An Outsider's Take On Street Photography

As you probably know I no longer have any kind of on-line portfolio, gallery, or other web accessible way to see any of my photographic work. I haven't since about 2006 or 2007 - I forget. This came about through a personal crisis about my own photographic work and endeavors. I was absolutely lost in making images that I had absolutely no interest in making. That is what my love of photography had turned into. If I wasn't going to make money - I had no desire whatsoever to pick up a camera. When I did - I was absolutely sure that I was going to make images I didn't care about making in the least.

Somehow I had become amazingly proficient in making images that I had no desire to make nor any interest at all in the subject. A very bad place for someone to be who has had a love and passion for photographic endeavors since the age of 12. To cut to the chase - I took a little over two years off - made no images with a very very few exceptions - like images for eBay auctions. I did a reset - a complete reset and thought long and hard about what I loved about making images, what subject matter I cared about, what excited me about particular images, and most importantly why I might want to make any particular image in the first place.

I slowly started dipping my toe back in and was very careful to avoid the pitfalls that brought me to a point of such despair in the first place. Rule number one - understand why I am shooting a project in the first place and why I care. Rule number two - don't over define requirements for a particular project upfront with a corollary of allowing it to evolve up or down in scope in a more organic way. I have a habit of setting the scope of things so f'ing huge that my perspective is distorted towards worthless no matter what I actually accomplish at the end of it. Third and most important - at least for me and the way my gears grind - there is no consequences to quitting a project, changing my mind, abandoning, or completely rethinking my approach. None.

Since then I have started, quit, re-shaped, re-imagined, ditched , and even continued some serious work on a dozen or so photographic projects. A few of them satisfied me from an end product perspective. All of them put me in a much better place mindset wise and I now feel I have a reasonable grip on what I want to accomplish as a photographer going forward without fear or distraction or second guessing my intent or motivations. It may seem to be a long time for someone to get to something that is pretty simple but trust me - the technical part of this endeavor is easy. The mental part can be very difficult if you have spent serious time going down the wrong road.

This brings us to the topic of street photography. I don't consider myself a street photographer in any sense. That doesn't mean much because I don't even clearly understand what that term means. I don't think most people that consider themselves "street photographers" have a clear idea what that term means in any specific notion. Please do not interpret the previous statement as critical or pejorative - I don't mean it that way in the least and I am absolutely not at all concerned with any type of "correctness" when trying to communicate, it tends to muddy my thoughts too much.

Why in the world would someone like me publish anything about street photography? The simple answer is that in my own photographic vision quest I happen to be drawn to a fair number of photographers and photographic communities that consider themselves belonging to said category. Not for any social aspects, not for any marketing aspects, and for the most part not even for reasons of subject matter. The critical phrases here are "for the most part" and "subject matter". The photographers that fit into that strange street photography category that I am drawn to - a large portion being japanese, a few european, a brit here or there, and a bunch of americans that - have some degree of focus or theme and present work in a context rather than as some sort of individual "trophies" that have no relationship whatsoever and have no overarching message, story or meaning.

Conversely I love looking at work and am inspired by a lot of photographers that would not identify themselves as street photographers in any way - nor do they "travel" in the same street photography circles. The reasons I am attracted to these non-street photographers' work happens to be the same as for the street photographers' work that I like and I follow. Subject matter, context, story, and aesthetics.

At nearly a thousand words in - sorry for all the context - long but necessary - I will get to the heart of the matter. My observations, recommendations, and random thoughts on "street photography" from an outsider's point of view. Caveat - most of my personal work and project endeavors could now be considered street photography even though the location is not literally in the street. Well some of it is but it is of the same subject matter shot in the same way for the same reasons street or no street. The following observations are not intended for consumption if "street photography" is some sort of social endeavor for you as it seems to be to many. While highly opinionated it has nothing to do with my own aesthetics just some truths that I have found for myself over a few decades and a very long period of photographic introspection shared with the greatest intent to help illuminate - not as any sort of criticism or judgement. Here goes…

  • There is a lot of focus on "reacting quickly" everything from techniques, gear, etc. Being able to react to an event technically is all fine and dandy and quicker is always better = truism. Reaction time is a distant second to preparation and vision and time spent with your chosen subject. Yea there are a handful of photographers that seem to work only this way throughout history but for the most part just walking around reacting to random-ness with random intent is kind of pointless for most meaningful work on a given subject matter. Heck most of the "heros" identified by "street photographers" don't randomly walk around and just react to some random event quickly and then walk away to another different random event. Might be good "practice" for shooting a real subject but not likely to be satisfying in the long term. For most photographers I would guess they would be better served with more time on each subject rather than less as long as they have some idea why they are producing work in the first place. I know I just pissed a lot of people off but please read on - balance is everything.
  • Level of interaction with the subject - this is a tough one and always hotly debated. I choose to abstain from absolutes here but I will say that it depends. If you spend 13 seconds anywhere near your subject I would say they are not really a subject at all. If you spend a day or a week or a month with your subject then there are going to be great shots with a lot of interaction and great shots with zero interaction. In fact you are far more likely to produce more meaningful zero interaction shots the more time you spend on any particular subject. That day or week or hour does not have to be consecutive. I can be spread out where each interaction or lack thereof is only 30 seconds - just food for thought.
  • discretion - discreetness - permission - etc etc etc. All very hot topics of debate among "the community". Let's change the whole paradigm for a minute as all that crap can be argued validly for all the right and wrong reasons. Here is the bottom line - you have to be extremely honest with your own intent for what you are trying to do. I see a lot of this focus on being discreet as more a self rationalization and back door into what some photographers actually want to be doing. If for what you really want to shoot, you are too scared - too shy - or just don't have the time to gain access to you are screwed and on a path to nowhere. Access can be astonishingly difficult - it can take a long long time to get. It can take even longer to develop once you have it. This is tough but probably the most worthwhile thing you can do for your own photography - screw fucking around on-line chit-chatting about how to take images discreetly if what you really want is access to a scene, a person, a group, a community - whatever. Trust me on this. If you are serious and passionate about a particular subject there is no other way to produce meaningful work. No circumventing this fact with discreet shooting - it's a fallacy - a placebo maybe - it might even fool you that when you somehow get discreet enough you circumvent the access issue. When I really looked at subject matter I wanted to shoot in the way I wanted to shoot it this part was the hardest, scariest thing to do - not because of any physical danger, at least not yet. I thought it would be easy because I have shot so many different subjects that most people just can't with ease (trust me here ) - not so - somebody else got me access either explicitly or implicitly. Being a stranger in a strange land is difficult.
  • This is a bit off-topic but strangely relevant in my opinion. A shout out via twitter came asking for "most inspirational books for street photography" kind of thing. I am going to give my answer here as I did to the shout out. It will seem strange - it is strange. I come from a completely different planet than most amateurs or pros that could possibly be considered documentary or street photographers. Here are two people that you should look at as inspirational to your street photography/documentary photography - whatever you want to label it. I won't even attempt to explain why in this post. If anyone cares I will try to explain some other day but trust me when I say there is a TON in caps and bold that any "street photographer" can learn visually from these two guys especially Sieff's early stuff and All of Newton. Take some time and be open minded but here they are. Jeanloup Sieff and Helmut Newton. Don't react and don't dismiss me as some sort of idiot or lunatic - just look and look hard not the usual 5 second internet glance. Nope not gonna recycle the ol' grand-daddies of street photography.
  • Lots-o-pictures does not equal better chances for meaningful images if your intent is a deep dive look at a particular subject. Sure if you have no idea what you want to shoot and what you want is a random trophy here and there then taking 1000 images in a day will net you a more reasonable chance of grabbing something "you can be proud of". So will 10,000 in the same time period. The real equation is not number of shots it's time spent. Yes yes yes yes - serendipity plays a role in all photography that involves humans as subject matter. Not my point at all. I am not at all saying not to shoot a lot of images frequently - do what floats your boat but let's just do an artificial little experiment here. Let's say you have a fixed number of images - how about 1000. What's going to net you better work - 1000 all shot in one day - or let's be ridiculous for illustration how about 1000 images in an hour vs 1000 images in a year? Now let's focus those thousand images on the same subject - how does that equation work out. Better work with a 1000 images in an hour or a year? Hopefully you get my "time with subject matter and focus" point - I am not talking about some sort of hero shit that shooting less makes you better - More time = better in most cases. Unfortunately digital does nothing to help you out here… Not talking about stumbling upon someone getting shot in the head and accidentally making that one iconic shot of a lifetime - whole different ball game. I am talking about most real work for most people. To really bring this home I will reverse that a bit - you will be far more likely to make the iconic person shot in the head shot if you spend more time with subjects likely to get shot in the head than if you take a 1000 images today of someone that eventually will get shot in the head. Okay - horse = dead.

Damn it - two thousand words. I have more observations but we'll see if this is enough to get me kicked out of the talking to and being friends with anyone that does "street photography" club before I share more.


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