The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 2
Urban Photography and Street Photography; what’s the Difference and What to Shoot For?
Is there a difference between urban and street photography? I, probably like most, use the terms interchangeably but even I can appreciate the opinions of those who insist on drawing a line between the two genres; even though it is a fine line.
The simplest way to define urban photography (UP) as a distinguished photographic genre is to say that it is largely landscape photography; equally featuring great and hardly celebrated man-made structures, in an urban (sometimes suburban and rural) setting that usually only indicates the presence of human beings, and only rarely shows the actual presence of them. These structures could be skyscrapers, bungalows, streetlights, park benches, bridges, sidewalks and more, and they could be in tip-top or abysmal condition. They could be operational or uninhabited. Some of these places could be normally unseen or literally off-limits parts of urban areas or private properties (that includes factories and other industrial establishments).
It’s the potential intent of a photographer to present the interior or exterior of a building as an artistic feature while in its worst condition or environment that most essentially separates UP from architectural photography (AP). The intent of AP is to always—without exception, show a building in its most aesthetically, perhaps commercially, pleasing state. While a viewer may find a dilapidated old barn as aesthetically pleasing, the image of that barn will not be used in real estate marketing or architectural promotion. UP isn’t done to inspire someone to want to own, rent or lease a property or recommend some form of acquisition or other use of the property or similar property to someone. That’s what AP is for, and AP is even less likely to feature the presence of people than UP (many fashion and glam photographers are known to occasionally shoot models in dilapidated places to create a chic UP look, and it never really seems to get old).
Another fundamental aspect of AP is that buildings are always meant to be shown accurately. This rule does not apply in UP. In UP, a photographer is willing to use unflattering light, extremely long or short exposures and anything else that may challenge the perception of a building. The artist may try to make it look like animated dolls, trolls or demons commonly inhabit the place or that the place itself is not quite in the reality we perceive it to be (e.g. a lonely child, a tired old woman, a miserable man, a castle, a dungeon, a cave, etc.), even though a kitchen within is still recognizable as the kitchen it actually is.
Almost everyone has heard someone else say something like, “I like the old place it has character!” That sentiment goes to the heart of UP.
As UP is an art sub-genre of street photography, a photographer experienced in the art form of AP is likely to also produce impressive UP by applying similar techniques despite the fact that the aesthetic intent may be so different.
Urban photographs also go by other names like “urban landscapes” and “urban decay photography” depending on the apparent condition of the place that is depicted. The activity of UP is often referred to by contemporary nomenclature like “urban exploration (often shortened to urbex or UE)”, “draining (when exploring drains, aqueducts, viaducts and sewers)“, “urban spelunking”, “urban caving” and “building hacking”. UE is certainly an aspect of my flâneurism.
I think my interest in UP stems from my childhood habit of exploring houses that were under construction when the builders were offsite; not to vandalize; never to steal or do any harm, just to explore. Here’s what inspires me primarily. The characters of new and empty, and old derelict buildings, houses and alleys fuel my lifelong love of speculative fiction and suspense. These places, especially if they have deep dark shadows, bright diffused window light or sunrays discernible in atmospheric dust, often inspire thoughts of ghosts, mythical creatures, spies and stoic antiheroes lurking about. This attracts me to these locations, and it’s those aspects of character that I try to capture in photography. I want to evoke that feeling in the viewer that something or someone is there, haunting and lurking just out of sight for some noble or insidious reason. This is actually more important to me than trying to convey the history of a place, which is also my intent.
It’s not that I want to preserve vacant sites in their rundown states. I especially want to see them taken care of and not become demoralizing eyesores of a community. I live in a town that’s endured too much of that. It’s a wonder that some of the old unkempt places in my city haven’t killed or seriously injured anyone who dared to venture in or near them. I do appreciate; nevertheless, the aesthetics and nuances of vacant spaces.
Secondarily, I’m interested in how street artists, ethical graffiti artists and taggers use totally exposed and semi-concealed public spaces in order to leave behind some sign of their presence in the world. I use UP and street photography to explore the psychology and sociology of graffiti (more about that in future posts).
Thirdly, I’m quite partial to landscape photography so I also view these spaces as landscapes and photograph them with that quality. I’m not likely to photograph a door or doorway in a dank basement by itself. I’ll usually include walls and the floor or ceiling that surrounds, leads up to and possibly extends beyond the access point. I love to find a good set of stairs or fire escape. They create a poetic or musical rhythm, and convey a sense of journeying in a scene. Peeled wallpaper, brick mortar lines and textured stucco surfaces make walls seem organic to me; building interiors seem like they’re about to start moving like someone’s chest rising and falling while they breathe. If I find graffiti in an asphalt parking lot or against some playground wall or fence with tall grass partly obscuring the graffiti, I’m more likely to shoot to include parts of the surrounding environment not just the graffiti. I’ll leave in the grass, or the asphalt or the dog that happens by and maybe pees on the tag.
Certainly, the works of many other contemporary street/urban photographers impact my personal approach.
Kevin Valencourt, a photographer based in Ontario’s beautiful Niagara region, maintains a repertoire of historic, portrait, scenic, landscape and editorial work. He is probably best known; nevertheless, for his urban decay images. I am a fan, so I asked him to share his opinions and approach to UP. He started by telling me that his interest and involvement in urban decay photography started full steam in 2006. Kevin went on to explain how a desire to create original and unique images is his main source of inspiration.
“Ever since I was a child, I can remember always wanting to explore old, abandoned and historic places. I always loved peeling paint, inches of dust covering old floors, and old style architecture. I always thought to myself how pristine and untouched some of the places I had been in looked. My main inspiration for photographing this genre, was that 99% of the world would never get to see these places and enjoy that like I was able to first hand. With that thought, I started to photograph the places I explored so I didn’t just have to explain the locations to people, I could show them.”
When I asked him to provide some quick shareable tips on his personal approach to urban decay photography, he pointed out that he can’t speak for all explorers in his methods, but:
“There are several ways I decide on a location to shoot. Sometimes, a great location can be as simple as a ‘Doors Open’ event, others involve simply going for a long drive, taking random back roads and keeping a sharp eye out; and of course, information from others. The majority of the locations I have shot were suggested by friends, or other fellow explorers.”
“As for gaining access, let me first say. I have never, nor will I ever break into a location. I have morals and respect. The first thing I will do when coming across a new location, is ‘Scout’ it; basically looking for any signage, points of entry, etc. If I am not able to find a POE (Point Of Entry), and there is clear signage or contact for an owner, I will make an attempt to contact said person, asking for permission to photograph the location. You’d be surprised how often this has lead to a very friendly owner taking time out of his or her day not only letting me in, but giving me a tour and a history lesson! If there is no contact information, and no points of entry, I would normally check back on a regular basis.”
“As I said, I will never break into a location but others will, and 9 times out of 10, those “others” are the ones that create the point of entry.”
“Finally, if there is no signage, and there is a way in. I will normally take it. Yes, it’s trespassing, and I am willing to take my chances at a ticket for doing so to get a great set of pictures.”
Of course, there are other risks involved. For example, dangerous people could be squatting inside of an abandoned building. For another example, what if someone was apparently dead inside? There would be a legal obligation to report on what was found, and beyond the legalities I have a conscience so I would go to the authorities. There’s also the issue that some of these buildings are unsafe due to weak roofs, walls and floors, outdated electrical systems and the use of friable materials like asbestos in their construction.
I asked Kevin if he mostly relies on natural or ambient light, usually lights locations artificially, or if he uses an even mix.
“I always prefer natural or ambient light over artificially lighting a location, or ‘light painting’. I find that using a natural light source, even if minimal with a long exposure; will give far better results in the end. Also, if you are in a location at night that you are not supposed to be in, using artificial light may lead to cutting your trip short.”
From his Facebook group page, “Abandoned House” in his Personal Favourites gallery, is my favourite of Kevin’s because it looks like a shot out of a Hitchcock film. It also reminds me of the 1979 TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot. I had to ask Kevin if he has a favourite of his images.
“Thank you! I actually had to take a moment look up the photo you were speaking of. I have shot so many abandoned houses I wasn’t sure at first which one I labeled that way.”
“As for my favourite shot, that is a hard question, but I would have to say the ‘Spiral Staircase’. From the moment I heard about that staircase, I wanted to shoot it. The location at the time was sealed tight but as mentioned I was persistent in checking back until, finally one day, there was a point of entry. It was just as I imagined, it spanned 3 floors and was used as the building’s fire escape. There was JUST enough natural light shining down from the top floor windows, to allow me to take a nice long exposure from the basement. It turned out just as I wanted it to. So based on the challenge, the lighting, the wrought iron staircase itself and the fact the picture turned out JUST as I wanted makes this my favourite shot.”
“Spiral Staircase” can be viewed HERE.
Now, every credible artist is inspired by another. Naturally, I asked Kevin what urban decay photographers inspire him.
“I am glad you asked that question, because there is indeed one photographer that has always inspired me, and I think he deserves a lot of credit. Kendall Anderson out of Toronto, runs a site call ‘Invisible Threads’ and in my opinion, is one of the best urban decay photographers I have ever seen work from. If you would like to see his work, his site is; www.invisiblethreads.com.”
Kevin graciously provided the image just above and the following history:
“This photo was taken in September of 2007 at the historic Alma College in St. Thomas, Ontario. This is a shot of one of the fantastic wooden staircases. Sadly on May 28th, 2008, Alma College was a victim of Arson, and nothing survived except the small church next to the main College.”
Kevin Valencourt’s main website is MH Inc. Photography at www.mhinccanada.com. You can jump to it anytime from my blogroll.
The easiest way for me to explain street photography (SP), for the purpose of making a quick comparison to UP, is by stating that it almost always deliberately depicts actual human beings experiencing urban life. That is, virtually all aspects of urban life.
Obviously, the commonalities of both sub-genres are that they both feature urban settings, they both show a human element; stopping just short of being voyeuristic, and that they both make superficial to profound, and uncontroversial or controversial social statements. It is these dominant likenesses that cause many photographers to view these sub-genres as one and the same thing.
What is most important to understand, is that street/urban photography is a mirror reflecting the health or ill-health of modernized civilization. As observers, we determine if what is reflected is beautiful or repulsive depending on our individual perceptions of what is acceptable or not for society.
Whether it’s the visual arts or the performance arts, all artists must have vision in order to make art. Part of a street/urban photographer’s vision is being fascinated with behaviours, places and moments in time. Yes, you can photograph things that are obviously important, popular and even marketable but also look for things that; in their literal and usually fleeting existences, are so common that they’re typically overlooked by most as being mundane and unimportant even though, in reality, they are integral parts of a chain or cycle of life carrying us from one moment to the next (this is what makes SP related to photojournalism).
As an artist let your vision in this help guide you to record those things in creative ways; through the use of technique and most of all composition but still with a self-judged measure of candidness, that may draw the attention of others who would normally not give them a second thought.
The greatest controversy that exists with SP is of course the issue of potentially invading someone’s privacy while they’re—most likely but not necessarily, in a public space. To capture the most natural behaviour of people who just happen to be in a space that is being photographed, calls for not informing the subjects that they’re going to end up in the image. Some do object to this, and accuse street photographers as being the most invasive lowlife scum-buckets of the universe. This ethical dilemma is what actually made me seriously consider giving up SP some years ago.
I was seriously motivated to continue with my SP as a result of a combination of one event in my life which I‘ve already blogged about, and another even more personal and much older circumstance that occurred many years earlier. I’ll likely blog about hat latter situation some other day. There is an important life-affirming reason as to why I shoot. It isn’t just Ipso artificium. I am an illustrator. I convey stories through the visual arts. This inevitably extends to my photography, and as a person who has an avid interest in the human condition, I use SP to tell the stories of lives that might otherwise be ignored. To me, people count. As I mentioned in a preceding post, SP is my way of trying to discover how to improve mankind’s existence.
Attorney, professor and occasional blogger Brian C. Lorio is also a self-professed photography hobbyist who currently works and resides in North Plainfield, NJ. The vast majority of his work consists of candid portraits in both public and private places. I’ve really taken an interest in his output. The first thing I noticed when viewing a collection of his work is that nearly every shot depicts people enjoying life in some way in US cities. I perceive it as the most dominating trait of his photos. Secondly, many of Brian’s street portraits are obviously composed with the subjects being fully aware that they are being photographed; willing subjects who are never harmed. This goes against the grain of many who insist that you’re not really making street photography if you’re not daringly walking straight up to some unsuspecting person, and shooting them in the face. He granted me an opportunity to interview him.
When introducing himself in his blogs, B.C. Lorio gives an impression that he was forcibly sucked into the photography vortex that he saw his parents were in when he was small. Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know was why has he pursued street photography specifically?
“I’ve always been fascinated by literally walking around and seeing people enjoying life. In college, every Friday afternoon, I’d jump on the El and head to Lincoln Park and Wicker Park (Chicago) to look for music, shop for clothes, and just observe people.”
“Once I moved to New York, I simply loved exploring different parts of the city, taking in their shops, cafes, and most of all interacting with the neighborhood residents. Street photography is a means of a capturing that moment as opposed to trying to relay to family and friends what I saw earlier that day. And the beauty of it, if done right, creates and image that captures the essence of that location.”
“Also, there is less pretentiousness with street photography. I love capturing people just being natural. Yes, often, they are unknowing that the camera “sees” them, but it is less scripted. I hate having a camera and having someone say, ‘But I don’t have my hair done . . . I don’t have any makeup on.’ I like photography that takes pride in the natural beauty of humanity. Street photography does it.”
Stop right there for a minute! You can see a consistency of intent here between Kevin Valencourt’s and B.C. Lorio’s visions. They want to share with others; those willing to listen, about how the world looks through their eyes. This is universal to not just artists but most people in general. Artists; however, push this aspect of human behaviour in very interesting ways. It’s not so much a choice. It’s fundamental to how we express ourselves. We have to do what we do, so long as what we do doesn’t infringe on other’s fundamental human rights. Sure, we can express ourselves fairly well in other ways but we can’t do it as well as through the creative ways we do.
Kevin and Brian are keenly fascinated with aspects of communities, and use the camera to record and communicate their flâneurism. I can relate to this.
In describing his individual style in SP, B.C. Lorio says:
“I’m still learning and developing my approach to street photography. When I started out, I’ll be honest, I was just trying to sneak photographs of people on the subway or in funny situations. Then it popped up that if done ‘right’, it was less about ‘exposing’ people but more an opportunity to show a side of life that others may ignore.”
“I like the fact that I’m shooting in cities such as Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Union City, New Jersey. And while I haven’t shot in Washington Heights (Manhattan) or the Bronx in awhile, I think that these areas show a side of life that is ignored by other street photographers. These cities often get bad reputations and I think that I capture a uniquness that can’t be found when shooting in Midtown Manhattan, Chicago’s Loop, or downtown Los Angeles.”
“I think that I am able to see beauty in the every day struggle that is life and a sense of hope.”
I completely agree. I also share his thoughts about shooting in communities that aren’t typically associated with SP as NYC, and Paris are. That’s exactly a topic I’m already getting ready to tackle in a future post of this series.
From his Flickr page and blog, “Playtime”, is my favourite. That could be my older sister balancing me on her feet just like that when we were that small. Of course, I’m interested in how artists perceive their work. I wanted to hear his take on his output:
“Thank you! That’s my niece and nephew trying show off their new trick to my dad during Thanksgiving 2011 (obviously, my dad was a bit knackered after being up so early in the morning).”
“My favorite? That’s tough. The clichéd answer would be that my favorite will be the next shot I take as I think that we all improve with each shot.”
“The Old School Look” has that noir feel to it. The gentleman is simply smoking his cigarette next to a simplistic sign. Who would think that was Newark, New Jersey 2012?!”
“Natural. And Blonde.” is another Newark shot from 2011. It’s simply two women enjoying conversation on a grey fall afternoon.”
“I actually like “Mother’s Talk” more than “Natural. And Blonde”. The young girl is looking directly into the lens, essentially ignoring her mother scolding her. Fortunately, her mother was more intent on talking to her daughter than worrying about me, which allowed for me to capture the emotion of the moment.”
“’The Boots’ was shot in May 2011. Not only do I love the juxtaposition of young and old(er), the colors of the women (which are opposite), but the movie advertisement in the background appear as if they’re watching the women. It was simply fortuitous as I never framed or planned it that way. It’s pure coincidence.”
“Finally, ‘Blue Skirt. Blue Scooter’ is simply for the colors.”
“These are photographs that I always like to go back to.”
As far as other street photographers that inspire him, Brian said:
“Again, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still learning photography and street photography. I’d be lying if I starting name dropping ‘the greats’ as I’m still learning how to use my camera, let alone learning the history of the genre.”
“I will say that I enjoying view photographs by Junku-Newcleus and Alex Coghe. Hailing from Japan and Mexico respectively, their imagery gives insight to every day life. A viewer can see that both of them know their city and are able to highlight segments that make us feel as if we’re waking the streets with them.”
“I am fortunate to call Tieshka Smith a resource. She was a Jersey City resident and recently moved to Philadelphia. Her move has given her inspiration and she’s capturing a side of the East Coast that I’ve not seen in street photography. Gritty. Humorous. Fun. Serious. She’s given me great insight into photography and I learn something new with each of her shots.”
“Finally, there is someone who goes by RedArt Photography (on Flickr). He shoots primarily in black and white and brings a richness to Rome that is simply amazing.”
“There is a soulfulness in all of the aforementioned photographers that I strive to capture in my own work.”
Brian has a number of blogs and accounts on image hosting services. He’s developed a preference for showing his work at www.500px.com/bclorio. There’s and easy link to it from my blogroll. You can also find him on Flickr. The following photo is his parting shot to us.
So there are the brass tacks on SP and UP; the similarities and the differences, how having an individual vision and focus can seriously help in creating quality work, and oh the possibilities for the artistic flâneur.
Thank you Kevin Valencourt and B.C. Lorio for sharing your perspectives with MOF readers, and giving us the opportunity to get to discover your work.