Gary Stochl (part deux)

I’ve been revisiting Gary Stochl’s On City Streets recently. (Stochl, previously on 2point8.) Specifically, I was thinking about the recurring tropes in the book. The pictures span forty years, but during that time, Stochl stayed obsessively true to his format (35mm, black & white, the streets of Chicago) and kept a steady approach. Consequently, there are unifying themes and ways of shooting that recur throughout.

Dorkily, I wondered what it might look like if I sketched out a map of which types of photographs Stochl tended to take, and how often they appeared in the book.

Per Bob Thall’s introduction, Stochl’s pictures “rarely contain the dramatic moments or the weird, ironic juxtapositions that often attract street photographers”. Without mining either of those veins, what are Stochl’s pictures about, and what might we learn by analysing what (and how) Stochl saw?

On a quick pass, I found nine buckets into which I could place the pictures. Some pictures dipped into more than one bucket. Here are rough descriptions and examples for each. (all examples Copyright 2005, Center for American Places, Gary Stochl, used without permission)

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Reflections: Pictures shot through glass, near glass or beside glass and generally containing a reflection of the subject. Sometimes distortional.

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Solitary Thinkers: People, often isolated and away from the crowds, generally trapped by the look of thought on their faces.

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Signs: There are signs in these pictures but they are not clever, silly or juxtapositional.

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Separate Geometries: Stochl seems most comfortable when he’s dividing up a particular frame with poles, streetlamps, walls, anything that gives his subjects their own particular place within the frame, separate from someone else’s particular place. Separate but equal.

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Backs: Photographs of people’s backs. The chocolate milk of street photography. So good on the way down, but kinda bad for you.


Masses: Crowds, hordes. Often with one person singled-out via motion or depth of field.

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Duos/Trios: Pictures of two people (or three!) who are similar enough (maybe even twins!). Human mirroring.

Two categories only had one entry each; “Unusual Old People” and “Parallax Kissing”.

If you have the book, I made a quick list of page numbers to highlight which pictures fall where. Follow along!

Reflections: 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 30, 33, 36, 44, 45, 49, 51, 52, 53

Solitary Thinker: 7, 16, 23, 26, 27, 29, 30, 33, 32, 36, 45, 46, 51, 53, 54

Signs: 32, 34, 35, 39, 46

Separate Geometries: 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17, 18, 20, 54, 55, 44, 45, 51, 52

Backs: 10, 11, 27, 28, 54

Masses: 3, 15, 16, 18, 20, 43, 46

Duos/Trios: 25, 40, 42

What does any of this tell us? Not really sure, other than it’s interesting to see not just how a particular book was put together, but to take a quantitative look at a photographer’s fascinations. What moves them? How does their vision change (or stay the same) over the course of 40 years?

Ultimately, what Stochl was shooting over those 40 years was not necessarily that impressive. How he did it was pretty remarkable. His persistance helped to create an admirable piece of work. The pictures are pretty quiet, and they won’t make you jump up and down, but they offer-up new things when you return to them, which is one of the few things I demand from art in general, not just photography.

While it might feel like everything’s already been done before in photography (it has), it pays to learn that there is infinite room within the forms (just as in writing, a sonnet is a sonnet still) and no one’s got a stopwatch keeping track of how much time you spend photographing people’s backs.

So get out there. Go out and take pictures of them, if that’s your thing. Do it like there’s no tomorrow.

Your Chinatown

Every few weeks I take a look back at what I’ve been doing and try to figure out what’s working, what doesn’t, and why. In looking back, one thing I’ve realized is I’ve spent a lot of time in the past two years hanging out in Chinatown.

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And yet, with few exceptions, the pictures I take there tend to be flat, uninteresting. It’s completely disproportionate. Much time spent, for little visible benefit, but I’ve learned a lot there.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably more interested in photographing people than doing what everyone else does; taking pictures of smoked ducks hanging in windows, paper lanterns, dragon dances, funeral marches, firecrackers and stacks of dead pigs. All are Chinatown’s version of kittens, babies and flowers.

Aside from the boring stock stuff, there’s a lot of great action at street level – and Chinatown’s the perfect spot to try new things, ask questions of yourself as a photographer, and establish sound working methods.

Arnold Genthe‘s photos of San Francisco’s Chinatown resurfaced in museum shows this year because of the 1906 earthquake centennial. I recall reading that Genthe used some kind of spy-camera with a right angle finder, and generally cropped things in such a way to minimize background signage or anything else that would read as 20th century.

A lot’s changed in Chinatown in the last 100 years, but the consistency of experience there makes it a rewarding place to observe photographically:

* Density. On a weekend morning, the streets are jammed with shoppers, church goers, workers and families. As a challenge, I sometimes enjoy trying to cram as many people as possible into a frame (without using a telephoto) while still maintaining some kind of purposed composition; this kind of exercise is possible in Chinatown.

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* Privacy. Not everyone in Chinatown appreciates the fact that you’ve come to their neighborhood with your camera. Because of this private/public tension, Chinatown’s a great place to practice three things; when to say no, when to say yes, and when to take a picture in the quickest manner possible so as not to disturb the scene (if that’s your goal).

* Subject. The lure of boring stock stuff (see above) is strong in Chinatown, but if you go there with consistency, the foreign becomes the familiar, and you can begin to look for the kind of things that are more global in scope; perfect moments, insightful portraits, caught candids. People being people, essentially.

* Difficulty. I’ve come home from Chinatown with my shoes covered in someone else’s spit. I’ve learned to love the rotten smell of particular alleys on a hot day, and enjoy the crowd-surfing element of being shoulder to shoulder with pushy shoppers. The smell of ginseng, ginger, stinky tofu and shiitakes. To not enjoy these things is to wish you were at home.

* Light. In San Francisco, Chinatown’s orientation on the grid makes it a perfect place to practice walking with the light to your back on an early spring or summer morning. This is nice for dumbed-down film cameras, because you can preset things and roll with the consistent light. Try getting up early and cruising down the west side of Stockton, from the tunnel to Columbus. Most tourists head to Grant St., but the local action is on Stockton, and the morning light is fantastic.

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After a few weeks/months/years, it becomes clear that the real Chinatown is completely inaccessible, but within arm’s reach (especially if you know Mandarin), and that the best pictures are probably not even on the street; they’re up above in the twisting apartments overlooking quiet alleys. You realize that the real focus of the place has nothing to do with your camera — that ultimately, you’re the subject in Chinatown, no matter how inconspicuous, comfortable, or aware you try to be.

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Cleverness, the Gold Curse

For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about why so much of street photography has an inherent “cleverness”. Juxtapositions between unknowing subjects and street signs. That kind of thing.

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Clever pictures are kinda like encountering a washed-up pirate treasure on the beach. (Happens every day!) There’s gold in there, and you suddenly feel like you’re rich, but the price of gold isn’t what it was in the 15th century, and it passed through all those grubby pirate hands, to boot.

What I’m trying to say is that there seems to be a glass ceiling that inhibits what a clever picture can deliver. Here’s why.

* The cleverest picture, the best juxtaposition in the middle of a fleeting, candid moment usually has an equal value to the other “cleverest/best/fleeting/candid/juxtaposed moment” that you took last month. Clever pictures are their own currency, and there seems to be a limit on what they’re worth.

* The “hit” you get from them as a viewer reflects more on the photographer than on the subject. A “god, that’s great man, you’re an excellent photographer” rather than a complex emotional response with the subject of the photograph. Outside of photography, a clever person is congratulated on their cleverness, not necessarily on what their cleverness created.

* Clever pictures are unbelievably addictive. I enjoy taking them and looking at them, and I’m not even that clever. But in noticing my own reactions to taking and looking, both reach a certain level and just top-out. Taking and looking at clever pictures feels a bit like eating a fistful of raw sugar; there’s a quick, energizing rush that fades fast.

So why is street photography the playground for quick-thinking photographers who often take clever photographs? I’m not sure.

I’ve had the pros and pitfalls of cleverness at the top of my list for a few weeks, and then last night I watched the Magnum in Motion piece on Steve McCurry, who talked about how he doesn’t take clever pictures – how he’s more interested in illuminating the humanity of his subject. Which he does quite nicely, while also being a street photographer (of sorts).

Is clever a quickness? An outgrowth of impatience? An intelligence? Is cleverness the inability to look other humans in the eye and address them as they are? I don’t know.

Part of me feels that the lure of the clever (for both photographers and viewers) is that ultimately, for a quick-witted person with a good eye, they’re relatively easy. Taking clever pictures is a “way of seeing” that you can turn on like a lightswitch, and not really risk too much of yourself as a photographer. You probably won’t get yourself into difficult situations, and you’ll pass through without having to get involved.

I’m not trying to place a value judgement on these things – like I said, I could look at clever photographs until the clouds come home with the cows, but I think as a photographer it helps to take a look at where you are and what you do and ask “why?”

Here are a few examples that I remember as being pretty clever. Please leave a link to others in the comments if you like.

Ooh, there’s also a good passage about humor in photography, and how it can work against the photographer when the joke’s on the subject, in Robert Adams’ book Why People Photograph. Don’t have it on me – can’t quote it. (Check out that book by the way – his writing’s tighter than his photographs, I think.)
Examples of Clever:
Elliott Erwitt
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2 from Mr. Friedlander
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The Phyla of Street Photography

If you spend time studying a particular genre of anything, you start to see the genre’s edges, as well as its internal patterns and repetitions. Groupings. Street photography (of people) has them, and I wanted to sketch out a few examples, list perceived pros and cons, and generally prove how writing something down helps to completely confuse the issue. Plus, classifying anything is arbitrary and dictitorial, which makes it that much more fun! I’ll be updating this entry with examples (maybe even in color!), as they come to mind.

The Juxtaposition: Surprising and often humorous combinations of two (or more!) unexpected things. The refined sugar in street photography’s morning cup — that extra kick. Also known as the what? the huh? or the how’d they do that?

Pros: These pictures burrow deep in one’s memory because they’re connected to a physical reaction, a jolt of laughter, or the ah-ha! of instant understanding. They make the viewer feel smart, because the understanding instantly unifies the viewer with the photographer’s intent, as in, “wow, wouldja look at that!” while hinting that there’s something deeper below the surface, which may in fact be absent. An unexpected thrill.

Cons: These pictures are often hobbled by their own strength. A photograph that limps around on a crutch of humor or surprise can’t always stand on its own. To mix metaphors, the juxtaposed slice-of-life picture is just a slice, not a sandwich. Not enough mustard or soul. These photos can be satisfyingly glib and ironic, but how satisfying is irony, really? (Wink wink)

The Moving Masses: Photos of people engaged en masse, doing something together, even if everyone’s going in different directions.

Pros: The familiarity of ubiquity. I don’t understand the allure of these pictures, even the ones I take. They seem to function best historically, when the viewer can say oh look how styles have changed, men used to wear such funny hats.

Cons: The sledghammer of the aggregate. Declaration of the obvious, as in yes, there are a lot of people in cities and occasionally they stand very close to each other and look like herded farm animals. The photographyness of these can be evident because the subject(s) are often looking right at the camera, with annoyance.

Example:
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The Street Portrait: Soul’s beachhead. A person, isolated against an urban backdrop, caught in a moment in which their private, inner self is publicly visible. May or may not be candid. These can be rewarding to study, and the best hold up to much scrutiny, like classical sculpture. Where an emotional tide flows back and forth between subject and viewer.

Pros: The end of anonymity. By isolating the subject, a face (but most important, feeling) is given to the masses. A connection’s made between the viewer and the subject that may run deeper than the photographer’s intentions. Generally, people enjoy looking at other people who are “visually interesting” as long as that person is printed on a piece of paper (or on a screen) and can’t say “why are you looking at me?” which is a question that may have already been pitched at the photographer.

Cons: Street portraits are fun to look at in a museum or gallery, but they can be tough on a living room wall, year after year. Humans are an unpredictable bunch, especially when you’re connecting with them on a strong, emotionally acute level. It’s easier to prefer pictures of architectural facades, couches on the sidewalk, or slick, windswept empty streets. As with the other examples, if a portrait is just a portrait, it may not have staying power. The weakness of anonymity, as in “who is that?” when the answer is “I dunno. Some guy.”

Example:
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Walker Evans

Abstract: Compositional framing of humans on the street such that you can’t tell where the street begins and the human ends or vice versa. The Wonder Bread of street photography. Incredible shelf-life, and people prefer it to that seedy, unpredictable, slice-your-own stuff.

Pros: Forget bread, this is the supermodel of street photography. Pretty, and pretty great for parties, but often empty. Compositionally pleasing, though the pleasantness is glossy and thin. Having one in your hands makes you look good to people who like splashing each other in the shallow end. Perfect for a hotel lobby.

Cons: Perfect for a hotel lobby.

Example: Your neighborhood stock photography agency.

The Perfect Peopled Moment: As a viewer, my biased preference. The assignment – to combine the surprise jolt of juxtaposition with a portrait’s humanity.

Pros: The darting ephemeral has been plucked-out, sat down and stilled. It’s often a photograph of something or someone you’ve never seen before, or if you’ve seen it, you haven’t had the chance to stand there and study it and be amazed. Makes you wonder how the photographer did it to such a degree that you actually remember the photographer’s name (or maybe even write it down!)

Cons: The humanity takes away from the power of the moment, or the moment takes away from the power of humanity. It’s a fine balance, and it’s easy to fall off either side. As a photographer, you can’t go out and find these (as you might with a plain portrait or something abstract), they find you, even if you put yourself into the kind of situations that are fertile for these pictures. Actually, “they find you” is wrong. If you’re in the right place with the right subject, these moments gently tap you on your shoulder. As a viewer, the experience is unified: admiration for the photographer’s vision on up to the unpredictable emotional hit.

Example:
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The Triple Crown: A combination of two and a half of the above. A juxtaposed moment with the soul of a portait and a dash of abstraction. A portrait within the abstract masses. A finely-balanced moment you can sit back and study while learning something about yourself, the subject, and what it means to be human.

Pros: All

Cons: None

Examples:
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Cartier-Bresson

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Winogrand

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Erwitt

Thanks for reading. There’s more to come on 2point8. More clumsy writing, more interviews with photographers who have interesting things to say about what it is they do, and perhaps an ongoing email chat or two. If there’s something you think 2point8 should tackle, leave a comment or send me mail at whileseated@gmail.com. It’s been sunny this spring, so I’ve been outside a lot, happily away from the computer.

If you have any comment spam tips for WordPress, please holler, the site’s getting hammered.

Anatomy of a (Failed) Moonshot

Once a month, if the weather’s good, I play a photographic game with the rising moon and the Transamerica pyramid. Essentially, there’s a moment in time (once a month) where you can see something like this:

I stumbled across the view above in June, and worked the rest of the year to replicate it, not because it’s the world’s best photograph, but because it’s a challenge, and I get to use the Farmer’s Almanac and ask experts to explain to me how the heck a sextant works.

The spot is always moving (as the moon moves), and the tower/moon combo is often hidden by buildings, rooftops, power lines, and trees. The hardish part is finding when and where the spot is accessible to pedestrians; on the street. The view is rare, and it’s obscured more often than not, even on days when the weather’s good.

As the year progresses, the spot moves dramatically, sweeping across North Beach. Each night has its own mini arc as well. I don’t bring an incredible lens or a tripod (because half the time I’m on foot, running to catch up with it – and I don’t own a workable tripod). With better gear, one can get this, which doesn’t excite me. I’m more fascinated in how a photograph can be both still-life and action shot.

These shots can only be made at sunset or at dawn. The light hitting the tower must match the candlepower of the moon. That way, I don’t have to combine or dodge or significantly process the images.

In September, I photographed the failures, where things weren’t lining-up right, just to show the process of the whole thing. Combined with CommunityWalk, I can lay it all out, an anatomy of sorts.

Community Walk - North Beach Moonshot - Sept 2005

I use the Farmer’s Almanac to tell me sun/moon rise/set times, so I can pinpoint the best possible day. When I arrived on this particular day in September, I was on my way home from work (70 miles outside the city) and had my scooter. I circled around the neighborhood, lining things-up from various locations before finding where I could begin. This is the hard part. Two-wheeled transport is key with this kind of thing. Flexible and fast. Once I found the first spot, I set out on foot.

The first location happened to be in a playground. I climbed up the slide to this platform on the upper right and stood on top of the ledge’s railing. I’d “succeeded” in lining things up, but the pictures are only as good as your location. In fact, this whole pursuit is fairly antithetical to street photography, in that it’s all pre-planned; your picture will only be as interesting as your location. I like this roll of the dice, but the playground spot stunk.


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The playground was in a topographical dip which meant that if I walked toward the tower (as the moon rose) I’d probably find another spot, and it would be there soon. So I ran a few blocks and came across this blockage.

North Beach Moonshot, Blocked by Trees
7:11pm

Nothing was lining-up right, so I backed-up half a block, waited a few minutes and found a new spot. Compositionally, it wasn’t interesting {7:15}. But I could see that as the moon rose a bit higher, the spot would move right into Washington Square Park, where the view would be clear of trees and I’d have freedom to move.

Sure enough, at 7:25, I had it. Problem was, the light had died. The sun had set eight minutes prior, so the Transamerica pyramid didn’t have enough light on it to match the moon. The optimal night would have been the preceding evening, but I wasn’t able to shoot or it was foggy. Conditionally, I would have had the good light from the playground, with a clear, wide-open spot in the park.

Still, I stuck around for a few minutes. There was a guy playing soccer with his friend, and they kicked the ball really high and I took this.


7:26pm

It’s a bad exposure, but it has spirit. The guy came over and asked what I was doing, and I showed him, and he kicked the ball a few more times to see if I could get a better shot, and it was impossible. The light was gone.

If you use all this to make a few pics of your own, let me know. And if I run into you at a moonshot spot in North Beach when the light’s good, I get first dibs… : )

Link: Moonshots on WhileSeated