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New York: A Self Lesson in Street Photography.

New York 2013.

I recently spent a couple of weeks in New York, and, never one to eschew a cliché, decided to indulge in some street photography. I am not a street photographer, whatever that is; my working photography consists mainly of reportage or journalism; taking series of pictures to illustrate a story or the progress of a project, not one off bang bang photographs of strangers in the street.

Whilst there I gradually learned what I think makes a good street photograph, and why most, frankly, is poor. So, lets hit the street – let the lesson begin.

Early Days – Technical Technique.

As a former philosophy student I am not given to rushing into things without some thought (ask the wife – I have been considering the existential repercussions of decorating the lounge for two years now!). So my thoughts were that I wanted to capture people on the streets of Manhattan in context; I was in New York and wanted New York to be in my photographs.

So, a wide angle lens would be needed; 35mm is considered the optimum for this work, giving the best combination of setting the subject in context without distortion, but for the camera I would be using, I only have a 28mm, so 28mm it was. Also, speed is of the essence; I wanted to capture people behaving normally, which is something that they don’t do with a camera pointed at them, so I needed to get my shot before the camera was spotted. Whilst autofocus is fast, nothing is faster than not focussing at all, so pre focussing would be the order of the day. I knew that to get people significantly in the frame, whilst still maintaining some background as context, I would typically be shooting 2 to 3 meters away, so this would be my focus setting; also I used a reasonably fast film (Tmax pushed 1 stop to ISO 800), and with the reasonably bright July sunshine, I could shoot at small apertures, giving a good depth of field, and hence margin for error in my focus judgement.

Hit The Road.

So much for the theory, the time had come to hit the streets. For the first few days, I set about walking the streets, camera in hand, shutter cocked, looking for anything, or more specifically anyone, of interest. It was whilst taking these first frames that I started to learn my lesson.

When looking at these early negatives I realised that the pictures were only interesting in so far as New York is interesting. People walking down New York streets, people passing New York landmarks. These were pictures of an interesting place, or of interesting people, but not interesting photographs.

An interesting enough scenario, but is it a good street photograph?

An interesting enough scenario, but is it a good street photograph?

I decided to do a little research, looking at the pictures of Winogrand, Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank et al, it gradually it began to dawn on me. What their pictures possess, and what mine didn’t, and to be honest, most street photographs don’t, is an interaction, a gesture, a fleeting expression captured, an expression never to be repeated. There needs to be some other point of interest than the subject and context, some unique gesture or interaction, a captivating moment, to lift the image above the ‘person on a street’ standard or the ‘I was brave enough to take this, so it must be good’ mantra. There needs to be some decisive moment captured which, were it not for the 125th of a second snap of the shutter, would go unnoticed in the bustle of the street.

Is sleeping a decisive moment?

Is sleeping a decisive moment?

Keep shooting.

So, having decided that my photographs needed some more interesting focus of motif, back to the streets I went. Suddenly everything becomes more difficult. By the time you have spotted the fleeting gesture, the ephemeral expression, it is gone. There is nothing for it then, but to shoot away, and trust to luck. We can of course load the odds, by being in the right place, near the interesting street sign, or the street entertainer guaranteed to raise a laugh, but luck is still the major player in this game. The successful practitioners of the art were all prolific shooters; be prepared to shoot a lot but, and here cometh the second lesson, show little.

Good as a picture to illustrate homeless people who recycle, but as a stand alone street photograph?

Good as a picture to illustrate homeless people who recycle, but as a stand alone street photograph?


So, we have shot a lot of film (or captured a lot of frames) in the hope of capturing ‘The Decisive Moment’, and now comes the next crucial factor; the decisive edit. We need to wade through these hundreds of frames and ruthlessly cut out any that do not display the elusive moment, gesture, situation or expression, and to be fair, this means most or all of them. Be honest. Disregard the trouble taken to get the picture, ignore that it was taken in your favourite place or that you were brave enough to get closer than ever before, or that you may have walked away with nothing, none of these will show to the dispassionate viewer. Ask the simple question, is this a good street photograph? Is there something interesting here other than an interesting place or face? (It is quite sad but when looking for pictures I adopted the mantra of ‘more than the place and face’ which I would recite to myself repeatedly – not aloud of course!) Time is a great help here. The greater the duration between the taking of the picture, and the editing process the better; you are more likely to be emotionally separated from the picture, and give yourself a more honest and detached perspective. Of course one of the advantages of using film means that this is a given to some extent.

The way this gentleman fits in with the picture I feel gave me a decisive moment.

The way this gentleman fits in with the picture I feel gave me a decisive moment.

Lesson Learned.

So this was a learning experience, and in the process I came to realise what makes a good street photograph, and why most leave me cold. I am not saying I can now take wonderful street photographs, but I do feel I can discern between the good and bad, which is a start at least, and it also gives me a greater appreciation for those elite few who are good street photographers.


A Philosophy of Photographs.

The idea that follows is not mine. I believe it originates with Garry Winogrand, and was first set out during an interview for a German documentary, but this notwithstanding, I have never seen it essayed, so, without further ado, a hopefully with the celestial approval of the late Mr Winogrand, here goes, a philosophy for taking pictures. I am not talking about journalism here, but perhaps, what may be termed ‘art’; photography with the intention of creating an interesting image for the sake of itself.

Life and Pictures.

As we go about our business and observe the world around us we are not seeing pictures, what we see is life and landscapes. A scene only becomes a picture once the camera has made it so. Only once the juxtaposition of elements, the setting of exposure and the reduction to a two dimensional image has been captured by the camera, do we have a picture. Certainly the practiced eye can learn to recognise what will potentially make a good picture, but until the reduction to two dimensions takes place we still do not yet have a picture.

Don’t Take Pictures.

So, if there are no pictures out there then, how do we extract our pictures from the life that is being enacted before us? Winogrand suggests that we don’t try. We are so familiar with imagery that there is the tendency to slip into the cliché, the stereotype, and seek situations  which mimic pictures which we have seen before and to capture them. A more original approach is not to try and look for pictures. Instead look for interesting elements and try to being them together within the frame, by physical movement, tilting the frame, whatever is necessary to bring the elements together; discard the notion of looking for a picture, just look to draw the elements together. Later, when we have a picture, we can decide whether this worked or not.



Here rather than looking for a “picture” I had a clear idea of the elements I wanted to draw together; it is picture of a friends house, his defining interests being shooting, photography and motorcycling. These are the elements I therefore framed, capturing this little slice of life. Only later did I consider the captured elements as a picture.


So how do we decide if the picture works? Often this will be an instinctive or emotive thing, but there is one base criteria which can be applied. Is the picture more interesting than the original subject? If not then arguably, it fails. Imaging we photograph the Mona Lisa. If we take this as a ‘straight’ photograph then all we will have will be a facsimile, a reproduction of the original work; most would agree that seeing the original would be of more interest. But what if we managed to juxtapose the Mona Lisa with a group of girls looking at the picture, all with long black hair and smiling. More interesting? I am not suggesting this photograph would be more interesting that the Mona Lisa itself, but certainly more interesting that a straight photograph of the Mona Lisa.

Not All That.

This isn’t an all encompassing idea for all photographic styles, genres and occasions. It is an approach to be borne in mind when out, camera in hand, looking to create pictures of interest, a means of breaking out of a photographic ennui and forming a definite focus and clear idea of exactly what we are looking for when working, and how to judge the sucess or otherwise of the resulting photograph.

The Quest for Interest.

A simple question; are your photographs interesting, or photographs of interesting things?

As photographers we are always looking to make interesting or compelling photographs, but we often fall into the trap of mistaking a photograph of an interesting subject, for an interesting photograph. For example, take a picture of Rodins ‘The Thinker’ (literally if you are able), and one of a brick.

The picture of The Thinker has a head start; providing you are able to correctly expose the image, and the lighting is reasonable, viola, interesting photograph. But how much credit for that interest can you, as a photographer, claim? Now, take the photograph of the brick. The subject is doing you few favours, (unless it happens to be a particulalry interesting brick), and so to make this photograph interesting we must do more, we must excercise our creativity to create a compelling photograph.

The Scultptor gave me a head start to create an interesting picture.

I am not saying that it is not possible to excercise creative skill when photographing interesting things to create astounding photographs, but simply that the job is already half way there; a poor photograph of Elvis shopping will earn the photographer a small fortune, a poor photograph of a brick will earn the photographer nothing but a bad reputation.

We should, as consciencious phototographers, be constantly seeking to improve our skills, and I think the greatest demonstration of skill lies in being able to take the most mundane of subjects and instill them with interest, this is why I hold commercial photographers, who must routinely find interest in the most ordinary of subjects, in the highest regard.

So, the next time you are bemoaning the lack of interesting subjects to photograph, stretch yourself. Take the most ordinary of items and try to create the most extraordinary of photographs.

Zen and the Art of Film.

Recently I have started using film again. Not for work you understand; most editors and agencies would have apoplexy if faced with a colour slide or roll of Tri X, but for pleasure.

And, I have to say, I am enjoying this renaissance, this return to a method of working which on the face of it, seems inconvenient and slow. So where is the pleasure in using this medium, which we are told is rapidly becoming obsolete?

Firstly for me is the equipment itself; my Digital SLR is a versatile sophisticated professional tool. It is also a complex electronic appliance, with mazes of menus and settings and a myriad of buttons to control it’s every action. My film camera however is a simple mechanical device with no more controls than are necessary to create an image. It is often said that the camera doesn’t matter in the picture taking process, but I feel a stronger affinity with my simple film camera, a more direct control of the picture taking process; it isn’t doing anything that I am not aware of, and this inevitably affects the pictures that I take, and importantly, the pleasure that I derive whilst taking them.

Of course one of the more profound differences between film and digital is that of time. With film there is no immediate ‘chimping’ of the image, no instant gratification, no editing on the fly. Without the constant draw and temptation of the image review, I am free to concentrate on taking pictures. But what about checking exposure? For many years photographers, myself included, took properly exposed pictures with no more than an exposure meter (and sometimes not even that) and a well practiced brain; it’s simply a matter of learning the craft.

This delay between the taking of pictures and their review could have another positive side effect. Sometimes after working on a picture I find that when re-visiting the image after several days my opinion of it has changed; this time lapse from the taking of the image to its editing, means that I can view the image far more objectively. Any attachment caused by the recent knowledge of how difficult an image was to take, is eroded, and I can view the picture more ‘purely’ or dispassionately, and this has to be a good thing for the editing process. This is, after all, what professional picture editors do on a daily basis; they review images objectively with no knowledge, and therefore prejudice, based upon how the picture was created, and form judgements purely on the image as presented.

There is one final appeal, which may not apply to everyone, but it certainly appeals to my esoteric nature, and it’s this: not many people use film anymore. At a recent event it seemed that everyone had a camera; with the proliferation of affordable digital SLR’s they are everywhere, but amongst this throng of wannabe paparazzi I was, it appears, the only one using film. This gave me a sense of satisfaction, a sense of distancing from the masses. Snobbery? Possibly. But let’s be honest, we all want to feel a little bit special, a little different from the common man, is there any harm in that?

Whilst digital may be the necessary journey, the high speed train rushing us from shutter press to finished image, film is the Zen Way, where the journey is just as important as the destination. Think of it this way; even if the destination is disappointing, at least if you have enjoyed the journey, your time will not have been wasted.

What Street Photography Shouldn’t Be.

My photography ploughs two furrows; firstly there are the photographs that I take to earn a crust; these are primarily of the product shot or studio variety, and secondly there are the pictures I take for pleasure; which are everything else.

Some of these are what might be termed ‘street photographs’ in the sense that they are taken of, or in, the street. The term; ‘street photography’; is not one I like, but given that the purpose of language is to communicate, and using the term evokes the correct notion of the style, then it is one which I grudgingly accept and use.

Recently one such photograph received a significant amount of criticism, this one:

The criticism centres around the fact that the lady in the picture is my wife; a fact of which I make no secret. The implication is that, in order to be a genuine street photograph, the protagonists must be strangers to the photographer. This demands a lot of the viewer; to know the relationship to the photographer of each of the subjects within a photograph before deciding it’s quality. I may be lazy, but for me that level of research for each photograph I endeavour to appreciate is just too much work. Also one must decide how many levels of separation are acceptable; apparently spouses are out, but what about Uncles? Cousins?

Do I know this woman, and does it matter?

No, and no.

This to me is symptomatic of what much street photography has become; a test of bravery. The notion of capturing a decisive moment, an interesting interplay of characters or design in everyday life, is lost; it is sufficient to demonstrate bravery by sticking a camera in the face of a stranger, to be a good street photograph.

For me a good single photograph, (excepting those which illustrate articles or features) should stand alone with no explanation needed. I don’t need to know the relationships of those involved, or the lengths to which the photographer went to capture the image. These should be irrelevant, and place too much emphasis on the viewer; as photographers we should make the viewers life easy, a photograph should be interesting and endearing with no explanation required.

Trying to deconstruct an image beyond this is perhaps missing the point, and is perhaps the realm of those who obsess over such aspects as sharpness or bokeh, which whilst relevant to the picture, are not the picture.

To quote Garry Winogrand, “I take pictures to see what something will look like as a picture.” Nothing more, nothing less.

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