Discussion: Chuck Patch (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of the interview with Chuck Patch, a street photographer who’s excellent work I came across on Flickr. Part 1’s here. I’d like to thank Chuck for the time and energy he took in crafting his responses.

There are more of these interviews/discussions in the works, and hopefully a roundtable at some point. 2point8 in bold.

Lately I’ve been liking photographs that have mystery. The “wtf?” element. The longer it takes me to figure out what’s happening in a photograph, the more I’m intrigued, especially when everything’s clear, as if the photo’s pretending to be simple, at face value. Your pictures show an attraction to both humor and the unexplainable. Can you talk about the appeal of what’s never been seen before?

I think the wtf gene was in the original photograph pulled from the primordial slime. Despite all the stuff we can do with computer graphics there’s still something in anyone who looks at a picture that wonders if that was really there. And practically from the beginning there were those who manufactured it for the camera and those who just tried to find it for “real”. In still photography that question about reality is always there in some form. Even if it’s only to figure out how the photographer managed to coax something utterly abstract out of a medium designed to be anything but. Like if you’re looking at a Brugiere, you’re thinking, wow, he did that with a piece of paper and scissors. Obviously there are all sorts of ways of getting the feel of something discovered into a picture, but in the kind of photograph I’m most drawn to it often seems to be about revealing something, only it hasn’t quite yet been revealed, at least not completely, yet. My favorite pictures seem like little epiphanies, even if you don’t really know what the scene is about there is some kind of perfection about to happen, that has just happened or is happening. There’s a kind of anticipation that is less about seeing something that’s never been seen but seeing something that is just-right but only right now.

I like what you said here about this image. That describing a particular situation is “prosaic and probably disappointing.” In the new William Eggleston documentary, he talks about how photographs and words “don’t have anything to do with each other.” Thoughts?

I haven’t seen the Eggleston film, so I’m not sure I understand how he meant it. When I made that comment about the picture, I simply meant that there was nothing particularly wondrous about the situation. In this picture and a lot of others I suppose, the effect comes from what was left out while trying to make it look like nothing was left out. So you can’t see the stairs, or the parade or the hundreds of other people running around and even the other people on the same ledge, which you don’t really see either. Photographs and words may have nothing to do with each other but words certainly can have a powerful influence on how you see a photograph. Studiously avoiding the dispensation of information is part of the art of titling photos, even those that are untitled. My life seems so much more marvelous if you don’t know how boring most of these events were or how utterly uninvolved in them I often was.

How did your eye develop? I noticed that you were in your 20s when you took most of these shots. When did you start with photography, and who were you looking at for inspiration?

I started taking and developing pictures when I was 11, I think. My dad taught me how to use a darkroom. Of course I looked upon Popular Photography as the sine qua non to good photography until I was into my 20’s. I covered a lot of this ground in my answer to your first question, but I will say that as important as books and exhibitions were, an awful lot of influence at first came from a close friend and, I guess I would say, mentor who was part of that photo coop I belonged to. He was and probably still is a terrific photographer who steered me into this “straight” approach by persuading me to stop cropping images, to try to make prints that resembled the original scene as closely as possible in tonality and contrast. That led inevitably to the whole social landscape thing – Winogrand, Friedlander, then Evans and Atget, all of whom I found very difficult to understand, which made it all the more important to understand them. Since then I’ve tended to like pictures that are more like lyric poetry than grand opera. I’m spectacularly ignorant of the photography scene of the past 15 years or so, but the figures I look to now are people like Martin Parr or those guys on the In-Public site, at least one of whom, Nils Jorgensen, is posting on Flickr now.

What brought you to the place where you took this?

I had a friend who was in the Progressive Labor Party back in the early ‘80’s. They were a particularly rabid Stalinist group and my friend was forever trying to recruit me. I’ve never been a big believer in faith-based anything and the PLP always struck me as the closest thing I’d seen to a fundamentalist religion without being one. I went with his local party, or cell or whatever to a bunch of different demonstrations. This one was in South Milwaukee, where the local Nazi party was having a rally. This was a big Polish neighborhood and I think there was a significant Jewish population living in that area. I could be totally wrong about that. Anyway, there were loads of police and I probably shot about 6 rolls of film of people screaming and waving signs and banners and even a small skirmish between the PLP and the Nazis. I remember taking this picture because it was funny, but I also felt just like that guy: “here I am. This is really creepy and I sure hope nobody notices me!”

This was my first trip to New York as an adult. I had driven from Madison with a bunch of friends and we were staying in a huge, unheated loft in Manhattan in January. I was just wandering around lower Manhattan doing my Cartier-Bresson manqué thing, clutching my camera in my right hand with the strap wrapped around my wrist. I’m embarrassed to say I had even covered my camera with black electrical tape to make it less conspicuous, as if! I saw these women come out of a store and, here we go again with the disappointing explanation, one of them forgot something and had to run back and get it. I hung around the parked cars trying to look “inconspicuous” – I’m sure the electrical tape helped – and took two or three pictures. I didn’t even notice they were different species at the time. I was always annoyed that I didn’t get the bottom of the left woman’s shoe in.

Always take pictures that people point out to you. This was July 4th in DC, always a huge event and it was about 140,000 degrees with 175 percent humidity. My wife, then girlfriend, tapped me on the shoulder while I was shooting something in the direction of the Lincoln monument to point out this scene. I would never have seen it otherwise. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened.

They had just opened a huge new hospital in Madison and were having an open house. I went to everything that had “open” on it in those days. The tour took you down miles of corridors and they had these little medical exhibits set up along the way. I have no idea what this guy is demonstrating, but I love the sunglasses and handlebar mustache. He was very obliging about posing.

Discussion: Chuck Patch (Part 1)

People fawn over flickr for good reason, it’s a simple and cheap way to get your photos online. The upshot is you can discover people who’ve done (or are doing) great work. When I came across Chuck Patch’s street photographs from the 70s and 80s, I thought, “who is this guy?” So I asked him a few questions. We’ll spread the answers across two posts. 2point8 in bold. (Part 2 of this interview is here.)

I remember coming across your (Old Silver) photos and wondering what the story was. How did you come to street photography, and why did you pursue it all those years?

These pictures were all made from prints, which means, by definition, that they were taken at least 10 and more likely between 20 and 30 years ago, since I haven’t really printed anything in about 10 years. The earliest date from around the time I was part of a photo coop in Madison, Wisconsin in the early 70’s and I was hanging around with a bunch of other photographers. It was great thing for me for a number of reasons, a couple of the most important being that we were all fanatical and that none of us, at least at first, were associated with an academic photography program. We ended up teaching each other the history of photography and every day it felt like being the first one to discover something. I started carrying a camera everywhere I went at that time and didn’t really stop until just before my son was born about 15 years later. The real mystery is why I don’t have more good pictures and the best answer is that I’m hopelessly fearful. I could fill about two gigs of storage on that site you have where photographers can describe the shots they didn’t take.

I actually never heard the phrase “street photography” until a few years ago. I’m sure the term existed back in the 70s, but I just don’t remember hearing it. My friends and I called it “straight” photography and the main thing about it was that in order to get a good picture you just had to be there. The idea of “making” photographs seemed ludicrous. Pictures happened. Your job was to record them when they did. That’s still my basic approach. When you always carry a camera you start seeing everything in photographic terms, and you start relating everything you do to photographic processes, or rather, the process of seeing things as photographs. It’s addictive. The problem was that I grew up and it became harder to do this. I decided while I was in college that I was never going to do this for a living. I don’t why I felt that way really, but somehow I simultaneously entertained the notion that I didn’t have the technical chops to do anything interesting professionally and that what I’d probably end up having to do would be really boring. The little bits of commercial work I picked up consisted largely of photographing bankers and real estate agents for advertisements. I hated the academic stuff I saw coming out of MFA programs even while I knew I couldn’t equal the technical skill those kids had picked up. And by the time I quit, I didn’t really know anybody I could show my new pictures to. It just seemed very insular and I began to feel that I was simply deluding myself into believing I had something I didn’t. I gradually stopped; by about ‘94 I wasn’t shooting more than a roll or two a year and sometimes no rolls a year.

Your work from that era was (naturally) in film. In your current work, you’ve been using a digital camera. Can you talk a bit about the benefits/hazards of both, without saying that digital’s great because it’s fast, cheap and easy?

A quick correction: the vast majority of what I shoot is film. That said, one of the things that pushed me back into photography was buying a Sony Cybershot about 3 years ago. It’s basically a snapshot camera, but I was surprised at how good the picture quality was. Besides, it was so fast cheap and easy. Sorry. But I could stuff it into a pocket and get decent pictures without hauling around a “real” camera. So for the first time in over a decade I started carrying a camera with me everywhere again. After that, the Leica went into the shop for repairs and a tune-up, and later I bought a student SLR from my son whose own interest in photography was helping fire-up mine again.

To be honest, I would probably shoot almost entirely digital, but I can’t really justify laying down the money for a camera that can equal the feel and handling of my 47 year old Leica. I have no religious affiliation with film; while I like the look of film, I really like the look of digital too. I love its clarity, the accuracy of the color rendition and the wide wide exposure latitude. The lack of dust and scratches on the negatives! I don’t think there’s anything magical about the film aesthetic. I don’t think black and white looks “more realistic”, and the argument that it’s more artistic or “expressive” just annoys me. And God help me, I have never thought the look of the grain was really neat. I like film for what it is and what it’s been, but to continue shooting film, especially black and white, which I’m sure I’m going to continue doing for a while out of pure habit, is like making platinum prints or something. It’s becoming an anachronistic technology and using it will increasingly be recognized as an affectation. There’s a place for that and a certain kind of artist who can make that work, but I’m probably not one of them. Or if I am it’s by accident because I’m too old of a dog to learn a new trick.

One thing I’m going to miss about film is its slowness. The time that elapses between when I push the button and see the picture helps me separate the hopes from the reality of an image. In some ways being able to see an image right away is just confusing for me. I like having a bunch of unprocessed rolls sitting on the shelf. It feels like money in the bank. Running 36, or 72 or however many frames through the scanner can feel like Christmas because you’ve had some time to separate from the initial moment and it’s like experiencing it again in a totally different, totally visual way. It’s one of the luxuries of not depending on this for a livelihood.

Particularly with street photography you can’t avoid the faster, cheaper, easier aspect of digital. I think of street photography as the garage band of the visual arts. Because it has the lowest technical threshold, a lot of people can participate and it moves the aesthetic back to the initial act of recognition, which I like. I know, it’s incredibly easy to Photoshop anything to death, and most of what you see is sterile dreck, but that kind of dreck has always been out there. There are also undoubtedly some new age Uelsmanns, but there are also a lot more people just shooting for the fun of it because the digital technology gives you really good images at much lower cost and where a lot of people end up going is out on the street, because of course, the street photographer is a romantic character. And then they put them up on Flickr (or whatever) where people from all over the world can tell them how wonderful their images are. Incredibly, many of them really are wonderful. So people who could never in a million years get even the smallest gallery to hang a show that about a 100 people might see now get thousands of eyes for 25 bucks a year or less. In the end, what is truly fascinating about digital photography is that it’s less an aesthetic than a social phenomenon that ends up fundamentally democratizing a medium that, as far as I’m concerned, was being strangled to death by the art school/gallery/museum complex. And surprise, there’s what looks like a resurgence of street photography.

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.

Richard Kalvar

About a year ago, I first saw this image by Richard Kalvar.

It encapsulated a few of my favorite things about photographs taken on the street, but mainly, it just got stuck in my head. I had no idea who the photographer was until last week. Came across a few more of his photos and realized that he was a Magnum photographer. Was president of Magnum, even.

When I think of street photography, I think of stuff like this:

If you like black and white street work from the 70s, check out his archive, or just try this one, this totally insane one, this one, this one, or this one. Perhaps it’s my perception, but I don’t understand why Kalvar isn’t more well known.

(None of the above links work thanks to Magnum’s site redesign. Awesome!)

Anatomy of a (Failed) Moonshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Walk - North Beach Moonshot - Sept 2005

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

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


7:10pm

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

North Beach Moonshot, Blocked by Trees
7:11pm

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

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

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


7:26pm

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

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

Link: Moonshots on WhileSeated

Discussion: Raul Gutierrez

Here’s the first installment of Discussions. We’re kicking it off with Raul Gutierrez of Mexican Pictures. 2point8 in bold, Raul in plain text.

I like what you said about how it doesn’t matter if the street is on the other side of the world, but it makes me wonder about how street photography challenges what we know and what we don’t know. When you travel, does it help or hurt to be the outsider? Meaning, if you know your own backyard, by extension, do you know a bit about all backyards?

Unless I am photographing my own family or close friends I always feel like an outsider, perhaps because I am a product of several cultures, none of which I fit into neatly, or perhaps simply because I am a shy person. Travel can accentuate the feeling of being an outsider especially if I am ethnically distinct from the people I am amongst, or if I find myself in an environment that is foreign. But not always. I feel much more uncomfortable in a “normal” middle American home that I ever do in the third world.

Whether I have a camera or not I am always making photographs in my head. I do this when I walk out the door to the corner store and I do it when I am on the other side of the world. I see no difference. Sometimes the actual photograph infringes on the memory because of some technical or artistic limitation prevented me from capturing what I saw, but in my head the images are perfect.

We all have certain environments that excite us on a visceral level that allow us to do better work so that we can forget the technical and just make the pictures we already see.

I don’t know why I’m drawn to certain faraway spots on the map, but I’ve felt the pull most of my life. In a way, I feel taking pictures in those places is cheating because it feels easy. I much more admire people like Eliot and Mark who discover the surreal outside their front doors.

Can you talk a bit about how curiosity works–how it enables you to get deeper into the moment and closer to your subject?

Photography for me = emotion. So when I am looking for something to photograph it is my curiosity about the little mysteries I encounter that propels me to try to find a way to tell that story in a single image. This is one of the reasons I use wide lenses even when shooting people. When you shoot a portrait with a long lens you can sneak a shot of the subject from across the street. With a short lens that is impossible. You have to be physically close. Holding up a camera invites a reaction, possibly a confrontation. I find those moments of inflection hold small truths that suggest a more complex narrative.

There is a maxim in screenwriting: “get in late, get out early.” What it is saying is: get to the meat of the thing, go for the solar-plexus, but leave some unanswered questions. In photography you just have that one moment to tell the tale. The images that compel me most not only tell a story of a particular moment but suggest an entire world.

When I was in Asia, I thought about something you’d written; a tip to take photographs when you’re ready to leave, after hanging out for awhile, which says something about cultivating a particular kind of experience from which good photographs can emerge, rather than going in and trampling all over everything, uncaringly. I get the impression that when you travel you’re making as many friends as you make photos.

In the third world, the sight of a foreigner will often cause a stir. In these situations I leave my camera in the bag for quite a while because showing up camera ablaze and causing a ruckus leads to a certain kind of picture. Many will smile and pose. Some will frown and turn away. Some will ignore you. But I find in these moments people wear masks for an outsider. I prefer to hang out for a while, camera holstered. In most places this means drinking tea, sitting on a street corner, sharing dinner, or studying the items in the market. Some people will befriend you, some will forget you’re around, some will always be hostile. The masks, if not gone, are at least lowered, and the photographs I get are truer portraits of the people I encounter.

Where does street photography stop for you, or is it all wound-up in the same aesthetic? The horse festival, the photo studios – even though they may not be “on the street” per se, they have that street feel; something’s being discovered, you’re there in the midst of it, and you’re following something intuitive that leads to an unknown destination.

I would consider most of the photography on my site street photography as my definition of street photography is uncomplicated: ie “man with camera walks around with no particular destination and photographs what he finds”. Some have called my stuff documentary photography but my definition of documentary photography is that it must be undertaken with the goal of covering specific subject to reveal some truth. Travel photography I define as touristic. If it should be on a postcard, it’s travel photography. Some would say that travel photography, at it’s best, is the record of a journey or a place, but I can’t separate the term from the popular cliches of the genre.

Do you think a camera is a kind of license, and if so, what does it give you license to do?

I wish having a camera in hand gave me license to photograph all I encounter, but I try to be respectful and put the camera down when asked. Also there are cultural sensitivities to be dealt with. In Muslim countries I don’t photograph women for example. This said, I normally photograph first and ask later as the very act of asking generally breaks the moment. But as I noted I tend to hang out a bit before snapping a shot, so the number of people who have asked me not to shoot is surprisingly small.

In our culture, photography and images are cheap. They are everywhere. And yet oddly, many people in the West chafe at being photographed. In places with many tourists, people also chafe at being photographed because they feel exploited. Then there are places where images are rare, and personal photographs more precious still. In that third category of place, cameras have a special power, and people are unafraid to look into a lens. Still, I try to not just be someone who is just taking away images. I always travel with a polaroid and as much SX-70 film as I can carry. I snap polaroids and give them to my subjects as parting gifts. (an example) The only problem with this approach is that word travels lightning fast and soon everyone wants one. So my technique is to snap the polaroid, and while the crowd gathers to look at it, I quietly slip away.

As a sidenote, I was walking home tonight and saw the most amazing scene through a large basement window covered with a somewhat translucent curtain. A father was standing with a woman’s bathrobe over his shoulders staring at a television. At his feet two toddlers wrestling. The mom sat nude on the couch in all her chubby glory. It was surreal and beautiful and I could have easily snapped a picture; I wanted to take one, but I didn’t because I didn’t feel I had license.

Images:

This one is personal, not of the street. It was one of those images that just comes together in a flash. I was with my wife and baby at a wedding on a ranch in West Texas. The ceremony was finished and we were waiting for an old school bus to take us back to the ranch house for the reception. My baby wanted to breast feed and there was no waiting… so my wife walked with him into the woods and knelt down. Just then the clouds parted bathing the place in spectacular yellow light. I snapped one picture, the last on the roll. My wife hates the image by the way.

This is an illustration of my “hanging out” method. I had been playing ball with these kids for much of the day. When a fellow traveler came along (a friend from the road) they completely forgot about me and rushed him.

This is another perhaps more typical example of the technique:

This is a picture of a father and a son, both horsemen. The father had been negotiating the sale of a horse for an hour or so and I had been observing and joking around with the buyers. When the son showed up, the father brought him over to meet me. The boy was a bit sheepish and grabbed his dad with a big hug. I quickly snapped this picture. They didn’t flinch. I don’t think I could have taken this image an hour before because I wouldn’t have had the trust of the father.

I’d like to thank Raul for his time and generosity. There’ll be more discussions/interviews like this, soon.

Upcoming Discussions

I’m opening the doors here to include discussions and interviews. First up is Raul Gutierrez, maker of Mexican Pictures. I’ve learned a great deal from looking at Raul’s work. Plus, textually, he’s shown me ways of working when everything’s foreign and remarkable.

My hope is that these discussions show how there are as many approaches to street photography as there are photographers. There are no hard and fast rules. And if you’ve got an eye on the Web and know where to look, you may be able to learn as much here, from current, active photographers, as you might from school, or from an old, dusty book.

I read (in an old, dusty book) where someone said that no one got rich off of street photography. People do it because they’re compelled. Perhaps these discussions can be a resource for those compelled enough to get their feet wet, as well as for those of us who could use a new pair of boots. Stay tuned.

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.

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.

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.

Euro-centric (like everything else)?

Street photography is well-suited to European-style cities where pedestrians rule. So why is it that street photography is primarily thought-of as an American pursuit? Sure, its main practitioners in the 70s were from the States, but they were taking cues from European photographers of the 30s and 40s. Is the fact that street photography is (more or less) a Western ideal a function of the art world?

And why is it that cities in Asia (India, Vietnam, Japan) seem so well-suited for it with their small streets, bustling life, and hot weather that draws people out of their homes? If I’m remembering correctly, Bresson visited all three, yet his best street work is from France.

In America, only New York and San Francisco come to mind as pedestrian-heavy cities. Which partially explains why Winogrand seemed to lose his way after moving to Los Angeles. Portland’s pedestrian friendly, but the population’s a little small. It’d be interesting to comprise a list of what makes a city prime for street photography.

Last week I discovered that Hanoi’s a great place for it, like Tokyo. DiCorcia did some of his zoom-lens w/flash work for “Heads” in Tokyo, I think. I started browsing a bit, trying to find examples of street photography from Asia (and elsewhere). Came across these shots (1, 2, 3, 4) by Maciej Dakowicz, a Polish-born photographer.

I’ve seen a few photographers on flickr who do interesting street work outside America/Europe (Argentina: Marcelo Montecino, Mexico: Locaburg, Japan: Mecan) but I’m interested in seeing other examples if you’ve got ’em!

All this brings-up a larger question about the similarities & differences between travel photography and street photography. How locals benefit from knowing their cities inside/out vs. visitors who are always on the outside looking in.

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.

Gary Stochl (Untitled)

At a recent lecture, Alec Soth spoke about how photographs fail to tell stories, that they merely suggest them, in the same way that poetry uses metaphor to tell a deeper, lyrical story that reflects and branches out.

The best street photography tends to be in the art realm rather than journalism. Everyone’s seen the picture of the uptight businessman or the drunk on the curb. It’s the job of street photography to show us something new, something we haven’t seen before, or at least a new perspective.

I first saw this Gary Stochl photograph a few months ago, while browsing his book, and I keep thinking about it. Here’s why:

  • The photograph doesn’t tell you what it’s about, and that’s part of its allure – the question makes you linger. It’s not clear where these people are (Chicago), where they’re going, or what happened just before or just after the shot. Because the figures lack narrative grounding, they’re free to do whatever they need to do in the frame. They’re unencumbered, cut-free, and because of this freedom, are able to engage your imagination.
  • The figure in the center of the frame with the lacey top and handbag isn’t looking at the camera. She’s facing us, which allows us the opportunity to look without having to confront her gaze, or figure out what she thinks about the photographer; her attention is elsewhere, and we follow it, which sends us on a roundabout path through the picture.
  • When have you seen a picture that so clearly shows the intimacy of strangers? How/why the heck are these five (six, including the photographer) all crammed together?
  • The composition is perfectly balanced. Two left, one middle, two right. Two men, three women. Two women bookending the middle woman from both directions. Both sides of the picture anchored by arm and bosom. Each man, occupied by something other than the woman in the center of the picture
  • There’s both a compositional centering that’s happening, and a dispersing. Viewer’s focus goes into the center, and then back out to all spaces of the frame, and back.
  • Tenderness.
  • The mirroring of the hooped earring.
  • The mirroring of the ear-whisper on the left and the “maybe that’s an ear-whisper” on the right. Makes you wonder what they’re saying or about to say. Makes you wonder if the guy in the upper right is about to whisper in someone’s ear.
  • The restraint of the handbag, hemmed-in by the woman’s right arm, and how the verticalness of the handbag strap and her dress strap keep the action anchored.
  • Subjects pop from the black background. Makes you wonder if they’re all heading into (or out of) the light. Thanks, black & white!
  • Pre-digital, so you don’t have to think about whether or not the photo was shot in color and digitally converted to black and white because the dress was too distracting and the women on the left was wearing a day-glo yellow jersey.
  • The caught moment. A small speck of time actually existed in which these five people were together (like this!) and so close and moving closer (or apart) and then it was gone, and everyone went their separate way (including Stochl), but Stochl had captured something, he’d taken a small part of their day, and their lives, and now I can sit and look at it, and look again and find wonder and be amazed at what I missed the last time I looked at it.

This post opens a new category called “Second Look” where I’ll try and write about single images. Thanks for reading. Now go make pictures.

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

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.

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