Ways of Working #10 (Share)

or “A Lesson In Putting It Out There”

I’ve received a bunch of mail over the last year asking when the final installment of “Ways of Working” might appear, and I procrastinated because it seemed like the title, “Share”, said enough. Share your work with others; you might be surprised what happens when it’s out there in the world.

I’ve had a very interesting week in which I’ve put this idea into practice (more than usual) and it’s both emboldened and occasionally frightened me.

A month ago I came across a news story that piqued my interest. I looked around and there was local coverage of the story, but no substantial national press. I decided to quit my day job a week early and drive six hundred miles to Louisiana to see what was going on, with my own eyes.

Simply, I went to Jena to see what I could see. I brought a camera. I don’t have a laptop or great audio/video capability, so I was underequipped for contracted professional work. I went on my own dime.

I spoke with one of the accused, with family members, with the working press, with residents. I held a small voice recorder in my hand while photographing. I approached the whole thing as a freelance photographer who wasn’t working for a particular publication, but had personal interest in observing what transpired.

Jena Six (4 of 6) (by whileseated)
© MDM, Gotta Go, 2007

What I found didn’t necessarily surprise me, but it inspired me to come back home and “get the word out”. I threw together a quick youtube video, gathered links, and put it all up on whileseated. That’s when things got interesting. Suddenly there was another forum for people to learn about the case, discuss its complexities, and monitor developments as the week drew closer to a verdict.

Along the way, 30,000 people (a day) were looking at some pretty amateur work of mine. The photos weren’t special, my text was hardly objective, but the benefits of the discussion outweighed the fact that I know very little about photojournalism, and in reality, am just another guy with a camera and a blog. My merits and motives were questioned and I was personally attacked (in text, not physically). Many of the discussions devolved into the bizarre. But in a small way, I felt I was making a difference.

If you’re a photographer, think about how you might be able to use your skill to do something beyond getting your pictures in a gallery with a four-figure price tag attached. Volunteer to take portraits for a non-profit. Borrow a car and make a trek to witness a developing story that’s underreported. If you’re sitting around waiting for the phone call from the New York Times or that downtown gallery, get outside and chase things down. Seek out the stories or situations that will lead to the kind of picture(s) you’ve always imagined but have never been able to take; on the street, or off.

A few months ago, a friend shared some notes from a seminar he had with Martin Parr in which Parr said, “photograph things you don’t want to photograph” (not verbatim). If you’re whetted to the street, try something new! Shoot widely and see what happens. Do what’s difficult and learn new skills. Sharing your work, even in process, or when it’s about a controversial issue that might result in negative attention, can be beneficial. Not just for you, but for others who need examples for forging their own paths.

William Klein made a really wild movie. Robert Frank painted (right?). Garry Winogrand did an ad for Scotch. Diane Arbus photographed for catalogs. In the interview last week, Richard Kalvar talked about how his professional work funded his amateur explorations. Weegee was Weegee.

What I’m trying to say is there are a million ways to go about being a photographer, and starting on the street is as good a beginning as any. It’s as good a middle, and as good an end as any, too. If you see something (anywhere!) that’s important to you, bring it back and share it. Show us how it is. Whether it’s a good picture, an interesting story, a hacky youtube video, or a terrific series of great pictures, put it together, get them up on a site, and let people know. Quit stalling.

Sharing’s as scary as it is essential. Show us who you are, what you’re made of, and why we should care.

If you can’t, who will?

Staged by Chill and Skance

Everything’s fleeting. Moments, movements, marriage, life. Photography allows all of this change and motion to be paused, put under a lamp and examined. In the best street photographs, you feel a tug, not just of the subject matter, but specifically, of the moment. Moment as it is/was vs. how it is/was seen. You get a sense that there’s a collusion between how a flat, two-dimensional photograph is compositionally organized, and how reality unfurled itself, all at once at that moment, unpredictably, in three dimensions. Great photographs make people open their eyes wide; they make photographers wonder if they were staged.

Inside that discrepancy — inside the difference between what’s flat in a book or hung on the museum wall, and what may or may not have really happened, a story can begin. But it’s your story as a viewer; it’s your imagination that’s running with it, not the photographer’s. The art is in having the chance (and knowing how) to set the table.

Great photographs (not just street photos) should be gifts that keep giving, both in meaning and explication, as well as in feeling. There’s too much art out there that makes you feel like you’re spelunking in a shopping mall. You’re prepared and ready for depth (you’ve even got your headlamp on) but the stores are all the same as last year, they’re all brightly lit and obvious, and nothing’s ever on sale.

What I’m trying to get at is whether or not there’s a difference between great photography and great art photography. I’d like to think they’re the same, but in looking around (museums/galleries/cafes/magazines/online) and talking to people, most people who say they like photography prefer “interesting” photography that tends to be colorful, sexy, funny and/or descriptive – just like television. You see what you get. Sunset, wow. Dog doing something human, double-woof-wow. Pretty picture = happy monkey.

In the end, great photography, especially portraiture, hangs its hat on the same tenants as street work. Suggestion. Mystery. Find the moment that has an unknownable past and future. An indescribable present, a constant that both yields and resists when you push and prod and try to juice it. Avedon made moments, too. The most perfect portraits suggest far more than they explain. Ask Rembrant.

Why is any of this important? Because when you look through a viewfinder, you have a choice and an opportunity. You can point the camera at what everyone wants to see, or what you want to see. Maybe you want to see flowers, maybe you don’t. Do you know what you want to see? How many flowers would a flowerchuck chuck if a flowerchuck could chuck flowers? (Answer: Card Is Full)

When I look, I try to ask for more. More questions, more unknowns, more unanswerables, more suggestion, more incompleteness, more doubletakes, more chance, more flow. Every once in a great while, it all clicks; I rarely succeed. In 2005, after too many pictures, I’m really happy with five. Or four.

Bring on the furry kittens.

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.

6872

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

Ways of Working #8 (Develop)

(The deeper I get into writing-up these Ways of Working, the more I realize that in addition to being repetitive, I really don’t know much at all about photography; I’m learning, too, every time I take a picture. Given that, here’s a few words on themes: Develop.)

Shooting digital allows you two things; it gives you the latitude to make mistakes and develop skills, or it lets you take thousands of crappy pictures. Quality vs. Quantity. One or the other.

The oft-discussed long-term benefit of digital photography is that people who may have never attempted traditional photography (because of the price of film or equipment) will make great photographs with their digital cameras. The same thing’s been happening over the last ten years with cinema. But has the quality of movies improved (thanks to the ease-of-use and relatively low-cost of digital video cameras)? We can thank small cameras for the explosion of documentaries, but are there better feature films?

As with any practice, or hobby, you usually want to get better and iron out the kinks. Your particular process for getting better is as unique as your attraction to photography. You’ll figure out how to mitigate risk with your equipment, increase your luck by being in the right place at the right time, gird your chances, and generally make things better for yourself.

A great way to kickstart and observe your own improvement is to develop a theme. A location. A subject. Visit it; revisit it. (This is covered in “Repeatability“.) If you’re out on the town with friends and you don’t have your camera and regret it – bring it with you next time. Make notes of your missed opportunities so they won’t happen twice.

But getting better as a photographer has as much to do with not taking pictures as with taking them. Just because your digital camera gives you the freedom to take pictures of everything doesn’t mean you have to. Developing a theme (as well as your skills) requires discernment, an editorial touch. Everyone likes to do their editing later, at home, but you can save yourself an organizational headache by doing some editing on location, on the street.

When you get home, learn how to take a look at your own photographs and be critical. If you’ve taken a picture that you really like, try sitting on it for a few weeks, then take another look and see if your feelings have changed. (I find it hard to appreciate anything I took more than a year ago.) Most important, try to divorce yourself from your own emotional connection to the set/setting/subject and try to look at your shot with the fresh eyes of someone who doesn’t know anything about you or photography. Still like it?

A little more on not taking pictures. There are great pictures all around you. If you let a few go, it’s kind of like fly-fishing – you know where the hole is, and you can trust that the fish will still be there tomorrow. Street photography is satisfyingly infinite that way. The pictures are always out there, even if you’re not.

And just because you’ve brought your camera and raised it to your eye doesn’t mean you have to take the picture! Even if you have your finger on the shutter and everything perfectly framed doesn’t mean you have to take it. Sometimes (somewhat inexplicably) I’ll let the good pictures go. I’ll have them framed and focused and then boom, I won’t trip the shutter and the moment’s gone. But the moment’s with me – it’s in my head; I’ve taken a different kind of picture, one that can only be remembered. Sometimes those are the best kind of pictures to have.

Back to themes; take a look at the entirety of what you’ve been doing and see if you’ve developed a series without realizing it. Last week, I discovered I have lots of pictures of people walking down the street with balloons, and I have pictures of kids riding piggyback or on the shoulders of adults. Neither interest me much as a series, but they’re something, which is a place to start.

Photography is a way of learning how to see. If you can learn how to look (or see) without your camera, all the better. Sometimes I’ll visit a place without my camera just to survey and see how I’d approach it when I’m with my camera. I have a habit of clicking my fingers together every time I see something that I’d like to photograph. That way, I can walk down the street and have a normal conversation with someone while interacting visually with my environment, from a photographer’s perspective.

If you’ve discovered a location where people are involved and pre-approved access is required, all the better. Show-up, tell them you’re a photographer, be honest (or not!) about your intentions, and see if they’ll allow you to shoot on a later day.

Best of all, themes and recurring ideas give people a hand-hold when looking at your work. We’ve all seen great street photography before — how are you going to stand-out, or differentiate yourself from what’s come before? Defining your own unique approach by developing themes based on subject matter or location is a great place to begin.

Henri Cartier Bresson never took pictures at Mall of America, so get to work.

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

Ways of Working #7 (Study)

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.

winogrand-cpz

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.

Good luck.

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

Ways of Working #6 (Masking)

You’re chicken. You’re frightened by the thought of having to ask strangers on the street for permission to take their photograph. Or asking just doesn’t fit your style. Perhaps your prefer candids, free of the recognition that the subject’s been caught by a camera lens.

There are plenty of techniques for masking your intentions while photographing on the street. The most obvious would be to use a telephoto lens, but I’ve already discussed how this is less than ideal.

The good news is that you’re addressing a problem that’s been challenging photographers for decades. People act differently when they see a camera. It’s the documentarian’s curse. What appears to be natural human truth is pure lens-driven subjectivity.

Walker Evans, Martin Parr, Helen Levitt, and that acronymic French guy have all used various methods/techniques for making their camera a little less visible, and for integrating themselves into their environment in such a way that their photographing may pass unnoticed.

In my own experience, I’ve been interested by the candid aspect of street photography – how people have private moments in public, and how these moments look when committed to film (or jpg). It didn’t take long to realize that these kind of pictures are difficult to take with three things that would theoretically make it easier; a zoom lens, a motor-drive, and a big, powerful camera.

In street photography, smaller can be better. When I’m standing at No Flash Corner waiting for the right moment to present itself, I tend to stand with my hands resting on my neck-strapped camera. A 50mm prime lens can be easily concealed. I’m not talking about stashing the thing inside your shirt (this isn’t about taking spy pics) but it helps to be able to rest your hands on something and look like a normal tourist, rather than someone with a huge lens coming out of their torso. If there’s anything you can do that will make your camera an afterthought to the people you intend to photograph, do it. Henri Cartier-Bresson used to wrap his shiny chrome Leicas in black tape. I’ve taped-out all the white logos on my black camera. Who knows if this kind of thing helps, but if it buys an extra third of a second with a subject who doesn’t recognize that you’re carrying a camera, it’s worth it.

If there’s a tremendous spot of light and I’m waiting for people to cross into it, I’ll often stand looking the other way, and I’ll know the timing of the crosswalk signals such that I’ll turn and have my camera prefocused and ready for the shot at the exact instant that they hit the spot, and no sooner.

It’s a bit like baseball, when you’re pitching with a man on first. If you don’t want the runner to steal, don’t tip your hand. Keep your cards close. (Don’t mix metaphors.) When I’m photographing, I want everything to happen as if I weren’t there, so I try to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I often wear headphones. Sometimes sunglasses.

I’ll look off into the distance as if I’m shooting something “over there” rather than what’s right in front of me. I’ll stand in the shadow of a lamppost, or at the exact corner of a building to capture people as they turn the corner (into great light) before they have a chance to react.

Currently, I’m most interested by light (and its effects on people) rather than people who are amazing to look at but poorly lit. Which means I have to be comfortable with letting potentially great photographs walk away. Bruce Gilden gets around this by using a hand-held flash, even (especially) in daylight. Because my tastes are more site-specific, the subjects of my photographs select themselves. They’re in the right place at the right time or they’re not. I don’t force it. I don’t follow people down the street and I don’t take multiple shots. I either get it right or I fail. The flubs outweigh the successes. I’ll talk about this a bit later in Ways of Working #9, Persist.

A few examples: Helen Levitt famously used a right-angle viewfinder on her Leica for street shots. There are viewfinder adaptors for the latest greatest digital cameras, too, but they’re pretty expensive (link, to come). They may give you an extra second of candidness before someone recognizes that the contraption you’re bending over is a camera and that you’ve just taken their picture. Twin-lens, medium-format cameras (Diane Arbus used a Mamiya) or cameras with waist-level viewfinders (Hassleblads) are great too (except for their weight and loud shutters) because their perspective is unique. It’s rare to see someone taking pictures from their chest (while looking down), and the results can be startling.

Walker Evans famously rigged a camera inside of his coat, threaded a cable release down his sleeve and took portraits on the New York City subway. Magnum photographer Luc Delahaye followed-up on Evans in the 90s with a series on the Metro in Paris. Martin Parr‘s done a series of sleeping commuters in Tokyo, shot from above.

If hiding your camera’s not your thing, look for architectural spaces where you can be protected and where the light’s good. Loading doors are often recessed into buildings, providing great nooks to photograph from.

Shopping Is Fun

Your actions immediately after taking a picture can be just as important as what you’re doing beforehand. Because I loathe burst mode on a digital SLR, I’ll take my one frame and immediately look up into the sky, as if I’m looking for something “up there” rather than what I’ve just photographed. It distracts the subject away from paying attention to you. I do this habitually now – even at weddings, when it’s completely unnecessary.

If I’m shooting digital, I never immediately check the histogram. If I just had my picture taken by some guy on the street who immediatly was looking at the results on his camera, I’d definitely start asking questions. As the photographer, I like to keep the questions to a minimum. That said, when they come, be honest.

I recently heard Bill Owens give a lecture. Owens isn’t a street photographer per se; his approach is to get to know his subjects, to be trusted, to spend time with them. He talked about how he’d be scared of photographing in the city, and carrying around expensive gear, and that photographing tourists is like “shooting fish in a barrel”. In many ways, he’s right; it’s too easy. But if you’re looking to get started, and you live in a city where there’s a heavy-tourist area, it can be a great place to cut your teeth. I go to Fisherman’s Wharf every once in awhile for kicks. Tourists are comfortable with cameras, and they tend to give you more leeway. They’re visitors, and as such, have built-in timidness about confrontation.

I don’t know if it’s an after-effect of 9/11, celebrity culture, reality television, or the ubiquity of digital cameras, but generally, people are quite aware of their surroundings when they’re on the street. Shooting candid photographs of people can be difficult, especially if you choose not to ask permission. Masking can help, but it’s not the be-all-end-all, it’s just a way of working it out. An approach.

If you like street photography and want to try some masking, know that the greatest strides you can make are with your approach toward your own physical space, and not in the amount of money you spend on gear. Think about how to integrate yourself among your subjects, how to disappear into their midst, and you’ll be heading in the right direction.

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

Ways of Working #5 (Honesty)

Permission. Yes or no? Do you ask someone if you can take their picture, or do you take it and run? It can be a big question. My answer: I rarely ask permission.

Why? Books could be written about what happens when someone knows their picture’s about to be taken (and yes, I find myself on the side of those who believe something is “taken” when the shutter is clicked) and I’m not eager to see the results of my asking. To me, asking someone for permission narrows a situation’s potential. Sometimes this is a good thing, with fantastic, unexpected results, but I like to look for fantastic, unexpected results elsewhere.

Many photographers do an incredible job of capturing people in the street, and they’ve asked permission. Asking permission is respectful; it opens-up a dialogue, and ultimately engages you on a societal level more than refraining. But it’s not my style, and I’ve been disappointed with the photographs I’ve made after asking. This is not a philosophical point (it may be the morally correct thing to do, actually) it’s just that I like my photos better when I don’t.

If you’re going to ask, expect to be rejected. (I can’t think of a time someone has said no, but still.) More often than not, you’ll be treated with curiosity. Who are you what are you doing why do you want to take my picture? And if you’re quick on your feet, you may be able to spend some time getting to know your subject. When I ask, it’s usually because that person has something so extraordinary going on for themselves, I can’t let the opportunity to photograph them walk away.

I ask permission when I’ve gotten into eye contact for awhile with the subject, and they appear curious about what I’m doing, and/or I feel exposed about what I’m doing. It’s a bit of a power play. In my view, street photography is more about athleticism than aggression, but silently getting in someone’s face with a big honkin’ SLR is definitely aggressive. So go ahead and ask, especially if you want to put the camera right in their face.

I use a 50mm prime lens for nearly everything. This entry’s about honesty, so it bears mentioning that working with a 50mm or 35mm lens is an honest way of taking pictures. Their shortness requires your involvement in the action on the street. It’s obvious what you’re up to; you’re taking pictures of people in the street. With a zoom lens, you might as well be in air-conditioned comfort in Qatar punching in coordinates for Baghdad. If you’re going to photograph on the street, get rid of the zoom and crawl out of your bunker.

If anyone engages me, I don’t give them the silent treatment, I tell them straight-up what I’m doing. My explanation is usually about light, rather than people, because ultimately, I wouldn’t be at that particular place if the light sucked. And I’ll show them why the light is good; I’ll point it out and we’ll watch it for a bit.

Most want to know what you’ll do with the images. I usually don’t mention the web, unless they seem receptive. Most have no idea what a photolog is (even in San Francisco), god bless them. I tell them it’s for personal use, that I’ll share the images with friends, and that I won’t be selling them to an ad agency or anything like that. I’ve been lax about getting business cards made, but this would be a great way to work – to hand someone a card.

When I ask permission, I smile and say, “may I photograph you?” or “can I take your picture?” (depending on their age) and thank them, even if they refuse. I never use the rapid fire burst mode because it’s cheap, easy, and some knee-jerk part of me thinks it’s disrespectful. If I were walking down the street and heard the heavy slap of an SLR mirror pointed in my direction, I’d be cool with one, but not four in quick succession. It’s overkill, even if one of the four is the great shot. Get the great shot with your shutter finger, not your burst mode. If you need an example of this, check out James Nachtwey in “War Photographer” photographing Palestinian rock throwers. If there’s ever a time for burst mode, it’s in conflict – yet Nachtwey chooses not to. You can be far more precise shooting single frames, and if you’re shooting digital, there’s never a card lag.

Because you’re out there on your own, taking photographs on the street and you don’t have a press pass or lots of heavy gear (like a van), you are assailable. A few weeks ago I was at No Flash Corner and a cameraman appeared with his full set-up (his van must have been around the corner). He’d stumbled across the light, and seemed excited by it, so I asked him what he was up to. He was shooting “b-roll” for a television show about aliens for the Discovery Channel. He said he was getting great shots of people on the street for a “they walk among us” segment.

Not one person asked what he was doing because he had a television camera. Television is the almighty. Street photographers are small potatoes. Expect everything; to be ignored, to be asked a lot of questions, to be frowned upon, pointed at, and photographed. Above all, realize that you’re taking someone’s picture, and there’s a price you may have to pay — you may have to engage the world and explain yourself. Do it ahead of time, if you choose, or be prepared to justify your actions after you’ve clicked the shutter.

Or not!

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

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

Ways of Working #3 (Know Your Gear)

If you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to assess your gear, know what it can do (and what it can’t do) so you’ll be able to make it all work in crunch time. Let me lay out a few scenarios.

You have a cameraphone with crappy resolution. You might want to stick with bold shapes and simple designs. Capturing people may be pretty impossible, but if they’re brightly lit and standing still, the slim portability of your phone can work to your advantage. Then again, cameraphones are getting better and better, and are already beginning to replace point and shoots.

You have a digital point and shoot. These are the best cameras for getting started. First, make sure that all the beeps (focus beep, shutter beep) are turned off. Second, turn off that auto-focus beam that your camera throws out when you press the shutter halfway down. It’s a common feature, and for street photography, it’s pretty unnecessary. Third, check out this article about Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, who uses advanced digital point and shoots to get great shots in the field.

The article discusses most of the ins and outs, but for the sake of being repetitive, I’ll share a few I’ve picked-up. You can use your digital camera in much the same way Winogrand and Bresson used their Leicas. If you’re shooting in sunlight, set your camera such that the aperture is always around f11, for a wideish depth of field. If you can prefocus the camera, set it so that it’s focused on a spot about a meter away from you. You’ll be able to photograph people between a meter and ten meters (or more) away.

One great thing about point and shoots is that (like Bresson’s Leica) they have very quiet shutters. You won’t be broadcasting to the world that you’ve just taken a photo. I’ll get into this in #6, but there are plenty of ways to take pictures without looking like you’re taking pictures (if you’re into that, or for when you find yourself in a situation that requires stealthiness). By setting your camera at f11 and prefocusing, you’ll be cutting down on shutterlag as well.

Most important, make sure your flash is off. That is, unless you want to be purposely shooting people with flash. Just make sure the flash isn’t going to auto-turn-on when you least expect it.

Try some test shots at the different “qualities” of jpg to see how fast your camera responds. With a digital point and shoot, you can set the thing on burst mode (recommended by Majoli) and get away with it, because it’s silent.

You have a digital (or film) SLR. The best thing about these cameras is that they’re fast; they’re quick to focus and calculate shutter speeds. You can pretty much set the camera on aperture priority and roll. You’re not locked-into f11, you can try shallower depth of field (and AF Servo, if you have a Canon) if the light is strong.

That said, when I’m shooting in the street, I tend to set my camera in a way that mimics a meterless film camera. It’s a personal preference, but if the light’s fairly constant, I like to use a handheld light meter, set the camera on Manual, and choose my own settings. This complicates things, but I like to complicate things. It also feels more like photography, rather than poaching. It also gives me a leg-up when I switchover to film cameras.

One of the biggest potential problems with digital SLRs is their bulkiness. When you raise it to your face to take a picture, a few things happen. They’re so large that they cover your entire face, and you become this myopic creature – a big lens-faced head. Some people like to “hide behind” the lens, but for me, the less time I have that thing in front of my face, the better. When it’s not in front of your face, you’re a person with a camera; when it’s in front of your face, you’re a person who’s “taking” something; a photography machine, of sorts. Keep it human, if you can.

Another example: by having a honkin’ SLR in front of your face, you’re kind of like a sailor in a submarine. You’re existing in a periscoped world. Yes, you’ll be able to spend more time composing the shot and waiting for the perfect moment, but it’s hard to know what’s coming from your left or right, or behind you, especially. I prefer anticipating the scene by keeping both eyes open, with the camera in my hands.

Garry Winogrand vs. Lenshead

I recently saw a film that showed Garry Winogrand photographing on the streets of Los Angeles. He had his Leica in front of his face for the amount of time it took for him to compose the shot and click the shutter. The rest of the time, the camera was hanging around his neck and he was grinning like a big bear. If you’re going to model yourself on an example, Winogrand’s approach might be a good one to follow.

You have a medium format something or other and only shoot in the studio. Take your camera off the tripod and walk outside, man. Welcome to the world. ; ) There are many great examples of photographers who are doing great street photography with medium-format cameras. Martin Parr uses an old Plaubel and a Mamiya 7, Brian Ulrich uses available light, and as far as I can tell, Wojtek Wieteska shoots med-format as well.

You have an old rangefinder my grandma gave you. Great, you’re in business. Load that thing with some Tri-X, set it to f11 for 250th of a second and go take a walk. You have a small camera with a quiet shutter that doesn’t take-up your entire face. Silence and size. You have everything you need to take good street pictures.

A fantastic thing about using a rangefinder on the street is that you can hold it up to your right eye (and with practice) be able to have your left eye open to see the wider scene around you. Tell your brain to look through your right when you need to focus or compose, and then you switch to your left (or both) to get a wider view on what’s going on. Here’s a picture of Zana Briski shooting this way. All she has to do is open her left eye when she’s done focusing.

Zana Briski shooting with a Leica

Another rangefinder plus is that they tend to come with fixed 35mm lenses. A 35mm lens necessitates being close to the subject. When you’re close to the subject, you’re engaged with the scene. Traditionally, street photography is not the domain of the zoom lens (or lighting rigs, Dicorcia aside), so the closer you are to the action, the better. (For more on this, see “telephoto is for cowards“.)

That said, you don’t need a Leica to be a good street photographer. Carolyn Anna Hall at UrbanMusings uses a Contax rangefinder. Other than the Epson, there are no digital rangefinders at the moment, so they’re all film, all the time. To save $$$, take a look at Bessa.

You don’t have a camera yet, but you like street photography and want to start. If you have access to a computer (you do) you’re in a great position to start-out with a digital point and shoot. Prices have never been better, selection is great, and you don’t need anything totally advanced. 4 or more megapixels should work just fine. A used digital camera would work fine, too. Take a look at Canon’s Powershot series (I really liked the s50.) Just get one and get out there and get started.

Here’s a list of what we’ve discussed, and what’s to come:

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

Ways of Working #2 (Relax)

#2: Relax and know that there are a million ways you can screw-up a potentially satisfying photograph. You could miss the moment. You could be shooting in daylight with the ISO still set at 800 from last night’s party pics. Your finger could freeze, unable to trip the shutter. Why fear failure when it surrounds you?

Photography takes concentration and focus. Street photography takes both while juggling constantly changing variables; shifting light, bodies in motion, someone who’s chasing you, etc… Sounds kind of like sports photography, actually. I like to think about how photographing people in public is like playing music. You need to have your technical chops, but you also have to listen, and be aware, with your ears and eyes wide.

In one of Winogrand’s books there’s an essay that mentions how he lost his “stuff” in the final years of his life. His shots had always been technically perfect, sharply focused and well-composed, but while battling sickness, the technical aspects seemed to elude him, though he kept photographing at a rapid clip, often through the open window of a car. In his later work, Winogrand still had the the spark and impetus, but he’d lost a handle on the how.

When you’re relaxed and focused, you can see all the elements of a picture and how they might come together. At noflashcorner, I need three things to happen in order to get the chance to take a picture; first, a person must walk through (and be briefly illuminated by) a small, finite spot of reflected light that’s moving minute by minute to the southwest. Second, that person has to interest me visually. Third, my spatial distance from the subject (they become a subject once I’ve decided to try to photograph them) must be compositionally interesting while they’re moving through that spot.

When I space out, I get zilch. I see the people a half-second after they’ve moved through the good light. Or I never see them. Or I fail to notice that the spots I’m working with have dimmed, and there are better ones on the other side of the intersection.

There are two things that help maintain my focus. I listen to music. In many ways, photographing in the streets is a kind of dance, and listening to music helps me contextualize the motion. It tones down the chaos and filters out the noise. It keeps my energy up, and it helps privatize me in a small way, which I’ll discuss later.

Second, I use a hand-held lightmeter and figure out the optimal exposure for the lightspots, set the camera to fully manual, and go. There’s something about knowing that my camera doesn’t have to think that makes me feel quicker, able to react. I don’t want to mull over depth-of-field, I just want to set it once and run — and I don’t want the camera to outthink me. Plus, it eases the transition when I’m working with meterless film cameras. (This leads into #3.)

Everyone takes pictures, and it’s easier than ever to click a shutter. Yet, it’s as easy to take a picture as it is difficult to take a good picture. Sometimes the good ones are gifts, sometimes the good ones require days of standing still and being quiet, sometimes you find them after weeks of looking for something else.

Once, I went to noflashcorner and I ended-up just watching. I didn’t take a single frame. I just stood there and watched the light move, and watched how people moved through the light, and noticed how they were illuminated, and for how long, and I looked at my watch and figured out when (weather permitting) the whole thing would happen again.

Being there with my eyes open, I learned more about photography (while not taking any pictures) than I did the week prior, when I took a cardload.

If the soul of street photography is luck, you can increase your chances of capturing moments by focusing on what you’re doing, where you’re standing, how the light’s shining, and what’s coming toward you. And the more relaxed you are, the more open you can be to the shifting nature of things that you can’t control. Same as it ever was. Be fast and sure about the things you can, and move on. Concentrate and relax; rinse, repeat.

Here’s a list of what we’ve discussed, and what’s to come:

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

Ways of Working #1 (Get over it)

(Please check out the first post, “Welcome” for an overview.)

#1: Get over it; it’s only street photography. Stop thinking about how to approach taking pictures of people and just start doing it. There are many ways to begin, but first, free yourself from your own (psychological/ethical/moral) constraints. You’re not considering taking a picture of Jennifer Aniston sunbathing to sell to the Inquirer, it’s just your neighbor and their dog sitting on a stoop. It’s no big deal. And smile. Smiling helps.

If you’re going to spend time considering someone as a subject, you should spend an equal amount of time considering how you can show your subject some respect. If you’re going to take a picture of someone, you better not waste anyone’s time, and you better do a damn good job. So, if you’re walking around wondering what to shoot, take your lens cap off. Pre-focus your camera. Decide what kind of depth-of-field you want. Consider the light. Get everything set-up so that you’ll be able to react quickly, efficiently, and perfectly, should the right situation present itself (regardless of whether or not you ask permission).

Simply, respecting your subject doesn’t necessarily require asking their permission. Respecting one’s subject may mean taking the best possible picture you can in the least intrusive way possible. Figure out what works for you and your particular situation, then get it done. Quickly.

In February, I was in Manhattan, and was amazed at how my cousin approached people on the street, asking for permission. No one turned her down. My cousin takes great pictures, and yet, when you ask someone permission, you get a particular kind of picture. It’s a picture of someone who’s prepared to have their photo taken. Faces (and bodies) do different things when they know a photo’s about to be taken. Do you want your subject to look posed or candid? Is there a middleground? If you ask someone for permission, will you want to ask them not to smile, to “look natural”?

I’m most interested in photographing people when they’re having private moments in public. When they’re straight-up candid. Most people on the street are just like you and me and are thinking about a thousand things rather than wondering if that person walking toward them may or may not have a camera and may or may not be preparing to take their picture. (Celebrity culture is beginning to change this, as some folks on the street act like they’re starring in their own reality show, with their own iPod soundtrack, and will throw Courtney Love-style fits when cameras are close – I’ve seen it.) You may feel exposed as a photographer, but breathe easy; by and large, people have far more interesting/complicated lives to mull over, and they’re not worrying about you and whether or not you’re about to fit them into your photo-project.

So chill. That’s #2, and that’s next.

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