Joel Meyerowitz Video

If you’re looking for a quick and dirty street photography tutorial (rather than this long-winded series), check out this quick video of Joel Meyerowitz in action. The best part of the video isn’t the pictures themselves, it’s Meyerowitz’s enthusiasm: “the incredible replenishment of surprise at what comes your way (while street shooting) allows you to make new photographs.”

Watching video of photographers in action may be as exciting as watching paint dry for some, but I’ve found it worthwhile, especially when overlayed with the photographs themselves. The Nachtwey documentary, “War Photographer” is a fantastic example of this.

(Link via this thread on flickr.)

Update: Someone’s posted this video on youtube:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dipTqJfiE4]

Chris Jordan’s Katrina Book

(No street photography content in this post.)

I was planning to write a few small reviews of photo books that have recently been published, but I keep bumping into references to Chris Jordan’s book on Katrina, “Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster” and figured I’d write-up a quick something right now. He was on CNN at lunchtime yesterday — I read what he had to say via closed-caption.

Jordan’s book says a lot, but it’s what it doesn’t say that makes it so fascinating. As “portraits of loss”, the photographs require the viewer to consider absence. Where are the people? Whose half-submerged antique radio was this? Whose stuffed animal?

I’m amazed at how Jordan’s aesthetic, well suited to photographing the grandness of American excess via recycling centers (Jordan’s previous work featured them, as well as big shipping containers) could be so well-suited to a disaster zone.

His large camera has the clarity, power, and wide embrace to yield an inclusive, detail-rich view of the devastation. His pictures are clearer than anything you’ve seen online, in the newspapers, in magazines, or on television. I found myself staring at sections of a particular photo as one would take in a large-scale painting in a museum. The book makes you wonder.

His set-up may be that of an art photographer, but the subject matter is journalistic, and the intersection of the two (my favorite kind of collision) tells a story that needs to be heard. This same kind of collision, no pun intended, can be seen in that Simon Norfolk two-page photograph of the bombed bridge in Beirut in last week’s New York Times Magazine.

I read that the profits for Jordan’s book are going to a good cause. If you don’t have the cash and can spare a few minutes, track down a copy at your local museum or indie bookstore.

Lisette Model on Diane Arbus, 1972

In the Creative Arts Telvision documentary on Diane Arbus from 1972, Lisette Model says,

“and she posed everybody, either in the streets, or in their homes, and let them look directly at her, or into the camera, and by doing so, one would have believed that that would freeze the picture, but it was just the opposite – her influence upon these people, and their reaction to her, made the picture as spontaneous as if it were not posed. That was a great contribution.”

This may be in the Bosworth book, too, but it bears repeating.

To Street or Not To Street

I’ve been sporadically keeping track of things on this blog for a year this week. I intend to keep it going (more interviews, more fun!) but I wanted to put a stake in something I’ve been mulling over lately.

I’m beginning to think that street photography doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with streets, sidewalks, or cities. I mean, can’t you do street photography even if you live in a small, rural town? Is living in one of the few remaining pedestrian-friendly cities in America a requirement if you want to do street photography?

In the spirit of keeping the definition as wide as possible, I thought I’d list a few examples that struck me as bearing characteristics of traditional, idiomatic street photograpy, but extend the form up and off the streets, which mean it can happen anywhere, regardless of where you live.

* Winogrand’s party pictures (and whole swaths of “Public Relations”) are shot entirely indoors, but further the aesthetic he created on the street. If you, like Winogrand, walk around outside a lot with a camera, looking at things to see how they might look photographed, you know there are certain variables that can work to your advantage. Light, backgrounds, density/sparseness of people. Sometimes those variables occur with great frequency and depth indoors. The party pictures may be inside, but they’re still street photography.

* Diane Arbus’ apartment room portraits. She met many of her subjects on the street and followed them home to photograph them in their surroundings. The pictures were taken indoors, but it’s still street photography. One could ask, “why?” but one can ask “why?” about a lot of things. Trust me, the medicine is good for you — Arbus was a street photographer.

(A quick aside: if street photography in the last fifty years were a body, Arbus would be the left arm to Winogrand’s right. Further, ever consider why more photographers appear to pursue the Winogrand style in their own work, rather than the Arbus-mode? My hunch and slim experience tells me it’s because it’s easier… Fightin’ words!)

* Brian Ulrich’s “Copia” pictures are taken inside shopping malls and thrift stores. They’re surreptitious candids (some are unpeopled still-lifes) that are often taken under flourescent lighting, in large, air-conditioned buildings. But I’d still consider them a kind of street photography.

* Some of Thomas Struth’s museum photos (the good ones, showing people’s faces as they’re looking at art) are a kind of street photography (with a totally huge and cumbersome camera!)

* How are these not street photography?

What I’m trying to get at is the idea of inclusivity. I’d even argue that some of Alex Soth’s portraits are street photography. The video I saw of him trying to talk a subject into being photographed is Arbus-ian, regardless of how big his camera is or how slow its shutter. Street photography doesn’t require a small camera and fast feet. Keep the people though. Don’t crop them out just yet.

I’m starting a new flickr group called “Not Street Street” (name nod to K. Bjorke) for gathering examples of photographs that maintain a street sense, even though, technically, they weren’t taken on the street. If you want to know what I’m talking about with street sense, start here.

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Fur Media Blitz Commences

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Patricia Bosworth follows-up on her Arbus biography with this article (not available online) in the August Vanity Fair. Photo of an in-character Kidman by Mary Ellen Mark. Expect young women with Rolleiflexes to be all over Coney Island next summer, following in Nicole’s footsteps…

It’s amusing how biopics of artists generally supplant all previous histories of who the artist was and what their work meant. Ed Harris Pollack, Jeffrey Wright Basquiat, Kate Winslet Murdoch, Gwyneth Plath. Yes, more people come in contact with the work through cinema than in a museum, gallery or book. I guess I’m one of those who wonders if that’s a good thing.

The Bosworth book is a decent read, if you’re interested in the source of what eventually became Fur. It’s one of the few books I’ve read recently that I haven’t sold back.

(Other mentions of Arbus on 2point8)

Big Camera Street Group on Flickr

I’m still unclear about the usefulness of groups on Flickr, but there’s a new one I wanted to highlight called Medium Format Street Photography for those of you who attempt such a thing.

Using a med-format camera on the street plays into the previous post about the length of moments. Simply, med-format cameras often require more wrassling time than small rangefinders or digital cameras. Which means it can be tough to capture anything that’s fleeting.

Some med-format cameras have lenses that require you to focus with a different viewfinder than the one with which you’ll compose the frame. Most don’t feature auto-focus, and many aren’t SLRs. You can hear the shutter clang on a Hassleblad from a block away. If you have a twin-lens, it takes time to figure out how to keep everything level. In size, med-format cameras are anything but inconspicuous. Consequently, street candids can be tough.

Using a big camera on the street may force you to take a different kind of picture. The difference between Arbus and Winogrand is one of personality, talent, vision and temperment, but it’s also worth noting how the relative speed of their equipment might have affected their images.

Winogrand was so fast he could freeze anything. He could get inside the inside of a moment and achieve pure stasis. Conversely, Arbus was quick within slowness. Given a conversation and a minute or two, she was just as decisive with her bigger, slower (and heavier) gear.

Thanks to Kevin Bjorke for getting things rolling with the group.

Just a Moment

To oversimplify, when most people think about street photography, they think about Henri-Cartier Bresson and “the Decisive Moment”. Some think about creepy people like the guy I saw this weekend, holding a video camera at hip-level, videotaping women in skirts as they walked between him and a really bright late-afternoon sun, which is neither here, or there. (Corner of Franklin and California.)

There are as many ways to photograph (people) on the street as there are photographers, just check out the discussions here on 2point8. If everyone addresses the variables differently, what about the constants? And what are the constants of street photography? As a genre that depends on flux, chaos, and harnessing the unpredictable, it’s a stretch to consider what’s static. The quality of light may be constant, but only if you’re walking with the sun at your back and don’t turn. Motion may be a constant, but perhaps not, if you’re doing portraits.

The minute motion comes into play, things get squirrely. What makes one moment more “decisive” than the next? Some of Bresson’s most decisive work (to me) are his portraits, which are nearly all indoors, but seem to exemplify his whip-quick street sense. They combine impeccable timing with insight. Even the ones that feel flat aren’t flabby. To take it further, isn’t taking a great portrait with a cumbersome view camera as much about the moment as photographing on the street with a lil’ rangefinder?

I’m beginning to think so.

The more one considers “a moment” and what makes a moment, both in looking at photographs and in taking one’s own, you begin to see that not all moments are the same.

I’ve only been able to really register the difference by doing. By fumbling. There are moments that stall and hang there just long enough (a second or two) for me to capture them, and there are moments that appear to exist only because I had a camera that’s faster at seeing than the human eye.

In looking at street photographers whose work is very dependent on motion and moments (the latter seems to require the former – nothing that stays completely still has a perfect moment) you can see situations that had a wider window. The moment (as it were) may have lasted three seconds or so, in which the photographer was able to carve out a section for a good picture.


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In Bresson’s best work, the moment and the photograph seem tighter, more unified. It’s as if the moment only existed for the time that his shutter was open.


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I’m not sure what else to say about this, other than serve it up as food for thought. This is something I’ve felt in my bones, while shooting, and I thought it might help to articulate it and get it down on paper.

As far as examples go, Bresson’s most well-known pic of the guy leaping the puddle is a perfect example of a moment that only lasted as long as his shutter was open.

Ultimately, every photograph is only a record of the moment the shutter was open, and there’s absolutely no way of knowing what was happening before and after, or whether or not the moment was forgiving, with a slow intro and lazy outtro.

Knowing more about the making of the image doesn’t help or hinder a reading of the image that exists. But as someone who’s figuring it out on the fly, it seems to me that if you photograph, you’ve felt the difference between a forgiving moment and a moment that wants the ball and wants it now. I usually feel it when I know I’ve missed it; if not in my gut, than in the tip of my right-hand index finger.

No Flash Explanation

People have asked how to find a spot where they can photograph on the street with reflected natural light, so here’s more explanation. In the city, I’ve found two kinds of reflected light; the kind that bounces into shadow, and the kind that bounces into sunlight. No Flash Corner is the latter. Subjects are brightly lit from two opposing directions at the same time.

All you need for either is a tall, mirrored building that faces the sun. Ideally, it will be surrounded by shorter buildings that can’t block its reflected light.

The other day, I saw something new. A location that due to fog, had no direct sunlight. It was completely in shadow. But, because of reflected light, there were tremendous spotlit areas. Sunlight was able to bounce around the fog, and land on the darkened street.

Here’s what it looks like on paper. If you find something like it where you live and have a flickr account, post them to this group.

I can’t draw.

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Experiments in Editing / Sequencing

(Disclaimer: this post has no street photography content. It also has a self-link or two. That is all.)

A few weeks ago, a friend got me thinking about how websites, particularly photoblogs, fail to use their inherent “webbyness” to their advantage. Meaning, the presentation of images in photoblogs is typically date-based. You drill down and down into the past. It’s a one-way, time-based tunnel. 98% of photoblogs follow this model.

In the mid-nineties, art sites like Superbad sprang-up as a reaction to web consumers (and the businesses that created them) who’d grown used to navigating sites by clicking tabs, browsing for their products via the ubiquitous lefthand nav bar. By contrast, the art sites were immersive, anti-commercial and disassociating. You could get lost. There were no comments or permalinks, and there was often no way of finding where you were or how you got there.

In the last few years, tags have sprung-up as a solution for helping users find exactly what they’re looking for. Tags do a great job of categorizing. They create a nice horizontal path to vertical, date-based browsing, which results in very pretty grid.

But what happens if you want more from your images? What happens when you start to look for linkages in your photographs that aren’t related to time or subject matter? It seems that in the rush to organize everything, we may be missing out on evocative threads that exist just below the obvious.

This weekend I was talking with a photographer who has a new book out that is “about the edit”. In looking at how his book flows, it’s clear that he’s put a lot of thought into how one picture leads to the next. The photos leap back and forth across time, span all kinds of subject matter and formats, but there’s a strong, visible through line, page by page.

This month, I’ve been experimenting with “Overlap“, a different way of thinking about image sequencing. The included photos aren’t the kind of thing I can go out and pursue. The pictures arrive or they don’t. I can’t step outside and say, “I need a new picture that follows that last one.” Perhaps something from my archive jumps out and bridges the gap. Or not.

I haven’t seen many examples of photoblogs or sets organized along these lines. Why is editing like this relegated to art books? My feeling is that photoblogs (including my own), are more boring than they might be, because of their “bloggyness”. As in, “this follows that because it’s new and I just did it.”

With “Overlap” I’m hoping to articulate what may (or may not) be passed between two particular photos. If two photographs were to shake hands, what might they be palming?

DIY Access

Recently I read something that talked about how street photography tends to make people look like “animals in a zoo,” which sounds like criticism, but can be seen as a compliment, depending on who holds the peanuts. Even in the work of photographers whose work I enjoy looking at and learning from, there is often a palpable distance between photographer and subject, no matter how physically close the two may be. (I’d like to say the distance is metaphysical, but I’m not really comfortable with the wideness of what metaphysical means.)

Anyhoo, from what I can see, the bridge across this “looking at people as if they’re animals in the zoo” issue is Access. Access can be bestowed on you by someone, as in “come photograph me!” or “here’s your press pass!” or you can create it yourself. Not to beat a horse, but there’s quite a bit in the Arbus biography about how she created her own access to subjects (and there’s this bit about what it was like to be on the other end of her lens).

I have very little real experience with creating my own access, but when I’ve taken that extra step, it’s proven to be completely worthwhile. While photographing on the street is an amazing, unpredictible stew, making a great photograph of a stranger will always be a photograph of a stranger no matter how startling, insightful, or decisive.

The reason I keep mentioning Arbus is that she was able to push her work from the street into houses and apartments and bedrooms where her photographs grew and gathered great force. And it seems that if one is interested in making good pictures, there may be a natural trajectory in at least attempting to create access that normally wouldn’t be there. (And by access, I mean conversationally, even. Try talking with your subject. This sequence (and this shot in particular) is a good online example of that.) If you’ve grown comfortable with photographing on the street, why not push yourself to do something uncomfortable, like photographing off the street, in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar subject?

There’s a great, practical tidbit about access in this interview, and there are as many ways to create access as there are photographers. I have no real advice to lend (because I’m just beginning to do this myself) but it seems that if you have an interest that’s particular to your life, pursue it. I grew-up with sports, so a few weeks ago I spent some time photographing boxers.

Pursue what you know. Pursue what you don’t know. If you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, try something new. If your photographs look like stock photography, try something new. If you’re indecisive, try saying yes. Make it happen. In the end, you’ll be able to stand back and assess the results of what you tried, rather than having not tried at all.

“Overlooking / Underseeing”

A few weeks ago, I saw the keynote lecture of a seminar where Peter Schjeldahl told an old-world crowd of darkroom photographers /archivists /collectors that digital was here to stay because “it’s human nature — we’ll take the easy way.”

It was one of many gems he dropped in a rambling address that staked claims and generally laid brilliant waste to those afraid of digital’s manifest destiny. But he wasn’t without warnings. While slamming Sontag & Barthes, feting Arbus, and complaining how Ansel Adams “just doesn’t do it for me”, Schjeldahl claimed that digital photography is helping to create, maintain and popularize a culture of “overlooking and underseeing.”

Those three words sum it all up, I think. On screens, photography’s as much about the image as it is about next, next, next. It’s impossible to have a physical connection with a digital photo on a screen, so there’s no reason to linger. You can’t stand back and get a new view. You can’t lean-in close to examine the infiniteness of its detail. You’re not sharing its air. Everything’s perfectly sealed, at arm’s length. If the photo’s really good and throws you a curve, a question, or there’s a lot to look at, you may stay a bit longer, but it’s so easy to click that the click nearly clicks itself. Quantity trumps quality. Obviousness over subtlety. Commercial creams complexity.

Back to Schjeldahl. He said digital photography “confuses the novelty and fun of a medium with artistic expression.” (!) Photojournalism and snapshots have fallen for digital’s fast/cheap/easy, and nothing can be said for those who think they’ve made art because they’ve pressed a button. (In a digression, Schjeldahl said you can’t take a great accidental photograph twice.) If the argument about photography being an easy art is true, what can be said if in the last ten years it’s gotten a whole lot easier? (This is not my take, but it’s worth consideration.)

Beate Gutschow considers it via his photo-composite that’s currently up at SFMOMA. The link doesn’t show it, but the image is large, about six feet wide, and is printed with a big white border. In the border, Gutschow has printed all the digi-information about the manufacturing of the image; the filename, the resolution, the date — photo-processing info, essentially. A placard explains how the view doesn’t actually exist, and was composited from something like thirty individual photographs.

I had a gut-level reaction to the image, but admired its thrust — how it champions its own creation/falsity (kind of like the making-of documentaries on any recent blockbuster made with cgi), and in doing so, creates a new truth, all under the guise of traditional landscape photography. It’s a calm piece on the surface, but its elbows are sharp. I’m not sure where they’re pointed, but you can feel them jutting out.

What does any of this mean, and what does this have to do with street photography? I’m not sure, I only know that Schjeldahl’s onto something. In my own experience, carrying around a rangefinder on the street feels better than any digital camera I’ve tried, but I don’t think this means anything about the future of photography. Some day there’ll be a digital camera that’ll completely mimic the ergo-analog experience; in addition to being perfectly personalizeable, it’ll be both manually dumb and automatically smart.

Although digital technology can already mimic nearly everything that film can do, it’ll never be a perfect replacement until some braniac invents the round pixel. Maybe more on that later.

Here’s hoping (as a viewer, not an artist) that the art world doesn’t collectively fail and fall for underseeing. Good work, like bad work, eventually finds its audience. Schjeldahl said that one of the fascinating things about contempo-photography is not evaluating how great the photographer is, but “if this (photographer) is any good at all.”

Kinda heartwarming, no?

Drive, Will, and Wait

Last week, I realized I’ve been seriously taking pictures for about a year now, and in that year, I’ve spent much of my free time outside, walking around, with no other aim than to see. Ninety-nine percent of the time when I’m out, I’m not taking pictures. I’m looking at things, stopping and watching, listening, catching-up (so to speak) with the city in which I live.

Something clicked for me a year ago in Tokyo. I felt more free to look there, in another country, when my environment was not my own, where I felt disassociated, a step off-kilter. Everything was a surprise.

When I got home, I plugged that feeling back into my city, and I’ve been lucky that the feeling’s still there. I wake on a Saturday morning and part of me imagines I’m back in Tokyo (or Yangon, or Addis) and there are so many new things to see and be surprised by. Discoveries to make. Corners to explore. My drive for it has as much to do (or nearly as much to do) with wanting to be outside, getting fresh air while doing something, as it does with making a photograph that I may or may not be pleased with.

Which brings me to will. I have a vague idea that photography is just like anything else that requires some level of technical accomplishment mixed with talent, that untetherable X-factor. You can’t just be a good technician.

So many pursuits demand a similar mix; violinists, surgeons, place kickers. There are savants in each, the hyper-talented who have no need to practice and are good from the get-go. Then there are those of us who need to practice. And to practice, you need to want to get better.

But practice only works when you can critically chart your own progress. I only know one way of finding out if I’m getting somewhere. It has nothing to do with posting photos online or counting page views. I’ll look at the picture, and if it looks like it’s inching closer to the kinds of photographs I want to be taking, then I’m doing okay. Every once in awhile, I’ll take something that surprises me, and charts a new, fresh direction. That’s when the work teaches me. You can only take pictures that attempt to please you.

In the newish Henri Cartier Bresson documentary (which is more of a softball television special than a full-blown film) there are a few moments in which simple (but meaty) wisdom is conveyed. Isabelle Huppert is talking about how acting is similar to photography and how “things happen quickly or not at all, easily or effortlessly — you can’t will it, it just happens.” She’s obviously speaking about Bresson’s particular brand of photography, and goes on to say, “it’s the same (in acting) as in photography, either something happens or it doesn’t.”

Bresson says, “you can’t force things. If you do, you are lost.” Bresson has as many fans as detractors, and personally, I’m wary of anyone who’s canonical in any discipline, but in those two quick sentences, he pretty much summed it all up.

If you take photos, perhaps you know when you’ve gone off the edge. When you’ve pushed too far and fallen off. Or when you’ve gotten flabby. When your eye relaxes and your pictures become too glossy, familiar or easy. This Sunday, after working with a rented lens and ambling around from dawn to dusk, my eyes were tired. It wasn’t that I’d taken tons of photos, it’s that I was tired of looking; it was time for something new. I’d learned what I was going to learn for that particular day.

I guess I’m trying to figure out how these three things combine: the will to do something; the drive to get it done and done well; and the willingness to wait for moments and situations that cannot be predicted to flow around oneself. How can these three things repeatedly come together? Yet, they do. Most blame it on talent, and intuition, but I think there’s a larger unknown at work that’s hard to harness and impossible to describe. It’s that unpredictability that keeps me engaged. But it honestly seems like an impossible task, when picked apart.

I think that’s the allure — as one who photographs and enjoys looking at good photographs taken by others. The best work (like the best concert violinist, or even place kicker) makes the technical achievement disappear, and you’re left amazed by the results; you feel the jolt of emotion from the thing that’s been created, and you’re left with a question — how the heck did the photographer have the foresight to be there, at that moment, ready with a camera to their eye and their finger on the shutter for That?

Why Wide Open?

“2point8” refers to a wide-open lens, a lens that allows lots of light through. This past summer, I used a wide-open lens on the street. More often than not. I liked how it isolated subjects and generally made scenes feel more dramatic.

There’s a compositional knife-edge between isolating a subject and a frame that’s crowded with people. For my taste, it’s one or the other; the middleground (kind of crowded, kind of not) is less interesting. It’s harder to see (or know, or realize, or care about) what’s important. (An image will prove me wrong on this point tomorrow, I’m sure.)

Shooting wide-open can be hard to do on the fly, even with a sophisticated autofocus camera. I realized something last weekend, while looking for locations that had a worthwhile combination of interesting light and pedestrian traffic.

A good way to isolate the subject is to photograph them in direct light against a dark background. This is Photo 101, but one thing I didn’t realize is that you can use a much more forgiving f-stop with this scenario. Say 5.6 or 8. The background will still be black, whether it’s in focus or not. The light selects/creates your depth of field in this instance. Handy!

It’s a simple thing, really, akin to using flash. When photographing subjects against deep black backdrops, there’s no need to shoot wide-open, which allows you more time to not be holding the camera to your eye, which can be a smiley good thing.

Focus

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.

Woof.

Tilt Compost

A few days ago in the poorly lit photography gallery at the new De Young Museum, I was asked a question about why the horizon in a particular street photograph (not available in the “ImageBase” on the de Young site) was tilted. Winogrand might have responded “what tilt?”, and the more the questioner considered it, the more they realized the subject wasn’t tilted at all; the world was tilting around the subject, if at all.

The episode got me thinking that believing in a level horizon is a bit like believing the earth is flat. The world must be one way and one way only. You either see it or you don’t. I started wondering about what it means to have a flat horizon, how it’s compositionally restrictive and technically impossible to consistently achieve without a level or a plum-bob. Most photographers crop a full-frame in order to rotate and de-tilt an image. I can understand doing this when the tilt isn’t working for the image, but why do it all the time? Force of habit? Or seasickness?

Even though all kinds of art have been tipping and twisting the horizon for the last hundred years, tilt’s still taboo.

Case in point: I opened today’s paper to an article about Ansel Adams’ birthplace, printed with a photograph that contained this caption: “The composition of the photo makes the house in the background look tilted.” (Here’s Penni Gladstone’s photograph, and the article on Adams.)

Newspapers may be Jason Blairing all over themselves to achieve verite, and lord knows someone’s gonna call and complain, so the Chronicle explained why this picture isn’t really “real”. I like how this occurred in an article about America’s favorite realist photographer — it’s as if Ansel’s ghost flew out of the compact flash card and demanded the caption.

Closer?

There’s a passage in one of the Szarkowski essays on Garry Winogrand that talks about how, toward the end of his life, Winogrand photographed from inside moving cars in Los Angeles. A lot can be said about this, but the part that’s stuck with me is Szarkowski’s theory that the pictures were experiments in how far a photographer can be from a subject and still have it be the subject.

The picture I recall (see below) is a suburban landscape; a wide shot of a sidewalk, some parked cars, apartments in the background. A woman is walking from right to left with her kids and a stroller. They’re very small. In looking at them, there’s this chime of recognition with Winogrand’s body of work. The “ah, I’ve seen this gang before, but up close”. And that knowledge adds to the picture; it’s an ordinary picture that makes sense when incorporated into Winogrand’s body of work. He was in retreat, literally and figuratively, and his later pictures showed that, to a fault.

So much of street photography is about getting close, and being right there, next to people. Lately, I’ve been wondering about how far away you can get from something and still have it chime – still have it be recognizable as the subject, and meaningful. Worthy. Not just as a subject for street photography, but for all kinds of photography.

Winogrand’s experiment with distance reminds me of rhyming in poetry. In formal verse, we expect rhymes at the end of the line. Modern practitioners weave it through the lines, in soft or off-rhymes, braiding sounds down the page. When you hear those examples, an off-rhyme with a lot of aural space between, you raise your eyebrow. It sounds unexpected and fresh. Braided rhymes are a running fence that encircles a poem and focuses (both eye and ear) on the meat of the message.

In photography, subjects are typically right there, front and center. I’m hoping to write about photographs that are so off-center they’re about the absence of subject, but right now, I’m curious about how far away you can be from something and still remain connected to it (photographically) in a way that’s electric.

How far away can you be and still make the spark jump? How far away can you be from a small subject while still filling the frame with information that feels essential?

I’m tagging a few pics on flickr (and on whileseated.org) with “2point8closer“, if you want to add a few of yours. I’m interested in sharing examples. Here’s one that I was thinking of, at slower.net. If I owned the Winogrand book, I’d scan in the example I’m remembering. Dang photobook prices!

Greats (no street content)

Forget what books or museums tell you about who’s a great photographer. If you go to a gallery and you don’t connect with the stuff, dig deeper. Most acclaimed photographers of the 20th century are great historically, meaning, they created something substantial and new for their time, in a medium that was developing (pun) at a faster rate than many of them could keep pace with, and in order to appreciate their images, it helps to keep this history in mind. Then again, if you’ve schooled yourself and you still think it sucks, that’s fine. Look hard. Find your own favorites, champ.

Prefocus This

Street photography often depends on speed, and how quick you can be with your shutter. Not just the shutter, but the aperture, shutter speed, focus and all the other junk you have to think about, like framing. One little “trick” I’ve learned is to prefocus.

I can’t estimate how far away fourteen feet is (I try by visualizing basketball hoops lying down — they’re ten feet tall), and my lenses have fairly unreliable allowances on their distance markings. But, I can look at a subject, realize that I want to photograph them, and then turn and focus on an object that’s exactly the same distance away, but in an entirely different direction, like behind me.

Once I have everything set-up, I can turn and photograph the subject quickly and cleanly, without fumbling or changing the scene (much). I’m not a graphic designer, but here’s an example. If you want to take a picture of the cowboy, guestimate on the exact same distance in the opposite direction (the star!), focus there, then turn and click the cowboy.

This is really helpful with cameras that you focus manually. If you have an auto-focus whiz-bang camera, you’re probably all set.

Yee-haw! Clip art!

Eddies

If cityscapes are geographies crisscrossed with rivers of movement, there are areas where that energy turns back on itself, and swirls into a pool, an eddy. Sometimes the biggest fish save their energy and prowl the shallows near the reeds. On the street, I find that the brightest photographic opportunities are often outside of the main flow.

I witnessed this recently while traveling in Burma. At pagodas, payas, or stupas, people generally walk in a clockwise direction, along a marked path. In each place, I tried to step off the path, out of the flow, and spent time exploring the surrounding, supporting buildings and areas.

I’d find myself in situations that were unpredictable, often unexplainable, and generally much more fascinating than the glitz of gold domes. I took a sequence of five pictures in a particular eddy at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. I’ve posted three of them here: 1, 2 and 3.

On the far left of the second pic, you can see the foot of the lion that’s in the first pic. I stayed in this particular spot for about fifteen minutes, and the minute one thing stopped happening, someone else wandered over and something else started-up.

As photographers, we can spend a lot of time running around, going here and there trying to make a picture, but sometimes the best stuff happens when you just stop and hang-out and interact with whatever gets caught in the swirl.

Meyerowitz, Machines and Parades

I’ve been looking at a lot of Joel Meyerowitz’s work lately, and reading interviews. He’s tremendously articulate when speaking about photography, and particularly about street shooting. I don’t want this to turn into a place where I only post quotes, but, well, hey.

Meyerowitz explains how to use fast shutter speeds to your compositional advantage, rather than just sitting and waiting (a la Bresson) for something interesting to emerge. Making the moment vs. deciding on the obvious (however interesting the obvious may be).

Meyerowitz: The fact that the machine works at 1000th of a second allows you to gesture at things radically, even before you know them. You use the speed of the camera as a property. If you’ve got 1000th of a second, then you should use it and see what it’s like to work in that zone of high speed–which means you can release yourself in a gestural way at a 1000th of a second. Sometimes I literally plunge into it, throw my whole body into the subject, the crowd moves away, and people spill into the frame from the other side. I move the image off center, somehow turn away. I want to engage something that’s only peripheral in my eye. I fill the frame. And then when I get the picture back, I get what a full-blown gesture at a 1000th of a second sees.

Macdonald: What do you mean by turn away?

Meyerowitz: I felt that most of street photography coming out of Cartier-Bresson was aimed at locating an event in space with the camera, and singling it out, sometimes pointing at it by juxtaposing it to something else. But you know exactly what it is that’s being photographed. You know what the intention and the accomplishment of the photographer is. After years of doing that and getting faster at that kind of location, I began to feel like a visual athlete–making sensational catches , but having less to learn from. The more in touch I became with what I personally was interested in, the more I wanted to loosen up the frame. I had a sense of desperation.

I read this after stumbling across the queue for the Veteran’s Day parade. I didn’t know it was happening, but came across the Knights of Columbus and stuck around. I was thinking about how I’ve found photographing parades to be worthwhile only before they begin (and probably after), and then I read this, in the same Meyerowitz interview:

Meyerowitz: In the beginning I worked with Tony Ray Jones and Richard Horowitz. Tony’s dead and Richard’s a commercial photographer now. Somehow we found each other. We used to go to the parades and work the beginnings and ends, but not the middle. We didn’t take pictures of the parade itself. We photographed when they were coming together and when they broke down at the end. There we had license to play. You could go right up to people. You could break the social distance. You didn’t have to keep the distance of the news photograph. You could get into more intimate situations.

These quotes are from the intro to Cape Light. If you like good interviews, look for the Photographers at Work series, which have lengthy discussions upfront.

Smudged Notes from Pocket

This morning I found a scrap of clean paper in an alley and took some notes as I tried to make pictures (didn’t really make any). Here they are:

  • If you’re out walking, and it’s early or late and the light’s good, walk with the light. Meaning, if you have a limited amount of time, make sure that you’re walking with the light to your back, so you can go slow and let it all unroll in front of you. Otherwise, you’re like a three-year old salmon, bucking the sun stream.
  • Travel light – even if you’re only out for an afternoon. Keep your gear simple. Leave the camera bag at home, even. Free things up, see how it feels.
  • A few times this weekend (like always) I saw great pictures that I didn’t take, or chose not to take, or failed to take, or whatever. And it felt really good to let them go. If you pick everything, there won’t be any fruit next year. It’s corny, I know.
  • If you’re not having fun taking pictures, at least enjoy the fact that you’re outside and walking a few miles and being active under the ozone hole. Say hi just because. Meet some people. If you see someone twisting a map this way and that, offer help.
  • If, in your thoughts, you ask yourself “should I take this picture?” and the subject is inert, like a building or a plant or something that will be there tomorrow or the next day, say “no” and walk away. If you’re asking, it’s probably not going to be something that you’ll miss. Inert can be good, second guessing yourself isn’t.
  • Construction zones. If you’re looking to take more pictures of people, but find it difficult, look for scaffolding. You might find one of those sidewalk skirters, where there’s a divider and a place for pedestrians to walk. If the light’s good, you can stand on the other side of the divider, and photograph people as they funnel through. I’ve never tried this, but it looks like a good idea. Sure, this is cheating a bit, but it helps to start somewhere. Walker Evans made his photographs on the subway with a camera hidden in the folds of his coat and a cable release threaded down his sleeve.
  • Photo 101: 1/1000th@f2.8 = 1/500th@f4 = 1/250th@f5.6 = 1/125th@f8. And the difference between shade and sunlight is usually four stops. This stuff is simple, but it’s taken me a long time to know it, unflinchingly. It’s finally starting to sink in.
  • One more thing: If you’re in a spot where you’re photographing people who happen to be walking, and you’re in that river, be sure to look for eddies where the flow spins back and settles. Simply, if you’re photographing one kind of motion (people walking) keep your eyes out for people who have slowed, and are still, or for people who are running. Extremes provide contrast.

Forewords

Yesterday I found much at the library, including two great forewords. Bruce Davidson’s introduction to the first-edition of his book Subway is one of the best first-person explanations I’ve read on street photography, the hows and whys. (According to this page, it hasn’t been included in the re-release from last year.)

Davidson describes working-out (military style) for weeks prior to shooting on the subways in order to be in shape for whatever the situation might present; muggers, thieves, your standard NYC subway fare in the 80s. He writes at length about fear, preparation, and the art of trusting one’s intuition.

John Szarkowski’s long, comprehensive essay at the beginning of Garry Winogrand’s Figments from the Real World is another keeper. (Really, if you don’t own the book, just go to the library like I did with some quarters and xerox the thing – it’s worth it.) I read it a year ago and thought it was all well and good, but now, on re-read, it makes serious sense. Like this:

It was typical of him that he was most interested in those parts of his work that were the most problematic. He had a special affection for those of his pictures that were almost out of control, the pictures in which the triumph of form over chaos was precarious. He believed that a successful photograph must be more interesting than the thing photographed, but he photographed nothing that did not interest him as a fact of life. Success–the vitality and energy of the best pictures–came from the contention between the anarchic claims of life and the will to form.

Technically speaking, there’s also a great bit about why he chose to use lenses wider than 35mm (but not as wide as 21mm), and how they led him to compositionally use tilted frames to his advantage.

He also said that the tilt was never arbitrary, that there was always a reason, which is true if one counts intuitive experiment as a reason. Sometimes he said that it was, on occasion, simply a way of including what he wanted within the frame, but his proof sheets make it clear that he would often tilt first one way and then the other, trying to find the configuration of facts that would best express the force of the energies that were his subject. Sometimes he suggsted elliptically that he tilted the frame to make the picture square and secure.

Geoff Dyer’s “The Ongoing Moment”

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Geoff Dyer’s new book “The Ongoing Moment“. So anxiously that I forgot the release date. Anyway, it’s on the shelves, and it’s worth picking-up in hardback if you like to read and think about photography.

I read the first chapter on the train this morning and wanted to recommend it, not just for its discussion of street photography (the entire beginning is about the history of photographers taking pictures of blind people — er, blind people with accordians) but from its look at photography as a whole, and its choice quotes like this, from Dorthea Lange;

To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting.

If you enjoy Dyer, skip that last “yoga” book of his and pick up his earlier book on D.H. Lawrence, which is essentially a book about how he can’t write a “sober study” of D.H. Lawrence. It’s phenomenal.

Even better, this bit from Diane Arbus:

Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw. It’s just extraordinary that we should have been given these peculiarities. And, not content with what we’re given, we create a whole other set. Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a paint between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.

Martin Parr Quote

There’s a new (audio) interview with Martin Parr up here. Here’s a choice bit from the end:

Q: “I wonder how people can avoid being derivative.”

MP: “Photography’s so simple and so complicated, and there are so many things that haven’t been done yet – which will be so simple, and when we see them we’ll wonder why no one else had thought of it. It’s all out there to be had. Of course, you need the inspiration of other photographers to kick-start your own enthusiasm, but then you’ve got to make it into your own.”

Two Recommendations

Two tidbits/recommendations related to street photography.

In the new Elvis Mitchell interview with Phillip Seymour Hoffman about his film “Capote”, Hoffman recounts how the film’s director, Bennet Miller, wanted to capture the “small, quiet moments” when Capote wasn’t talking, or trying to make himself the center of the universe.

Hoffman on Bennett’s direction: “He wanted to capture him (Capote) in the small, quiet moments. Bennett always talks about how when they first come to the Dewey House, him and Harper are walking across the lawn, and you actually see them at the doorway before the door opens, and he said, “That’s the moment! That’s the sting!” of actually seeing Capote’s expression before the door opens. He’s like, “if I don’t capture that moment, I don’t have my movie.”

Again, paraphrasing Bennett, Hoffman says, “I want to unveil the truth of his (Capote’s) ambition, and all these things, and you (Hoffman) are going to capture those in the moments when Capote doesn’t know he’s being watched. In that, you find a wonderful raw kind of feeling, a truth.”

The introduction to Gary Stochl’s “On City Streets“, by Bob Thall. He talks about how Stochl was completely unknown to the Chicago Arts community, and how he pursued his own unique vision (of street photography) for forty years, unencumbered by the marketplace, or what it means to be an artist and get one’s work out there. He pretty much worked in an artistic bubble (though he mentions seeing Robert Frank’s book “the Americans” and an HCB show) for forty years before receiving any kind of recognition for his work. His first show, of which the pictures in “On City Streets” are a part, went up in Chicago in 2003.