I’ve probably covered this in Ways of Working, but this weekend I was reminded of another approach to street photography. Focus; and I’m not talking about your camera.
One of the overwhelming things when starting to photograph on the street is the immensity of it all. How do you know when and where to stop and linger? For Walker Evans, it was signage. For Diane Arbus, it was people in the park. Helen Levitt couldn’t pass up a group of kids playing. It helps to find something to focus on, to keep your big eye out for. Otherwise, it can be too much.
Preferences say as much about the photographer as they do about the world they’re photographing. That’s how street photography becomes personal: it’s not just a glimpse of a world we all know (ho hum), it’s a specificity of vision — a record of your own subjectivity — a way of seeing something that’s never been seen in that particular way. (Exciting!)
One of the easiest things about shooting on the street for me was deciding that I had to start taking pictures of people. I literally had to force myself, because my interest had grown to the point that I could no longer ignore it. I was scared of photographing people I didn’t know (a common affliction, apparently) and in response, I was taking ho hum pictures of anything else; reflections, sidewalk detritus, signage, buildings. After awhile, feet crept into my frames. Then butts. Then faces… It was a hard transition, but it made things easier in that I finally had a hand hold — something to reach for, and a way to pull myself along.
It doesn’t matter which side you fall on the “people vs. no people” divide, it helps to find something specific to focus on. Not just once, but every time you go out. (I’ve definitely covered this already; but bear with me.)
I had my camera with me yesterday, and the city was struck by warm weather and fantastic light. There were plenty of pictures, but they weren’t mine. They were pictures I might have taken a few years ago. Then I realized that given the conditions (busy streets, warm day, bright sun) I really enjoy photographing people and the compositional elements of their situations in reflected light.
I found a few new spots that didn’t work (my old spot won’t be ready ’till Spring), one that did, took a few pictures and went home. But it was the narrowing that was satisfying. It filtered out distractions and enabled me to see in such a way that I could get some work done.
If you have your camera and you’re taking pictures of everything under the sun, take a look at what you’ve got, find your favorites, and take their pulse. Even if it’s just one picture out of a thousand, assess the meat of the matter. What moves you about it? Can you take another? When and where and how?
Essentially, listen to yourself. Your fascinations will help cut through the noise. Go toward what you like (in your own work; even if it means doing something that’s been done before) and pursue it like a dog, even if you have to miss out on all the other photographable stuff in the world. Your pictures won’t just be yours, they’ll be uniquely yours, and you’ll be developing a great baseline for future interests and projects.