I was speaking to a friend the other day about street photography. He is what I would call a photography enthusiast and is interested in all aspects of photography, cameras and related topics. On street photography, he said that he didn’t get it - he said that all he saw were the same old pictures of people walking down the street - snapshots of strangers.
It made me think about why he had this impression and what he was talking about and I think I know exactly what he means. There are a lot of images out there on the web, instagram and other photography sharing sites passing off as street photography, and I think there is a lack of substance in the type of street photography that people are putting out there. This is a thought piece on how we all can learn and grow as photographers in general. What I am writing here is very much for me. Hopefully it helps you too.
The internet is a million miles wide and a centimetre deep
- Sean Tucker
Let me just say at the outset that I take plenty (and I mean plenty) of images that are terrible. We all do. There are plenty of reasons why this is the case. This is not about scolding those street photographers that are putting out work that is sub par so as in some way to imply that my street photography is superior. Far from it, I struggle like the next person to get an even half decent image from most of my street photography.
Street photography is hard - 99% of the shots we will take on a photography outing will be terrible, or mediocre at best, because so many of the elements that we are shooting are out of our control - the street is serendipitous, random, unplanned and unexpected, so there is no way all of the variables that we might need to fall in place will do so every time we need them to.
Unlike the control that a studio photographer has when making an image, we are at the mercy of the street gods, and our only hope is that we have honed our eye carefully enough that we can spot that elusive and decisive moment in one fraction of a second and make an image from it before it disappears into the street from whence it came.
As a result of these constraints, there is a high probability that most of the photos we will take will be mundane - even if there is a moment to be captured, there are many variables that could make a bad shot. Of course these constraints are also what produce the inspirational images that we all know and identify with when we think about a great street photograph or our favourite photographers.
For the photographer that is new to shooting street, and faced with these constraints, street can be a daunting affair. It is difficult to even muster up the courage to raise the camera to the eye, make the photo and compose something interesting, let alone try and tell a story within the frame. Therefore it follows that when that fear is overcome, there is a triumph of sorts, and the emotional attachment to the image is often translated into a need to share.
This might manifest itself as your typical mediocre street photography and the type no doubt that my friend was referring to. Images of people from behind (guilty), pictures of buildings (guilty), street scenes with people in the far off distance (guilty), graffiti walls (never!), parked cars (nope) and bicycles (very guilty) - these might be valid photographic subjects but as a rule, they are not really street photography.
No amount of post processing or fancy equipment will improve on images that in themselves have no substance. We have swathes of un-curated photography on the internet that claim to be street photography that are really just mediocre images turned into black and white - snapshots with post processing and filters applied.
Even for a more experienced photographer who is trying out a new approach to making photographs, there are also challenges with reality not meeting expectations and the temptation to accept and share sub-standard work.
I know, I have been there - in fact I am there right now - trying to shoot street with a ‘new to me’ lens (a fixed 28mm prime), and struggling to produce the images that I want to produce - I am still learning to understand how to compose and build the frame with a wider focal length than I am used to and the result is that I am making images that normally would not pass muster. The temptation is to take those images and call them keepers and share my triumphs for the whole of the internet to see (you care don’t you?!). They are not keepers - just because I partly achieve what I am aiming for it does not make it a passable photograph not to mention a street photograph.
I am in no way implying that no work should be shown until it reaches the level of the street photography masters. There will be images that we know are true to what we are trying to achieve, that say something, that elicit an emotional response, that move our photography along, and others that are, well, just not offering anything of substance to the viewer.
For me the remedy to all of this is to operate with the understanding that I am only ever wanting to show my best work. All of the work that you are making should be evaluated and scrutinised, curated, and if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity, properly critiqued and reviewed. Ultimately to grow as a photographer and to take a step towards making great images we have to journey through this process.
To only show our best work means work that has been filtered in this way. Photography that is not shown is just as valuable in that has provided lessons for our growth. Its value is that the work that evolves from it reaches some level where it can stand as not just a testament to the fact that the photographer has been able to raise the camera and take a photo in public, but is truly telling a story or eliciting an emotion, feeling or response for its viewers. It becomes street photography.
Street photography needs to be more than collecting nice gear, lenses, straps and bags and heading out for a photo walk in our local neighbourhood. I believe that street photography matters as an important genre but it has to say something about our current everyday life, not just a collection of snapshots of people in the street.
What do you think? Am I being too harsh and expecting too much?