Wonderings of a street photographer honing his skills. I'm not an expert and experts may find what I have to say is simplistic, unnecessary or just wrong. On the other hand, I have learned a thing or two along the way. Perhaps my words will resonate with those of you in a similar place. A journal of discoveries.
John is an extremely erudite writer, as you would expect from a Cambridge graduate, who is both well read and well travelled. He demonstrates great knowledge of many aspects of art and culture, and this informs both his own photography and his views on shooting on the street.
This is not a “how to” book but is more a walk through many of John’s thoughts on different aspects and challenges of shooting on the street, using his own images as examples. Each chapter begins with a reason - “street photography is cool because…” much in the style of the “Love is…” Schultz cartoons that so many of us will have grown up with.
From the outset John is keen that street photographers should develop their own style, putting down the manual and getting out and shooting as much as possible. He acknowledges that he is largely self-taught, eschewing the influence of the “greats” in order to develop his own style.
“Once other photographers have shown us how they see the world we start to see it in the same way. That's why I didn't start to look comprehensively at other people's work until I'd developed a style of my own.”
John acknowledges that street photography is not easy. “Without intense desire and motivation no one can succeed as an artist.” He picks his way through a lot of the challenges that will be familiar to anyone who has tried to shoot candid images on the street and illustrates these with analysis of images from his own back catalogue. These insights are reassuringly familiar and will resonate loudly. John has clearly considered these issues at length and over time. However, they are very personal views.
At some points in the book I felt urged to debate some of the points that John made. His writings are fairly black and white (pardon the pun) on certain issues – particularly concerning black and white photography, for example. In “It's a Colourful World” he writes:
“I'm still puzzled why so many people still cling to black & white, given today's versatile and sophisticated colour tools. I can only put it down to their reluctance to embrace change: a deep obstinacy rooted in habit and tradition.”
To me, this misses the point entirely. Black and white is a tool at the photographer’s disposal which, given that the two dimensional image (the photograph) is already an abstraction from the reality of 3d, allows a further level of abstraction and expression.
On developing a personal style John writes:
It's far better to allow your style to grow out of your interaction with reality. It will come naturally from your selection of subjects, from how sympathetic you are to them , from your distance or closeness to them , and from whether you can find a little bit of originality in the way you portray them . I think originality in art is vastly overrated and has led to all kinds of unnecessary and ultimately sterile disruptions. The " little bit of originality " of which I speak is to be glimpsed in your personal style. It's what comes from the photographer in response to reality, rather than from anywhere else.
This is very much a matter of opinion, as is any subjective evaluation of any work of art. However, I was surprised that John, with all of his cultural acumen, seeks to encourage photographers to seemingly seek to operate in a vacuum of their own work. To me, it is about learning from those who have gone before, from their successes and their mistakes, and seeking to take the elements that we, as individuals, most like from each of these giants upon whose shoulders we plant our tripods. Similarly, we should seek to be influenced by as wide a range of cultural and artistic experiences, not purely photographic, as possible in order to broaden our creative vision. John has such a cultural wealth at his fingertips that I was most surprised to read his thoughts on this.
I was particularly struck by John’s thoughts on the future of street photography at a time when private and public identities have never been so mixed. He warns:
“Eventually, a database of street photos may itself be tied in with tags on social media , enabling us to identify the majority of people we photograph on the street . Tomorrow, everyone will be in the public eye . When all is revealed by face recognition technology I wouldn't be surprised if street photography were not outlawed altogether in many countries. Either that, or people will take to wearing masks and camouflage.”
He recognises the responsibilities that we have as photographers on the street and shares views on shooting courteously and within the law. He gives tips on the importance of limbering up for a day on the street, ensuring that you are in:
“…the right frame of mind to take street photos . That's because you need to be able to see beyond the obvious, to find the extraordinary in the ordinary , and to anticipate the next few moments almost as though you can see into the future...”
This is so true.
In the main, John represents the world of the street photographer well.
“Every true street photograph represents a unique occurrence, captured in a moment of time that can never be repeated . You were its witness; and your photo , however ill composed or badly taken , will have intrinsic value of its own .
Self- publication is very much easier today than ever before. John explains
“I've used only my own photos to illustrate the various topics. Although restricting the book in this way probably gives it stylistic coherence, it doesn't acknowledge the rich variety of approaches taken by contemporary photographers.”
It would be interesting to sit down (with a bottle of wine or a couple of pints of ale) with a dozen images taken by the street photography greats or, indeed, those of contemporary photographers, and discuss our various opinions.
Like all good books, Street Photography Is Cool raises plenty of arguments and generates even more discussion. John has done well to publish a work that so clearly puts forward his views as he walks us through his images.
As far as I know, Jesus was not known for his photography … but he obviously experienced some of the problems that many of us experience when he said "no prophet is accepted in his home town.” I say many of us because I have done the research. Okay - it wasn’t particularly scientific and didn’t involve mice but I did ask the question of my instagram followers. And you can see what they told me in the poll on the left.
Street photography in my local area is something I struggle with but I felt that it was personal or unique to me, and mostly due to the fact that, having been a primary school teacher in the area for many years, I seem to be one step removed from every child, parent, grandparent and shop assistant within a fifteen mile radius. While it’s always nice to see the kids, I don’t always want to explain why I’m wondering around with a camera taking photos of their Uncle Richard or cousin Angie as they slip on an unseen dog deposit. So, for me, it’s fear of recognition and feeling like a pillock. Actually, it’s worse than being a pillock because if I happen to turn my lens towards a small child I could open myself up to all kinds of hurtful abuse - see my last post.
For others it’s a similar fear of sticking out like a sore thumb in the small village they live in. When you know everyone within walking distance they are more than likely to wonder why you are out with a camera until ultimately you develop a slightly eccentric reputation and people are then surprised when you don’t have it bolted to the end of your arm. Both mindsets are totally understandable and have to be overcome if you are going to shoot at home without requiring therapy afterwards. However, one had a much more basic complaint. “I can’t shoot at my home town. I find everything boring.”
Several of you were more than happy to shoot local. One photographer lives in a small town but still shoots 95% of their work there. Their instagram feed has 12k followers yet family members and friends have no idea that they are posting photos, all of which are taken on the iPhone. Remarkable stuff.
Another confirmed local shooter said that they wanted to give their home town some love. They told me that they see it as an opportunity to show local residents an interesting side to their town that they don’t normally take the time to notice. Interestingly, one photographer revealed that having returned to their home town after living abroad, they were found it more photographable than before.
For me, though not a great globe-trotting traveller, it is the lure of somewhere else where I can be anonymous and just get on with taking photographs that appeals. As one photographer said “It’s so nice to have that fresh space without any baggage. No history. Nobody to run into.” That is definitely a freedom that comes with anonymity. It doesn’t have to be abroad, just another town or city where you could be “blending in with other camera wielding tourists.” In fact, looking like a tourist provides a great cover. Pretending to stare at something way down the street is a ploy I have often used when getting that familiar look from someone whose soul I just have stolen with my 23mm lens (other lenses are available). (By one of those strange twists of fate that only the internet seems to throw up, as I write this my Spotify playlist has thrown up At Home He’s A Tourist by Gang of Four.) Looking like a tourist at home is maybe the perfect solution....
London is perfect for me in that sense - just up the road but big enough to disappear in and full of wide eyed camera wielding tourists. I lived there for ten years so know it well and the advantage of local knowledge shouldn’t be underestimated. Shooting at home would allow even easier access and the possibility to work a scene over time - think of all the great projects shot by photographers embedded in their home environment for years (most recently I’ve been enjoying Shirley Baker’s Without A Trace about Manchester and Salford in the 1960s). But it could also invite repetition which can be dangerous to the creative mind - always seeking to re-create that favourite shot from five years ago doesn’t challenge us to move forward.
Getting out or getting away does bring a fresh perspective. “I need the adventure, not knowing what I’m going to find, being alert, makes me feel like a kid.” One problem with shooting locally is that the backdrop becomes wallpaper and it’s much harder to spot the beauty in it. Being somewhere new really does heighten the senses and sharpen those camera eyes.
Clearly, although more of us seem to prefer to shoot “away,” we all need to find the place where we can create the images that please us most. As one photographer said, in a twist of a well known street photography adage, “The best street is the one you are on.”
With thanks to the following instagrammers for their wise words:
The history of street photography is full of images of lively children - shoeless and happy playing in derelict city streets, smiling in an outsized pair of mothers shoes, carrying home the shopping or, as in Henri-Cartier Bresson’s famous shot, a bottle of red under each arm and a cheeky grin.
Look through the average street photography account on Instagram, or any other social media stream, you will be hard pushed to find the younger generation at all. Sadly, this is not surprising.
We all know why. Nobody wants to incur the wrath or worse, the stream of abuse, of an irate parent fearful that their child’s image has been stolen for all the wrong reasons. And, therefore, many of us don’t try. Those images of children not only never appear - they are never taken. A hidden generation is being created at a time when we take more photos than ever.
Yet, if you walk into any town centre, children from decades ago, now adults or well-beyond, stare out from the ranks of birthday cards in stationers and supermarkets. Pick up a book of street photography from the last century, there they are; captured for posterity like ancient insects in amber. It’s almost as though children and their beaming smiles belong to another age and the streets today are devoid of children. Anyone remember the child catcher in Chiity Chitty Bang Bang and the empty square around the castle?
Are we to become the generation that didn’t have children? Or, at least, that airbrushed or Photoshopped them out of history? We would be much poorer for it - but that’s the risk.
Of course it is about intent. Why is the photographer taking the photograph in the first place? What is it they want to show? It is this intent which raises photography beyond a simple and precise record of a scene or object - almost for classification purposes. It isn't simply a scientific practice concerned with obtaining a correct exposure through combinations of shutter speed, size of aperture and sensitivity of sensors or film. It is an art form in which the photographer expresses an emotion, idea or even just a viewpoint. Surely any photographer who takes a photograph of a child for the wrong reason or with ill intent, will produce work which sets alarm bells ringing or, at the very least, leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the viewer.
Children’s lives hugely enrich our own. They remind us of a distant past that we often hanker after. They point to a future full of potential. They provide moments of great humour - often through their attempts to be more like us, the grown ups. They possess a wide eyed sense of wonder that reminds us just how amazing our world is at times when we have grown weary of it ourselves. And photographs of children can do all of these things too. They often point to a truth that, as adults, we need reminding of.
Of course, the problem of the disgruntled and anxious parent doesn’t go away. However, we will only perpetuate the situation if we accept it. We can challenge it by taking good photos of children. If we are open and upfront about what we do then maybe the disgruntled mum or dad would recognise the same things in the image that we saw. We should be less inclined to be furtive, secretive and hidden but be prepared to share positive ‘good’ images of children on our feed. That way we can demonstrate our good intent next time we meet an anxious mum or dad. And, as with any street photograph, smile, share your Instagram or website details and offer to email them a copy. All parents think their children are the best thing since bread arrived sliced - hey; they might even ask you to take some more.
The end of the year is always a time for reflection - and you know how much I love a reflection! I’ve been putting together a gallery of favourite images that I have taken over the year and it is encouraging to review the journey that I have been on. This is particularly evident when I look back further than a year.
For me, photography continues to be a huge learning experience. However, I do find that, as I develop my skills and hone my vision, the steps of progress becomes smaller and smaller. I suppose that when I first picked up a camera I learned a lot at every stage. This is where the perspective of a year (or more) is an advantage and so much more rewarding. My progress today seems to be more about attention to detail and fine tuning.
There’s an inevitability that some of the most recent shots will be favourites - not necessarily because they are better (despite my comment above) but simply because they carry the fresh excitement of a new piece. This will mellow over time.
It’s interesting for me to note that there is far more colour this year. I have never found colour easy - at various stages opting for too much and completely over-saturating. I really struggled with it. I would look enviously at the work of Ernst Haas, Fred Herzog, Saul Leiter and those they have inspired today. I still do and have much to learn but it’s encouraging to see a better quality in my colour work beginning to come through. Interacting with some of these photographers on social media, and even meeting a few in the flesh, has been invigorating and ensured that the challenge remains.
Finally, let me say something about light. Immersing myself in photography magazines and books, I would read about the importance of light, chasing light, seeking light, following light… This year I feel that I have begun to gain an understanding of light and that is what has made the greatest difference to my images. I have paid more attention to the quality, direction and strength of light and I believe it shows in what I have produced.
The exciting things is that I know none of this is about achievement but is more about progress. The images from this year represent where I am now. Another stepping stone in the river of development. I know enough to know that the other side remains intangible but still something to strive for. May we never stop learning.
So here are the books that you recommended to me on my instagram feed @hueyraw (Some were already highlighted in my previous post so don’t get namechecked again here.)
Click on the image for a link to buy the book online.
Some of them aren’t so easy to get hold of. Anyone willing to republish some Fan Ho?
Thanks to the instagram crowd and especially @setex @daniel75009 @nico_street_ @nadiagrayphoto @bassabas @mikael_grs @friedaknips @menasambiasi @fabiennehanotaux @is_it_on_the_trolley @ashsmithone @gav__robinson @lucas.savoie
The desert island game is one I will willingly play from time to time - especially with music. Although choosing only ten tracks or pieces from a lifetime of passionate listening often seems as futile as it is impossible - moods shift, needs change and new things come along. The same applies to photo books. A new one is almost automatically elevated to favourite status and, if it’s not, then the purchase is always slightly tinged with regret.
So, which would you take? No fixed limit to the number of books but let's assume that your travel is not in some kind of mobile-library(!) so that there is some implied limit.
I started by imagining a top ten. I then asked my instagram followers for their favourites. This brought me a few familiar ones and some new books that I look forward to discovering. It also threw up the question of which books qualify - I had been thinking about books by one photographer. However, there were some really strong mentions of books about photography and some collections too
This first blog is going to focus on books by single photographers, leaving space for compilations (for want of a better word) and guides in future blogs.
I should also say that I am simply listing the book without a review. If you want to see what they’re like for yourself then there are plenty of places to look online or in bookshops.
I’m focusing on my list this time. Next time I will share the views of my followers.
So.. here we go.
The Suffering of Light - Thirty Years Of Photography by Alex Webb
Henri Cartier-Bresson by Clement Cheroux
Colour Correction by Ernst Haas
Modern Colour by Fred Herzog
Valparaiso by Sergio Larrain
Home Around The World by Elliott Erwin
Early Color by Saul Leiter
Youth Unemployment by Tish Murtha
Twilight by Gregory Crewdson
The New Yorkers by Robert Herman
Honourable mentions to Anders Petersen, Marc Riboud, Mark Neville’s “Fancy Pictures,” and the sheer gorgeousness of Sebastiao Salgado’s use of deep blacks in his monochrome images.
If your favourite is not listed, I’d love to hear from you. Like or comment below.