The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 8

Super Bike Prototype

Avoiding Clichés

I’m about to repeat myself; some of this is even in a comment that I made in someone else’s street photography blog. I’ll quote myself here anyway. Since the revival of SP the genre has become saturated and nearly reduced to a photography fad.

It is absolutely wonderful that despite the controversy regarding personal privacy issues in public settings, so many have taken to pursuing SP with nearly militant interest but it really has resulted, unfortunately, in the serious issue of clichéd work.

Look at me; GUILTY! Years ago, I listened to so many established and well-meaning street shooters who publicly insisted that newcomers ought to “keep shooting”. What I didn’t get was that their instruction was meant to help me get my reaction time down so that there would be less chance of me missing those fleeting occurrences of life in which something curious happens and looks interesting at the same time. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough written or vocalized coaching on how to be discerning and critical of one’s own work after we’ve taken a spate of photographs that seriously ought to be heavily edited and washed out before putting them on display. The world; particularly the Worldwide Web, has become flooded by clichéd street photography and virtual clones of Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Brassaï.

For example, in my humble opinion the biggest SP cliché is a shot of one or more people with opened umbrellas. I’ve certainly done a few of those, and I’m still quite proud of them. Why shouldn’t I be when they were executed so well? The vast majority of such shots from any shooter look so good. For some reason, it’s really hard to make images featuring fully opened umbrellas on rainy days not look so classy. It’s; therefore, really hard to fight the impulse to make the shots when the opportunity arises. The problem is that virtually every other street shooter has made brolly shots. That’s why they’re cliché. Not because they’re shot without good regard for composition but because they’re either so common or they appear to be too sensationalist. Any street, urban, rural or homeless photography images that easily look like they could have already been done by a multitude of other shooters, and probably have, is a cliché regardless of how well it was executed.

Alighting

This is where we have to be more discerning. Not stop shooting altogether but shoot less. Think; am I really making an original image? Am I really driving an original idea? This type of thinking is important to help us become more critical of our own work and approach. This, I must add, is actually easier said than done.

Honestly, I suspect that we may have to endure this constant stream of clichéd SP for several more years before we start to get wise to the idea that it’s not a good idea to impulsively “just shoot it anyway” when we see something that is remotely interesting. Through trial and error we have to get to a point of being far more discerning and not just say to ourselves, “Perhaps I shouldn’t upload that,” but even say, “Perhaps I should delete or destroy that,” or “I’m not going to bother shooting that at all.”

Unfortunately, most of us who have a true passion for SP don’t have the knack for doing it flawlessly right away. Like most things, it takes time and practice; learning from our mistakes, to get to that stage.

Obviously, the approach of being this patient and picky means considerably less captures of anything on film or memory cards. That is likely to be intensely frustrating because after all, why would we flâneurs spend hours of walking through or loitering in indoor and outdoor places to not shoot anything because what we find just won’t be enough of an original concept to make an impact? Being this strict on ourselves means that we could easily go days or weeks without finding anything satisfactory to shoot; not unlike a dedicated wildlife photographer. The upside is that we will be far more likely to produce original groundbreaking work, and that’s part of the real point of pursuing any genre related to SP.

Observation

So, to be clear, what are the clichés of street photography? Many SP bloggers write about this matter; which writing about it is in itself becoming cliché, by including a list of approximately 10 perceived agreeable clichés, and then possibly people respond with clichéd comments like:

“Oh yeah, I know of number 5 all too well!”

“8 has been done to death!”

“Hey, what about 4? If I see another photo that shows a number 4, I swear I’m gonna raise HCB from the grave and get him to pay a visit to the idiot who shot this crap!”

Well, I’m not too dissimilar on this blog. The slight difference in how I go about listing SP clichés is that I’ve asked five contemporary street photographers from around the world, whose work I really respect, to list the top 5 cliché’s that they are personally tired of. While I’m at it, I’ve asked each to provide just two examples of their work that is either totally or nearly devoid of the clichés they’ve listed.

If you see anything or read an opinion that discourages your efforts that, up to now, you thought were going so well, don’t get discouraged. If you look closely, and regard what they have to say carefully you should realize that you have creative options.

Please spend more than a mere 20 seconds looking at the quality of each picture, and see how their individual lists are similar or unalike. Then, consider what you may have to do to ramp up your creative game (I already know that I have my work cut out for me). Finally, remember what your objective is while shooting to make images that bear your own special characteristics. If you are a flâneur, then telling the story of a community; maybe your own, is likely to be a considerable part of your purpose:

Tee Cee (Tee Chandler) is a photographer based in Brighton, UK. To quote her Flicker profile she is, “Motivated by the desire to feast on stillness amongst the chaos of our times, so images tend towards the abstract and minimalist. Also interested in the alternative view . . .”

It seems that there is an assumption that street photographers only do street photography but the truth is that we’re really not one-trick-ponies. Like most street photographers. Tee Cee (http://teecee.zenfolio.com) is not restricted to just SP. In fact, she speaks about herself as though she doesn’t do much street photography at all and doesn’t really consider herself a street photographer. This is important to avoiding clichéd work. When Tee Cee does do SP, nevertheless, she seems to focus on the local views of Brighton.

1.Homeless/street people, – I’m not sure the motivation behind taking these photo’s but to me they are images that are ‘taken’ from the subject. I work with people who are homeless, and powerlessness is a big issue, so to have someone take their picture without asking; or to photograph them whilst at their most vulnerable is not the right thing to do. The images tend to be about the photographer having a ‘character’ somewhat ‘edgy’ in their portfolio, and this is limited — homeless people are a diverse group of people and deserve to have that diversity explored much more. Have a conversation with them first.”

2. “Legs – have a couple of these myself when I first started doing photo’s on the street! This was before I realized what a strong genre Street Photography was, and was interested in partial bodies – and if I am honest, I don’t like to photo people much. Turns out there are masses of leg portraits around!”

3. “Posters that form a background to the individual walking past them – there are many such images, and they hold attention briefly, but are often too far away to read the persons expression or vibe, and become quite bland. I have a few pictures of blank poster spaces without people as I like their quietness – we are shouted and talked at constantly via advertising and directions – I like some tranquility – very hard to find in urban situations!”

4. “Street art – hesitant about this; I used to take loads of photos of such artwork as I love its vitality and artistry. But in truth I am almost stealing their work, although I like to think I am highlighting it so try to get the artists name whenever I can and tag it.”

5. “People passing by, ‘shot from the hip’ – angles that show sneakily shot photos, and illustrate perhaps some lack of commitment about getting a more direct shot of the people on the street – again, have been here, and know its because I’m not brave enough, or driven enough, to take pictures of people; I also have a strong ethic of asking people first. Not good for a street photographer!”

“I think that there is a range of images between and beyond these clichés. I have enjoyed taking pictures that hopefully highlight the beauty in the overlooked – the way colours and tones of the street through a wet bus window are smudged, a randomly placed everyday object – a piano, say, is somewhere incongruous – on a beach for example – scenes that feel almost surreal or operatic even. I enjoy re-configuring scenes we see every day. I have just shot a series on storage huts on my local beach that seem very intriguing to me – mysterious, ever present, always painted black/tarred. A little Becher – like I have taken their portraits as I find them beautiful, and again, ‘quiet’. I guess many of us associate street photography with energetic, busy images that exemplify urban living, but there are many quiet images still to be explored I feel, to show more what we miss as we rush from one place to another.”

Tee Cee has a number of spots on the Internet where she displays her photos. Her widest range of work is on Facebook but I also recommend seeing her flicker photostream at http://www.flickr.com/people/tee-c. If you’re in England, seek out galleries where she’s exhibiting.

The sleeper must awaken

Born in ’81 in a family of architects, Mitja Kobal (a.k.a.: “Cwithe”) is a brilliant photographer and carpenter from Slovenia. His work is exciting to look at. Behaviourists say that on average, people spend no more than 20 seconds regarding a photograph. Step outside of that box when you look at Mitja’s work. He has an eye, and even crops his images to perfection.

Mitja has lived in Japan studying the language and learning philosophy. He credits the experience as having a tremendously positive impact on everything he is. He’s been behind the lens since his mid-20’s, and has shot in Tokyo and Ljubljana.

“I am not really a great follower of street photography; however I did have a few really nice shots. Therefore, I’m not sure I can pick even 5 clichés . . . But let me try to pick some.”

1. “Shadows: can do many good interpretations of a street vibe, person etc. . . However, there’s billion shadows one can find on the street (at a good light that is), and just any of them, won’t be a good pick. I guess shadow hunters should look for a shadow that makes [an] image alive, or gives dimension of the street/person/thing or even maybe a grotesque metaphor.”

“It’s easy to find a shadow of something/somebody; it’s harder to bring it to life.”

2. “Candid shots of people: I love it, if it captures the natural light or a person and interesting behaviour, expression. It’s easy to just shoot people (with the camera that is) . . . Personally I really like if somebody catches that little grace of everyday things we do on the street or anywhere else for that matter. Those little moments happen in a quark of time, and that’s when you have to shoot.”

“I’m sending you two works of mine. One is a candid portrait of a girl, who was asleep after a long night out. She was in a giant doze of sleep. I know that because I know her, and I know where all we had been that night.”

“[The] other photograph is a photo of some kind of a street security/street police in Japan. That shot was also candid but what I like in that shot is the shadow that he drags with him. Big brother’s claws and reach is increasing rapidly . . . and you never know how far . . .”

The watchman2

Agellos is the handle used by Nicolas Pavlidis of Athens, Greece. He has at least one flickr account; I think he really has at least two.

Nick is certainly a sharp-eyed and creative photographer. Nick not only knows how to compose, he’s one of those photographers who seems to have no problem finding those mundane but fascinating microsecond occasions and coincidences of life to shoot.

Just from looking at his work, I suspect that he is also a thoroughly independent-minded street shooter. He’s probably not in the least bit swayed or dismayed by today’s phalanx of overly-opinionated art and SP snobs. The way a shooter ought to be, I must add. He simply had this to say:

“I don’t believe that there are real clichés. What there are, are photographers who shoot the same subject the same way. So, I wouldn’t suggest any cliché lists.”

To illustrate his point, Nick has provided not two but four images. The first two, just below, are what he has personally tagged as clichés, even though he doesn’t believe that there are clichés. The following two are his examples of cliché-free images.

Cliche 1

Cliche 2

No Cliche 1

No Cliche 2

I really like that last one. That’s got to be Nick’s own shadow of him taking this very shot with his camera while his head is amusingly puffed up by the shade of a street lamp. The lady and her baby almost appear to be startled by the bulbous-headed shadow man in their midst.

Unfortunately, Nick didn’t watermark his photos. I’m typically reluctant to use submitted images if the photographer has not put his/her personal seal on them. I’ve seen the cliché-free shots in his flickr photostream, at http://www.flickr.com/people/agellos, so I’m relying on that as proof that he is the originator of all of his submissions.

Aaron Offord is a photographer from my hometown of Hamilton. When the UK’s Street Photography Now Project held its first international challenge on flickr from October 2010 to October 2011, Aaron and I participated in most of the individual briefs. I believe he was living in Mississauga at the time.

I found the SPNP to be a great way to both test myself as a street photographer and to see the approaches of other contemporary shooters from around the world. The project also shed light on just how huge the new SP wave has actually become.

I especially liked the sense of community that was generated by the project. There were some constructive criticisms; probably not nearly as much as there should have been, but overall the participants offered opinions to each other that were quite helpful. You could see weekly improvement with the output of virtually every photographer.

Apparently recognizing that I was one of a small number of Canadians participating, and that my profile indicated that I was in fairly close geographic proximity to him, Aaron e-mailed me during the project. We’ve maintained sporadic contact ever since.

By the fall of 2011, Aaron relocated to Hamilton. Although as this goes to post, we have yet to meet face-to-face, given time and opportunity we’re going to do something about that.

Here, Aaron writes directly to you so if you have any questions for him, please ask. I hope he’ll oblige you with answers.

“First, let me start by saying how honoured I am to be included on Allan’s blog. I have followed Allan’s blog religiously for quite some time now and have absolutely loved is Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography. To be honest when that guide first came out I set a personal goal to try and improve my street photography enough that Allan might ask me for input into it, so I couldn’t be more happy to be contributing for this post.”

“When I first sat down to craft my top 5 list of clichés found in street photography I thought it was going to be a very quick exercise. I figured I would list 5 common photographs I usually see on groups on the internet and be done. Before I could even start crafting a list I needed to understand the definition of cliché. Wikipedia defines it as:

  • ‘an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel’

“I quickly realized that a quick list of 5 types of photographs wouldn’t suffice as in a couple months it could be obsolete. For instance, if you were to ask me a year ago I might have said black and white photographs but now street photography on the whole seems to be moving more towards colour street photographs.”

“Since particular cliché photo types in street photography can change as the popularity of shooting styles change with time, I thought it would be better to do a list on more generalized street photography clichés.”

1. “Being invisible: when shooting street photography we should not try to hide as there is nothing to be ashamed of. We shouldn’t feel the need to be sneaking around hiding our camera or shooting from the hip. There is a big difference between trying not to influence a scene we are photographing and trying not to ‘get caught’. When we are trying not to ‘get caught’ in our street photography people will assume we are doing something sneaky, creepy, or nasty; this includes those people we show our images too. By not having this mentality when shooting it will change the way we act with our camera, showing a sense of confidence that we do belong in that reality, documenting it.”

“I still try to take photos that capture a scene without my influence on it so the viewer can feel as if they too are silently witnessing the events as they happened. Since I feel the photos I take should not be about me, I try not to stand out while shooting street photography either, but rather attempting to just blend in with the scene around me.”

2. “Photography take balls: probably one of the worst understood quotes in street photography is by Robert Capa . . .”

  • ‘If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’

“Street photography should not be a competition about who has the biggest balls to get closest to a stranger. Not only is it disrespectful to your subject the resulting photographs are often devoid of any true story or real emotion. The photographer has chosen in these instances that make the photography about themselves and the reaction they are getting rather than telling a proper story. What Robert Capa really meant is we should be aiming to take photos that are close enough to make the viewer feel like they were really there without disturbing the scene or distorting the reality. The moment the photographer gets too close, vital information is lost from the frame and the viewer loses the feeling of being there.”

3. “Shooting for others sakes: the Internet has been a huge positive for street photography by allowing photographers from all over the world to easily connect. Unfortunately, it has been the root cause of a major street photography cliché. People have been obsessed with trying to get their photos accepted into street photography groups; especially the curated ones. It seems like getting a photo accepted into these groups is a form of validation for the photography. The problem is by focusing on trying to get our photos into particular groups they end up conforming to a set of well-known predetermined rules or styles that are continuously reiterated by the judges/curators.”

“It’s like entering your dog in a dog show or your best tomatoes in a horticulture show. It has to conform to an arbitrary and artificial set of rules to which all entrants agree. The end result is a ‘copied’ style rather than one that is focused on the photographers own originality and style.”

4. “Making photos that don’t say or mean anything: unfortunately with the internet there is another negative aspect; an overload of images. When you go through street photography groups on flickr, 500px, or your favourite photo sharing website there is an overload of poorly composed, mundane and boring shots of random people on the street that is devoid of a story or emotional connection for the viewer. This type of cliché presents us with opportunities to make pictures while not actually saying or meaning anything.”

5. “Don’t shoot clichés: the biggest cliché of all in street photography is the notion that we should avoid shooting clichés. In some respects creating a well-executed cliché is one of the hardest things to do. The goal should always be to create the photograph in a manner that elevates it above all the other attempts at the same cliché so that it is not seen as just another cliché.”

“I don’t think there are any clichés we should avoid while out shooting street photography; if something sparks our interest, we should shoot it. The key though is to keep high standards in our editing process so that the photos we share have that thing that elevates them above the masses of other photographs trying to achieve the same cliché.”

Last but certainly not least is Markus Hartel (www.markushartel.com). A graphic artist originally from Germany, Mr. Hartel is a NYC transplant who has become recognized worldwide as an icon in contemporary street photography. I named him in my artist autobio as one of the most influential photographers on my work; both my photography and my illustration. I have been a dedicated stalker . . . I mean follower, of his SP for years. Let me tell you how:

Years ago, I was having difficulty seeing past the tip of my own nose and hypothesized why I thought it had become virtually impossible to produce street photography that can have a deep impact on today’s attention deficit, desensitized and honestly shallow societies. I hypothesized that it was due to all of the best SP having already been created when the genre was young and being made by its pioneers. I believed that even the look of early to mid-twentieth century cities had a special and absolutely necessary ambiance that had the most profound impact on those old photographs that you just can’t get today. Then I saw Mr. Hartel’s totally contemporary SP with a mostly black and white traditional appearance and was quite literally converted in less than five minutes.

Markus depicts the lives of modern day New Yorkers like nobody’s business. It means so much to me personally to have his input here.

“As street photographers we’re all guilty of taking photographs that are full of clichés and devoid of emotion and story telling content. Digital technology and photo sharing sites make it easy to share one’s photos and accessible to the masses with a single click. Naturally, the signal-to-noise ratio is fairly high and a lot of mediocre photography gets posted. This is especially true for street photography, as subjects are readily available at your doorstep. A good photographer also needs to be [a] great editor and stop himself/herself from posting emotionless (street) photography during the editing process and as a general rule one shot in a hundred is useable and one in a thousand is good to show online. A great portfolio shot may happen once a month for a prolific shooter, your mileage may vary and my top five clichés to avoid are:

1. Shooting the homeless, unless you have a shot that reveals a great story and something we have not seen before.

2. Random people walking by – please show me at least an interesting character, or create a juxtaposition, or an interesting composition. Shots of people doing nothing do just that — nothing for the viewer.

3. People’s backs — not much to see here, unless you can put something creative in your frame . . . texture, color, composition . . . anything really to tighten up the shot.

4. The wall shot of someone walking by — not so great, unless you’re able to create something fresh and new.

5. Centered compositions, sometimes they work – with proper framing – but most of the time they just don’t, as they are as boring as can be.

“Count me guilty on all accounts, but working in the graphic arts for a quarter of a century has taught me a thing or two about the editing process.”

Clear as mud? Are you confused yet by all of our opinions or did you find at least one fundamental thing that unites them all and makes the most sense?

So, being a flâneur with a camera, if you are now determined to avoid as many clichés as you can as you attempt to tell the story of a community you’ll probably find that your job has just gotten harder. It may seem as though there’s nothing left to photograph. If all of this is disconcerting to your efforts remember this:

Street Photography is an art without rules; it only has guidelines. You have the final say; therefore, if once in blue moon you feel a need to shoot and display something that may be considered by others as cliché, don’t hesitate. Go ahead and express yourself. As long as it’s a real aspect of your community, then sometimes even a cliché can be artistic.

If you get strict on yourself, however, and concentrate on making sure that you’re not exhibiting an image of a community that you are passionate about that could have been easily made by someone else, then you’re on the right track of making quality street photography.

I have to express my heartfelt thanks again to all of the street photographers who contributed to this post. They are all creatively brilliant, and I truly regret not having more time to ask more questions from each of them.

Everyone has schedules. I don’t want to pressure any of these artists into answering questions BUT I am hoping that they will oblige if any readers do have things to ask that are related to SP. Markus has indicated to me that he’s interested in fielding questions, so get them out there.

By the way, I never close the comment sections on any of my blog posts so if you have something to ask or state, even months from now on this post or any of the others of this series, go for it.

You can easily get to any of the sites of these photographers through my blog roll under the Photography and Facebook subcategories. It is worth it to check them out regularly.

11 thoughts on “The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 8

  1. Nice read. Very helpful to get my own thoughts about some of those topics clear. I agree with your judgment. And I do appreciate your aim to make people think and learn while they are reading the statements of experienced photographers. – I think you have forgotten a very often seen cliche: the street musician. Well, you said there might be more then those you mentioned here. – Got to read your other posts about SP too. Coming back for this, sure.

    • It is a very long entry, I have to agree. I didn’t expect the contributions to beef it up so much but I’m glad they pulled out the stops on expressing themselves. It goes to show just how much passion we artists are about the work we do.

      One of the greatest things anyone can do is take the time to talk to an artist. Not just watch them work, but listen to them put their vision and advice in words.

      By all means, come on back. The door is always open.

    • Thank you, Pavlos. So do you. I especially like “Flirt Attempt”. He’s a photographer, which means that he’s probably seen a lot. Perhaps she should put in more effort to get noticed.

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