is still in there somewhere.

    My feeling is if you feel like a tourist in your town, it just means that you’re continuing to see things in new ways. That’s not a situation that needs to be improved. Stick with it!

  4. Hi…

    I am also new to Streetphotography.
    I came to your site via a google search and I am excited about the site and mostly about the ‘ways of working’.

    Great thing! Thanks a lot for that!
    But one question: where’s part 10 (share)?

    Many Greets from Germany

  5. Absolutely compulsive reading,
    not in the slightest bit treacly-
    You’ve made think about blowing the dust off the OM2, and getting out there with both eyes open.

    Thanks for writing,
    and although I’m not Californian,


  6. What a great essay. Thanks for taking the time to write all this. It should be required reading for anyone interested in street photography.

    I don’t think enough can made about camera size. I feel absolutely conspicuous with my 30D, no matter what lens is on it, so I rarely use it for street. I’m using a bessa-r right now, but there are so many cheap rangefinder options out there that are fantastic. Plus it’s film!

    And while I have no ties to this site, it’s invaluable for rangefinder lovers, and there’s a lot of street shooters on it: http://www.rangefinderforum.com.

  7. Hi, thanks for this great imformative site, i found it via flickr, and I’m taking some fantastic ideas away with me. I started photographing in the street this summer, whilst on holiday, and I’m still finding my style and confidence, this is just what i needed.

  8. Hi, this site is great, stumbled across it looking at expanding my photo awareness. Branching out from landscapes to more streetscapes that include people is my goal. I just bought a canon g9 to be less conspicuous, and lighten the weight, sometimes my dslr can be overkill. Lots of great information here. Keep up the good work.

  9. it is 3 hour after midnight, i should sleep already, however i couldnt go to the bed before i red all your articles about ways of working

    thanks for such a nice work!

  10. Hi!

    Just wanted to thank you for having written all this. It’s more than inspirational because since I’ve only started on my photographic experience I stumble upon so many questions and insecurities, some of which I now have answers to. 😀 And yes, I’m in the same situation as j.u. – almost 3am and I can now go to sleep, having finished reading.

    And it’s not treacly at all! It feels honest and passionate. So…thank you for the lessons and have a great summer!

  11. “If you’re going to do something, and you want to get better, you have to persist. As Americans, we’re surrounded by lots of crap that make our lives comfortable, which makes it really easy to just give up when things are difficult. There’s always the couch, a television to turn on.”

    That is just amazing. Thank you.

  12. Great article, very inspiring and informative. You are exactly describing the struggles I have when taking street shots. Keep up the good work.
    grtz Ukridge

  13. Thanks a lot for putting all the effort into writing this and sharing it with us. I have been taking photographs since the age of 10, and I am 55 now. Street photography is what really keeps me going (I guess that is also why I specialised in photo journalism apart from photographic design at university). For the last 26 years I have been practising meditation, and Buddhism in general, too. I am very interested in what is “true” and “real”. When I bought my first digital (compact) camera four years ago I started to experiment with shooting from the hip. This is something I couldn’t have done with my old (and much loved) Minolta equipment. In this way I was able to take the camera of my face – and and I agree very much with what you have said about that, of course, had to get used to it first. I always try to be myself, to be in the Here and Now as much as possible, and to be warm and friendly to others. I only once had a problem when taking a picture in the street. This was in London when I visited the places where William Blake used to live. I was not even very much aware that in front of the big building on a busy street was a father with his little daughter. He told me that he did not want me to take a picture of her. This is England, where people are so claustrophobic and over-sensitive about anything that has to do with something that might smack of intimacy and kids.

  14. Was a really good guide to starting out, the main thing i get worried about is confrontation, So i`m just going to have to get out there and try and see what happens maybe no one will say anything… 😛 Thanks was really helpful!

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