The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 10
The snapshot and the street photograph.
A high school math teacher beginning to pursue his interest in photography contemplated some of my prints (landscapes, nature and wildlife; not street) and asked me if I taught photography. I had to disappoint him by advising him to buy books and magazines, visit online photography sources or sign up for a course. As much as I’ve always respected and benefited from what I have learned from knowledgeable artists, I’ve always been more interested in making visual art not teaching it. He indicated that he saw that coming. He said that he did enroll in a college level course but soon dropped out (yeah, the irony of a teacher dropping out of a course) on account that he found it hyper-technical, not really creative which is where he really wanted to go with photography. I know EXACTLY what he was talking about. I’ve been there.
Although I do not consider myself any kind of expert on street photography, I have learned many great things so trying to pass on some knowledge to others is a reason why I began this series on SP and flâneurism.
Despite that fact that there is a fine line between the snapshot and the street photograph, there is a difference. In simplicity, here’s the difference:
- Usually candid;
- Unplanned or planned with less than artistic or photojournalistic technique and considerations (the camera and lens are pointed in the general direction of the subject at point blank range, at virtually any time and the shutter button is pressed);
- Usually candid; but
- Planned with ample artistic and sometimes photojournalistic technique and considerations (the subject and all other elements are deliberately photographed in a way that ensures a harmony between each other [e.g., complimentary colour hues or an attractive range of black, white and grey tones are selected; colours or tones are placed to be in stark contrast to each other or to appear soft; proper exposure or obviously intentional over/underexposure is applied; sharp focus or obviously intentional blurriness is applied; portrait, field or angled range framing is used to perpetuate a certain feeling; the subject will fill a sufficient amount of the image area between the edges of the photograph, and the subject will be rendered to dominate the image even if the subject appears small amongst bigger, broader or more vibrant features, etc.], and with the understanding of the photographic genre the image is intended to belong to);
If you pursue street photography, urban photography or rural photography understanding this difference will help you decide a most critical question that you must ask yourself:
What kinds of shots do you want to make as a flâneur with a camera?
The reason why it is important to ask and answer this question is because this is the very first consideration you will make towards making satisfactory or unsatisfactory photographic compositions. This is not restricted to SP either; this consideration is important to all creative photography because the most creative photography depends heavily on composition.
The knowledge and skills that math teacher was seeking was how to visualize and compose artistically. He had already asked and answered the aforementioned question that started him moving away from taking snapshots, and toward making creative pictures.
Once you start thinking about how you would prefer your shots to look, you’ll likely also begin dedicating yourself to figuring out whatever you will need to do to achieve those much desired aesthetics. That’s thinking like an artist.
Now Henri Cartier-Bresson balked the notion that SP is art. He, originally a trained and practiced illustrator; a painter, believed that his photographs were merely knee-jerk but sometimes visceral reactions to fleeting occurrences that he just happened to bare witness to. Sometimes he was right about that. His famous “Man Jumping Over Puddle (1932)” is literally a lucky snapshot taken in which, purely on a whim, he put the little lens of his Leica up to a hole in a fence behind Paris’ Gare Saint-Lazare and pressed the shutter button. He had absolutely no idea that some poetically silhouetted guy was leaping over a huge puddle just then, at the perfect distance from his lens, on the other side of the fence.
On the other hand, when you read about how he spent so much of his life relentlessly pursuing aesthetics, and you see how his efforts manifested in the vast majority of his shots, it is clear that he frequently applied everything he knew about composition into his SP. That’s why his images are indeed art.
This goes to the heart of why SP is more sophisticated and challenging than taking snapshots, even though both are typically about candidness. When you’re out there in the public what you see is what you get. You have no control over the circumstances, and for SP’s sake you’re not suppose to acquire it. Those defining moments come and go in the timeframe of a fraction of a second to several seconds. In order to make aesthetically pleasing compositions of them you must think and act lightning fast with all of your compositional knowledge. Trust me, if you haven’t already experienced it, you will find that you miss photographing far more defining moments than those that you do capture. SP is that difficult. It is why many very successful street photographers have advised wide-eyed hopefuls, like me, to get out there and just keep shooting everything you see. Unfortunately, the unrestrained advice has lead to the notion and practice of literally shooting everything until you come up with an HCB-like lucky shot; the vast majority of which turning out to be clichéd snapshots.
It’s not that snapshots are bad. HCB proved that with that man jumping over that puddle, and some of the most popular photographs getting the most hits on the Internet are people’s snapshots of how they, their family members or friends looked when they were kids or how they dressed and styled their hair decades ago. These are quite interesting images, and that’s important. There comes a time; however, that you will have to ask yourself and answer the aforementioned question that will either keep you restricted to taking snapshots or moving on to making art.
I keep some of my snapshots to periodically remind me of what to avoid in order for me to reach my objectives. Some of them are what you see presented in this post for your considerations.
If you want to compose in SP start researching these subjects as a DIY course (most of these are applicable to film and digital photography):
- Holding the Camera and Marksman Shutter Release Techniques (especially for minimizing camera shake without using a tripod or monopod);
- The Exposure Triangle;
- The Sunny 16 Rule;
- Camera Aspect Ratios;
- The Zone (Metering) System;
- Zone Focussing;
- The Rule of Thirds;
- The Diagonal Method of Photographic Composition;
- Colour Theory and Application in Photography;
- White Balance (only for when shooting with digital compact mirrorless cameras that allow full manual settings, DSLR’s and large format digital cameras);
- Black and White Rules of Composition in Photography;
Each time you learn one of these compositional elements, take your camera out into the street and practice for one or two weeks getting familiar with just that element. Each week or two, add a new studying element to the practice. Learning composition this way will make the learning process F – U – N, and that pleasure of the experience will also help you in your creative endeavours.
Take time to study the work of various known and virtually unknown street photographers and photojournalists for inspiration as to what aesthetic qualities you might like to see in your SP. For those who have been famous or professionally successful, I highly recommend reading up on the following shooters, as well as scrutinizing their work. Don’t just seek out their thoughts on compositional technique but also what it is about life that impacts/impacted them on a personal level and consequently impacted their photography:
- Ansel Adams;
- Alfred Eisenstaedt;
- Bruce Weber;
- Gordon Parks;
- Hank Walker;
- Margaret Bourke-White;
- Leonard McCombe;
- Horace Bristol;
- Martha Holmes;
- John Bryson;
- Milton H. Greene;
- Peter Stackpole;
- Eliot Elisofon;
- Allan Grant;
- Eugene Smith;
- Ralph Morse;
- Joe McNally;
- Robert Capra;
- George Strock;
- Carl Mydans;
- Edward Clark;
- David Douglas Duncan;
- Larry Burrows;
- Bill Eppridge;
- Charles Moore;
- J.R. Eyerman;
- Andreas Feininger;
- Dimitri Kessel;
- Oscar Graubner;
- Charles Clyde Ebbets;
- George Silk;
- John Dominis;
- Patrick Lichfield;
- Grey Villet;
- Paul Schutzer;
- Bill Beall;
- Joe Munroe;
- Myron Davis;
- Loomis Dean;
- Al Fenn;
- Yale Joel;
- Ralph Crane;
- Philippe Halsman;
- Gjon Mili;
- Kevin Carter;
- George Brassaï; and
- Henri Cartier-Bresson.
What about flash photography? I don’t recommend applying strobe work to SP or RP for all sorts of reasons but it can be effective in some Urbex projects. Learning the techniques of On Camera and Off Camera Flash will take much more than a couple weeks but can be invaluable to your overall photography repertoire. Definitely seek out all that you can about this. Just don’t get dragged into the ongoing arguments between the “pro-lighting” and “Strobism” camps. Both have their pros and cons and the efforts to discredit one another is arrant nonsense.
What about Photoshop? Digital post-production is probably more appropriate in SP than when it’s applied to photojournalism (very controversial) but it is still to be used in a way that ensures that actually occurring circumstances in life are conveyed through images. This is why SP is recognized as a genre of documentary photography.
All photography is digital now. Even if you shoot film or analogue, the image will have to be digitized if it’s going to be processed in a modern lab, transported anywhere electronically or displayed anywhere by electronic means. One of the worst aspects of photography in the digital age is that viewers are more skeptical than ever that a fantastic looking photograph has been shot without digital special effects added. “Is that for real?” they might ask. “How much Photoshopping was really done with this? I’ll bet that never really happened that way.” This doubt also exists over contemporary SP in which little if any digital post-prod has been applied. So, it’s in your interest to Photoshop images as little as possible.
Learning post-prod techniques will also take considerably longer than a week or two, and there are many school courses, seminars, books, magazine articles and online tutorials for individual techniques to take advantage of depending on if you have Photoshop, a specific version, a related program or a competitive image editing program. Please bear in mind; nevertheless, that digital post-prod is not an absolute necessity. Most of the photographers I have listed above never used anything like Photoshop. At most, they worked in darkrooms with chemicals and light controlling apparatuses in order to achieve the final aesthetics they were after, and it’s their photography that we still drool over and learn from. I recommend learning post-prod as you go along.
It’s a good idea to also learn about digital camera modes (shooting in the JPEG or RAW file formats) when applying post-prod but again, don’t let yourself get bogged down in the argument between the pro-JPEG shooters and the pro-RAW shooters. Your creative objective is to find whatever works for you and leave the photography snob politics behind, unless you like that sort of thing.
Be very honest, if not critical, of your own work. Being that we’re in the digital world means that virtually everyone has some kind of camera, and is displaying pictures for all to see. If you don’t concentrate on making images that make people do double takes, then you’ll be the proverbial needle lost in the haystack. Continually compare what you’re producing to that which you have done in the past. If you can’t see improvement in your work, then you need to study composition more. The rest is just practicing to react faster to what you see in the field when applying what you’ve learned.
Don’t be impatient; it takes time; years for most of us but it’s worth it.