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Author Topic: On Street Photography  (Read 21957 times)
RSL
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« on: October 07, 2011, 09:36:10 AM »
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This didn't make it into Photo Technique, and I have too much work to do to bother sending it out to more magazines. So...

On Street Photography

by Russ Lewis

What is street photography? Seems Wikipedia is about the only reference that's come up with what could be called a dictionary definition. But you don't need a dictionary to define it. Study the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, David Seymour (Chim), Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Brassai, Walker Evans, Elliott Erwitt, Mark Riboud, Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt and Robert Frank, who are only a few of the masters of street, and you'll have a much better appreciation for what street photography is than words ever can give you.

A picture of a person on a street is no more street photography than a picture of a street is street photography. A good street photograph is a story, though the story may be confusing or even one you'll never be able to decipher. There must be interesting human behavior in the picture -- something beyond a simple shot of a person or people, no matter how weird the people are, no matter how much they fit stereotypes, no matter how briskly they walk, no matter how they slouch against the stoop. Often there's an element of mystery in the story, and unless the picture makes you think, it's not much of a street photograph.

Some have the idea that only the "urban scene" lends itself to street photography, but if you look at the work of the masters you'll discover that the world is full of rural streets that lend themselves to street photography, and you'll also discover that most great street photography doesn't take place on streets.

Cartier-Bresson's "Behind the Gare St. Lazare" is a perfect example of some of the things a photograph needs in order to be a real street photograph. The action itself is straightforward: the man has jumped off the ladder and is about to land in the water. His splayed legs are echoed by the splayed legs of a dancer in a poster on the fence behind him. The picture is an example of great composition, the kind of intuitive geometry for which HCB was famous. But why has the man walked toward the flood on the little ladder? Since it's obvious he's not dressed for wading why is he jumping into the water? There's another man in the picture, slouching behind a fence. What's he doing there? Why is the partially destroyed poster on that desolate fence? Then there's a chimney and some foggy roofs in the background that give an ominous flavor to the whole thing. It's an arresting and mysterious image -- exactly what a street photograph should be.

People who haven't studied street photography tend to confuse it with photojournalism. It's true that some of the photographs included in a journalism shoot might qualify as street photography, but photojournalism requires a kind of storytelling a single picture can't satisfy. Besides that, mystery isn't normally something an editor is looking for. In most cases the point of the story is to remove the mystery. A good picture story needs a central shot that can grab the viewer, and that's often the one that could qualify as a street photograph, but the story also needs peripheral shots that work to focus the central shot. You can see an example of this in Cartier-Bresson's book, The People of Moscow. If you're familiar with Henri's street photography you'll recognize that though the pictures in the book share his mastery of composition, many of them don't contain the depth that would make them good street photographs.

Few of us ever will shoot the equivalent of "Behind the Gare St. Lazare." But how do you go about getting a photograph that meets the basic requirements of a good street photograph, even if it's something much less than the "Gare?"

One thing most of us shouldn't do is walk down the street like Bruce Gilden, wearing a mesh photographer's vest, carrying a camera in one hand and a flashgun in the other, shoving the camera and flashgun into people's faces and blinding them. I'm always amazed when I see a decent street picture by Gilden, and I'm always amazed when I realize he's still alive. Gilden's flashgun blows out the faces of most of his subjects as you can see in his short YouTube clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRBARi09je8, and he's not photographing people as they are. He's photographing people as they are after he's hassled them.

Though I've been doing street photography since 1953 I have yet to come up with any universal rules for finding and capturing good street photographs. But here are a few ideas:

How do you find good street photographs? You can't plan street photography the way you can plan studio photography or landscape photography or even wildlife photography. There's that old saw: "f/8 and be there," and the "be there" part is right. You can't do street photography sitting in front of your TV or relaxing with a drink. And there's another old saw you should consider: "The best camera in the world is the one you have with you." The corollary, of course, is that if you're there but without a camera you're out of luck. Yes, you need to take a camera with you when you go out, but having a camera with you isn't going to lead you to a good photograph. I keep coming back to Cartier-Bresson because not only did his pictures define street photography, he was able to write about it coherently. He said: "Photographing is nothing. Looking is everything." And that's the key. You're unlikely to find a good street photograph unless your camera is in your hand and you're actively looking.

Another thing HCB said was: "approach tenderly, gently on tiptoe - even if the subject is a still life. A velvet hand, a hawk's eye - these we should all have." ...which sort of lets Bruce Gilden out of the picture. Or does it? If you look at Bruce's pictures on the Magnum photographers web page you'll see that in spite of his nasty approach he's made some pretty good street photographs, as well as some pretty bad ones. So, how you approach your subjects is a subjective thing: something you have to work out for yourself. I'm of the Cartier-Bresson school of thought, but Gilden and others like William Klein have proved that that's not the only possible school.

How do you capture a good street photograph? If you look carefully at the street photographs of masters like Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, or Robert Frank you soon realize that the best of them are snapshots: gut reactions to what they saw before them, not planned intersections with the scene. There's no way HCB's conscious mind could have registered all the elements of the scene in "Behind the Gare St. Lazare" before he tripped the shutter. That truth is reinforced by the fact that "Gare" is one of only two photographs I know of that Cartier-Bresson cropped. There was a fence off to the left, and he didn't have time to move to the right before it was time to shoot. You can see the original, un-cropped version in his book, Henri Cartier Bresson: Scrapbook.

So there are two things you need to learn to do: First, you need to practice composition to the point where it becomes intuitive. You don't have time to line up all those elements of geometry with, say, the "rule of thirds." You have to see it whole in your viewfinder without stopping to analyze.

But in many cases to wait for your conscious mind to register both the facts and the geometry is to miss the picture. So, the second thing you need to do is learn not to rely on your conscious mind, but to rely on your unconscious: to react instinctively. There simply isn't time to think about it. In the end, to do good street photography you need to practice and practice and practice. You need to become so familiar with your camera that you don't have to think about it, any more than you have to think about shifting gears when you're driving a stick-shift car, and you have to be able to frame and shoot a properly composed picture without thinking about it -- with your unconscious making the decision.

Spending days on the street looking, and rarely seeing a situation worth shooting can become pretty discouraging, so there's a temptation to just shoot some people on the street and call it a street photograph. There's nothing wrong with shooting something you know isn't going to be good, in fact that's part of the training process. You need to do that again and again to learn to get the geometry right. But when it comes to posting or displaying your photographs you should be extremely critical, and to be able to be critical in an informed way you need to become familiar with the genre. That calls not only for reading, but for studying the work of the masters, including the ones I listed near the beginning of this tirade.

Again and again I see howlers people post on the web as street photography, and I try not to laugh too hard because I've shot my share of flubs like these too. I'm sure I'm far from the only one who reacts that way. Fact is that even when you get good at street photography you'll shoot bags and bags of bloopers, a smaller number of not too bad shots, and the rare picture you should be willing to show.

Beyond the rare picture that's showable there's that even rarer picture upon which you'd be willing to hang your reputation. If you can average one of those a year you're getting pretty good.

At this point I'm sure you're wondering, "Who the h--- is Russ Lewis, and where does he get off lecturing about street photography?" It's a fair question. I'm not a professional. The word "professional" means you make a sizeable chunk of your living shooting pictures, but it doesn't say anything about the quality of your work. I did some professional work in the sixties, hated it, and quit doing it, so I'm an amateur and I plan to remain an amateur in the true sense of that word. In other words, I do photography because I love it, and street photography has been one of my primary thrusts since I started. I've had some hits, like a Spotlight award in B&W magazine this year, and a fair number of sales out of several local galleries before the economy drove them under, but I'm certainly a comfortably long way away from being a famous photographer.

So to see whether or not it's worth paying attention to my words you'll have to go to my web, look at my pictures, and make your own decision. You may even decide I don't know what I'm talking about. That's okay, you have to be the judge, just as you have to be the judge when you're out there, on the street.

Russ Lewis

www.FineArtSnaps.com
8/26/2011
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louoates
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« Reply #1 on: October 07, 2011, 01:22:36 PM »
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Russ, you've covered this perfectly, especially by stressing the importance of being ready to shoot when a neat situation might happen.

I think this example shows how fleeting a street-shooting moment can be. That eyeballing of the young lady lasted maybe one second. Had his eyes been on his job this would be just another dull snapshot that would have earned the delete command. If I were really on my game I would have realized that I was mirrored in the window. Dumb mistake on my part but it doesn't negate the rather obvious enjoyment of the young lady by her co-worker.

You are right about how rare it is to get a decent street shot. This example is one of maybe 2,000 exposures on the near north side of Chicago over a three year period. I would be hard pressed to choose more than 2 or 3 that would qualify as "decent" street photography. But it was great fun to try and I'll be doing it again next summer.

The one thing I'd like to add on the topic is the importance of studying your shots carefully before you delete them. In dynamically changing street scenes you can't consciously analyze every image capture at the instant of exposure. You may miss things happening in the frame that you never saw at the time.
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RSL
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« Reply #2 on: October 07, 2011, 02:41:04 PM »
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Good shooting Lou. I agree about being careful what you delete. That's why, when I come back from a shoot, the first thing I do is offload the camera(s) and put everything onto a DVD. Then I start culling, but I stretch out the cull over a couple days before I settle on the finals, convert them all to dng format, number them, and make contact sheets for reference. If something starts scratching at my mind, saying "Why did you delete that shot that felt so good when you tripped the shutter?" I always can go back to the DVD and look again. Usually I was right the first time, but not always.
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rsn48
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« Reply #3 on: October 08, 2011, 07:09:11 PM »
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First I must say I quite liked your write up, however for me, the journalistic picture in street photography is what it is all about.  I enjoy interesting images, but ultimately it is the image that moves me towards an awareness of the human predicament, or tells a story within a story that I find most gratifying.  I'm not into a guy stepping into the water with a fence behind him.

Like you I have taken many street photos, with only one or two I would show anywhere.  Interesting that something seemingly so easy is so hard.  Whether it is a street photo, theatre, art, whatever, I like to be direct beyound who I am at the time.

This is a classic picture that emerged from the Vancouver riots after the last Stanley Cup game, I'm sure you've seen it - it went around the world and back; I didn't take it.  This picture to me is the "ultimate" street photo, the person who took the photo wasn't a news person, just photo geak with a camera:

[Picture at bottom of article]

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/06/17/vancouver-kissing-couple.html


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PhillyPhotographer
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« Reply #4 on: October 17, 2011, 09:53:22 PM »
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Sounds like too much work RSL. Wink
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rsn48
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« Reply #5 on: November 28, 2011, 05:24:06 PM »
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I saw this video and immediately thought of this thread, the man jumping over the puddle, etc; I think you'll be surprised at how the photograph came to be, not even sure one could call it "street photography":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfwNrPX2pvw
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RSL
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« Reply #6 on: November 28, 2011, 06:06:52 PM »
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Actually I wasn't too surprised, though that's the first time I'd heard that HCB couldn't see through his viewfinder for that shot. That wasn't the only time. He couldn't see through his viewfinder when he shot the picture of Cardinal Pacelli, which is almost as famous as the Gare. He had to lift the camera above the crowd in front of him. But I loved that film clip. He said some things with which I agree completely:

In response to the statement that "Behind the Gare St. Lazare" was luck, he said: " It's always luck." If you've done much street shooting you know how true that is. Of course, you have to be prepared for the luck when it happens, but that doesn't make it any less luck.

He also said: "Be receptive, and it happens." About composition he said: "One shouldn't think about it." "You must feel it, intuitively." And about the ability to make photographs: "You have it or you don't." I agree wholeheartedly with all those observations, and I know Rob agrees with the last one.

Thanks for the link to that clip. I've seen a couple HCB clips, but I'd missed that one.
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Rob C
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« Reply #7 on: November 29, 2011, 03:35:46 AM »
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He also said: "Be receptive, and it happens." About composition he said: "One shouldn't think about it." "You must feel it, intuitively." And about the ability to make photographs: "You have it or you don't." I agree wholeheartedly with all those observations, and I know Rob agrees with the last one.





Hi Russ -

Rob agrees with all of them!  I also agree with his notion of geometry being the basis of 'composition'; no, not the basis, the whole thing, and you just have to be able to recognize it when its there. Regarding his statement about conversation when shooting - yes, again he nails it perfectly. Some use music as the mood setter, others such as myself indulge in mild flirtation and praise when something interesting seems likely to happen, none of which is taken seriuosly by either party. I hope. That's probably why I found it impossible to enjoy photographing men, or children other than my own. I couldn't find the key.

It's a shame there's no sound to the clip - or is that just my fault here?

Rob C
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WalterEG
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« Reply #8 on: November 30, 2011, 04:39:53 AM »
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If you mean the HC-B clip, I had sound Rob.  Only persevered with a minute of it.

Cheers,

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Rob C
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« Reply #9 on: November 30, 2011, 10:24:11 AM »
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If you mean the HC-B clip, I had sound Rob.  Only persevered with a minute of it.

Cheers,





It used to be said of children that they should be seen but not heard... poor old Henri!

Rob C
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Slobodan Blagojevic
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« Reply #10 on: November 30, 2011, 11:20:24 AM »
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If you mean the HC-B clip, I had sound Rob.  Only persevered with a minute of it...

Vive la difference! Not unusual, but still quite amazing how we can see the same thing so differently. Btw, I did not know they do not like French "down under" too Wink

What a wonderful, wonderful clip!!! I sat for those few minutes mesmerized by his words (the translation actually... I love French language... the melody of it though, as I do not speak it).

I love the brevity of his comments... short bursts of concentrated wisdom... something that comes with age and experience, when one knows almost too much on the subject (and knows the interlocutor knows perhaps just as much) and knows it is neither time nor place for a dissertation, but chooses to express it instead in broad, blanket statements, that act more like the tip of the iceberg or like trail markers... not unlike telling old jokes among friends, when just the beginning or perhaps even a single word from it is enough for everyone to burst laughing.

You see the power of photography to evoke moments, to recreate feelings, to bring back memories of the days gone by. So powerful, it makes him choke for a moment. And that is the power of photography, mes amis!
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Rob C
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« Reply #11 on: November 30, 2011, 12:47:27 PM »
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Quite interesting opinions from this guy, of whom some might have heard... :-)

http://youtu.be/YQhZcKzbM9s

Rob C

Especially like what he says about 'narrative'.
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RSL
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« Reply #12 on: December 01, 2011, 07:37:42 AM »
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You see the power of photography to evoke moments, to recreate feelings, to bring back memories of the days gone by. So powerful, it makes him choke for a moment. And that is the power of photography, mes amis

He choked when he looked at that picture of Alberto Giacometti crossing the street in the rain. The reason he did was that Alberto was a very close friend. Henri wrote an extended salute to Alberto in The Mind's Eye.

You're right, Slobodan. HCB was one of the few great photographers who could write and speak about photography, concisely and straight to the point. I'm not much for heroes, but in my nearly 82 years I've had two: Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In some ways they were alike: both were fearless, both had extremely effective BS filters, and neither had time to screw around; they just got on with the job at hand.
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Rajan Parrikar
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« Reply #13 on: December 01, 2011, 05:14:00 PM »
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I'm not much for heroes, but in my nearly 82 years I've had two: Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In some ways they were alike: both were fearless, both had extremely effective BS filters, and neither had time to screw around; they just got on with the job at hand.

In some ways they were very different.  I don't think Cartier-Bresson ever called Hindus like me a "foul race."

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RSL
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« Reply #14 on: December 01, 2011, 06:16:33 PM »
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Sorry about that, Rajan. All I can say is that times then were different from now -- very, very different.
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Rajan Parrikar
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« Reply #15 on: December 01, 2011, 06:26:58 PM »
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Sorry about that, Rajan. All I can say is that times then were different from now -- very, very different.

Russ,

Just to be clear - I wasn't imputing anything to you.  Just making the point that in some instances, "heroes" to a certain set of people aren't so to some other set.  Aside: when I first went to Lisboa my dear aunt (who is Portuguese) took me to the monument honouring the great Portuguese navigators of the past - Vasco da Gama et al.  Heroes to the Portuguese, but from my perch (in Goa), brutal monsters who did terrible things.
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RSL
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« Reply #16 on: December 01, 2011, 06:50:32 PM »
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You're right, Rajan. Unfortunately that's the way the world works. I'll be 82 in March and I've seen the world working that way for a lot of years. No, not everyone was happy with Winston. Hitler comes to mind along with Mussolini and a few others right off the top of my head. After having watched it for a while I'm convinced that life isn't supposed to be easy. I think it's a test. It would be nice if all our prejudices would disappear so we could love one another, but I don't expect that to happen before I have to turn in my test and see how it's graded.
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Rob C
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« Reply #17 on: December 02, 2011, 12:48:04 PM »
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Problem is, equality (of anything you can think of) is pretty much a dream. You don't have to cross race lines to find that: we sometimes group-dislike many of our very own nationals of similar origin for no other reason than they are of a different 'class', of different education or worse yet, belong to different political parties or religions! One can even dislike one's own relations, though I am obliged to put in a personal disclaimer here for obvious reasons.

I have a feeling that it was and ever will be so, not least because there are just too many of us on Earth. Quite apart from that, people are simply not created equal. Some of us are bright, some as dumb as the proverbial ox (trust no sacred cows come into it here!); whereas some will cut your throat for a few bucks yet others mˇght give you their last biscuit.

Equality is a myth: look at cameras! ;-)

Speaking of which, Rankin did a tv thing last night (BBC) on the LIFE photographers; he's back on again tonight on BBC HD at 9pm UK time, 10pm Europe. I think I'll watch it again. I don't usually enjoy Rankin, but this show actually had me laugh aloud (in a nice way).

Rob C
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RSL
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« Reply #18 on: December 02, 2011, 01:13:27 PM »
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Russ,

Just to be clear - I wasn't imputing anything to you.  Just making the point that in some instances, "heroes" to a certain set of people aren't so to some other set.  Aside: when I first went to Lisboa my dear aunt (who is Portuguese) took me to the monument honouring the great Portuguese navigators of the past - Vasco da Gama et al.  Heroes to the Portuguese, but from my perch (in Goa), brutal monsters who did terrible things.

Rajan, I should have added that my prejudices don't run to Hindus. At University of Michigan I roomed with a Hindu -- from Karachi believe it or not. He became a very good pharmacist. I've lost track of him, but I sure hope he's not in Karachi now.

My prejudices (if I have any) run to fools. I don't remember who Churchill was talking about when he said, "Not only does he not suffer fools gladly, he does not suffer them at all," but he could have been talking about me. We've had at least two of those on LuLa, but, happily, they're gone now.
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Slobodan Blagojevic
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« Reply #19 on: December 02, 2011, 01:32:56 PM »
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... My prejudices (if I have any) run to fools...

Exactly! As they say, "when you argue with a fool, there are two".
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