The evolution of street photography

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Self reflection.

My initial idea for this post was to examine where street photography is going today; on further reflection, I think it’s perhaps more a question of addressing some overdone stereotypes perpetrated by camera collectors and social media warriors – not photographers – to see if we can get a bit more understanding into a) why those stereotypes exist, and b) if we want to produce visually different and better work, what needs to change. Read on, but only if you don’t believe everything should be shot from close range and monochrome contrast is solely binary.

It is worth remembering that an image reflects the photographer as much as it is about the subject. Think of these images from a social commentary standpoint: what does it say that what the masses consider ‘good’ street photography involves: aggressive invasions of personal space, fascination with the homeless and disadvantaged, capturing people in unflattering poses at non-representative instants (often wrongly interpreted as ‘the decisive moment’) and generally sloppy shot discipline (tilts, focus misses, unintentional motion blur, clipped exposures, etc.). There is also an obsession with black and white only; not just that, but black and white with only two tonal values: black, and white. And don’t get me started on those images that have no obvious subject other than a road. All I can add to this is one should really look at the work of those handing out the evaluations: it’s not easy to put forth an objective criticism of something without allowing personal biases to enter.

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Breaking the circle

I think part of the problem is that it’s much easier to copy the obvious attributes of images that are shouted about by people who are loud (but do not necessarily have anything worth listening to) than to actually identify why the initial interest in the genre existed. HC-B and co were recording and documenting life, not specifically going out to make high contrast images of homeless people with a wide angle lens. More often than not you’ll see that the decisive moments are instants of timing that created both balance and encapsulated an action or an idea, not a funny face. Very few images invaded personal space without good reason. But because of the lack of philosophical reflection, all that’s really been perpetuated are the technical characteristics of these images which were nothing more than limitations or workarounds as a consequence of the desired output in the first place*.

*Black and white because color films were very limited or nonexistent. Grain because fast shutter speeds were required to freeze motion, and ‘fast’ films were grainy; motion blur because ‘fast’ films weren’t always fast enough. Wide angles to make shooting hyperfocal easier, and to bring down the required shutter speeds. I think you can see my point; there is little legitimate reason for most of this today given the enormous latitude of modern equipment.

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Looming threat

I’ve now done more than my fair share of criticising the current status quo. It’s time for me to play fair and put my position on the table. I believe the reason why most of the images that fell into one or more of the first seven categories were initially interesting when they were first seen is contained precisely in this sentence. Again: when they were first seen. At the time, it was a new and exciting perspective and presentation and some of the characteristics of this kind of photography were consequential limitations of execution. Grain, for instance, was not for the sake of grain: it was because fast shutter speeds were required, and that was the tradeoff you had to deal with.

Now that we’ve seen the same fundamental structure of image and arrangement of subjects and tonal presentation millions of times, they’ve become the complete opposite: repetitive unexceptional stereotypes that everybody has seen before. My objective is to make images that are different and pleasing to me. I see absolutely no need to make the same images again, nor do I see how an image of that style and subject will end up with a different visual outcome.

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Implied intimacy

I have been repeatedly criticised by supposed ‘experts’ in the genre who think that I’m not close enough to my subjects, I’m not wide enough, my monochrome images don’t have enough contrast…et cetera. But frankly, it doesn’t matter because I’m not trying to make a cliche to fit their expectations. I’m trying to see what additional intellectual interest and story we can add to a candid image. It’s less ‘street photography’ and more ‘reporting on life’. Getting closer is not a solution: the amount of context diminishes. Going wider is not a counterbalancing option, either: the relative prominence of foreground subject and background context is disrupted and may not be in the initially desired balance. No man is an island and we all operate as part of a much larger environment; I believe ‘reporting on life’ should be at least partially reflective of that. Images should not be invasive out of respect for the subject and the details they would prefer to keep private; similarly, as the world increases, so does the ‘personal anonymity’ of an individual: we want to be recognized, but not warts and all.

The upshot is that I need to consider images with a much greater scale or sweep; the more macro-context, the better. This must come with a longer focal length so that the contextual elements remain in balance with the subject. As a result, the focus of the image is less about the individual and more about what that individual could represent; a sort of Everyman. Facial expressions are far less critical because they’re less obvious; body language still matters, but this eases up on the criticality of timing. It is a photograph to encapsulate an era rather than a single instant.

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Escape for the day

Context, balance, Everyman, wider timing – this then becomes an image that is really an extension of an idea, and a mood. To the former, we pay attention to the individual secondary elements to ensure that they are not only not distracting, but also contribute to the overall idea. Whilst mood can be established by quality, quantity and directionality of light for black and white, there’s no reason not to use color: to me, some of the most evocative images of an era are really defined by their color palettes; think faded, odd-color neg of the 70s, Kodachrome of the 80s, Velvia of the 90s, and sadly the HDR of early digital to the stylistic overfiltered mishmash of today. It would clearly be a shame to use monochrome unless one specifically wanted that feeling of timelessness – and it would of course have to be central to the idea.

Of course, none of this is really new ground: personal stylistic evolution is a process, not an overnight binary change. The last two photoessays I posted on the people of Prague are in my mind, a mature evolved state of what I envision social commentary could be. It is both a record of impressions gained through observation of a place and people, and hopefully a more balanced view than a single (not necessarily fair or representative) instant. It layers in philosophical questions suggested by secondary subjects and titles, and should still be different enough to yield immediate visual impact. It is a commentary on the idea of man: what is it to be human in this day and age? There are few to no identifiable individuals, not because I can’t photograph people at close range (I do, and usually now engage them socially first) because the individual makes the story exceptional rather than universal. It is the idea that it could be you riding your moped to the end of the pier to fish for an afternoon, not a specific stereotype of personality.  Street photography is social documentary, and a record of both the scene/subject and our interpretation of it; the real questions we should be asking are: what about life now do we want to remember? And more importantly, how do we want to be remembered? MT

This article is populated by images from The Idea of Man project.

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Comments

  1. Hi Ming,
    It might sound counterintuitive and overstated but it seems to me that we are currently in the midst of the visual dark ages, and thus comes to no surprise that street photography also has been affected by a legion of stereotypical anthropological pseudo-elements that disengage from reality. ‘More’ is not better; also, form can never replace or encapsulate substance and meaning. Ironically, the photographic “industry” (wondering whether the quotes should be removed by now) promotes and endorses people who, as you said, typically criticise your approach because, among other things, perhaps, [your approach] does not focus on exploiting the depiction of suffering and perversion. Form, however catchy it may be, is no more than what a wrapping is to a gift, and gifts do not really need wrapping; just the appropriate box to keep them safe until delivery. Goethe’s Faust put it well that if you have something valuable to say there is no need for fancy words.
    Happy New Year,

  2. Good piece Ming. It strikes me that ‘street’ photography is a catch-all phrase for pretty much anything that’s shot in an urban environment: reportage, documentary, social commentary, architecture. That’s a pretty broad brush.

    Street photographers like Garry Winogrand were prepared to get their hands dirty – they became part of the scene, not just an observer; they opened up a window and invited the viewer to share in the discomfort (often) of the lives of people about whom they would otherwise know very little. This tradition continues with documentary photography – war and famine being at the most extreme. For this type of photography you need subject matter and the willingness to go where others fear to tread (excuse the cliche). You’re simply not going to find this sort of subject matter by simplygoing out for an afternoon stroll with your camera.

    This is NOT criticism, but I’m struck by a sense of isolation in your ‘street’ images. One is captioned ‘Implied intimacy’, but it says the opposite to me – two people lost in a concrete world with nothing to connect them other than the accident of being a father and son. The other of the man with a plastic bag reminds me of a Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime’ and the line… “…And you may ask yourself, Well… How did I get here?” (It’s a great song, if you don’t know it.)

    Your piece crystalised my view that (whatever their style) 99% of street photographers merely pretend to shine a light on the human condition, while in most cases they’re not even prepared to scrape under the surface. I put you in the 1% who dig deeper.

    • I still believe the very best street work is documentary/reportage in itself, distinguished by capturing and preserving a moment that is perhaps not of intrinsic significance to a large audience but potentially of interest. No, you’re not going to find a war (hopefully not, at any rate) during your afternoon stroll – but you can still find little stories.

      The isolation is deliberate. I do and have gotten deeper, but this theme I feel is something I have not fully explored to my satisfaction yet. It is part of the greater ‘idea of man’ direction I have been working on; despite the increase in connectivity we are choosing instead to retreat into our own little virtual worlds. We see this in life and we experience it ourselves. Why not document it too, much as the newspaper-reading individual at the cafe was evocative of another time? They may well have been the cellphones of the ’30s.

      • I agree, you can find little stories on your stroll around town, but I think the deceit (photographers both kidding themselves and others that their work has ‘value’) is that their pictures don’t actually tell that story. In which case, the images might have personal value, but don’t offer much to any audience other than the photographer him/herself.

        Visually and intellectually, I do like your ‘idea of man’ approach. For me, it chimes with a certain feeling that often we’re outsiders in a world that is being created for us and over which we have very little control. I guess a by-product of that is what you refer to as our virtual worlds – places where we feel we feel we do belong and do feel valued. Isolation is one thing, but quite how one reflects this ‘hidden society’ in visual terms is something of a challenge.

        ATB, K.

        • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the images having value to only the photographer – this should be of primary importance anyway if the photographer is both artist and client – but yes, the disconnect is probably one of ability/understanding as much as popular culture deeming certain types of images ‘acceptable’ or ‘street’.

          The ‘hidden society’ is temporal, ethereal, and my guess – conspicuous by tangible absence. People are transitory, not individual (look at how trolls behave online, for instance) and self-absorbed or alone. The individual is no longer well-defined because of group identity and the desire to fit in; relatively, they are unimportant or small compared to the environment. Do you think this makes sense?

          • I agree, there’s nothing wrong with the photographer producing work that is only of value to himself – it’s the deceit and pretension that sub-standard work has any value beyond that, that I question.

            I would say the hidden society is far from intangible – quite the opposite. Research shows that a significant percentage of the ‘digital generation’ (those who’ve grown up with the internet) cannot tell the difference between news and advertising. In western society, the danger for the individual is of being consumed by a culture – led largely by politicians and the more influential corporations – that offers both the illusion of individuality and membership of an exclusive group. The tangible effects of the hidden society are online trolls building up such huge resentments that they arm themselves and commit mass murder, without considering consequences, simply to make themselves heard, or famous.

            On a more cheerful note, I’m pretty optimistic for the human race. There’s evidence that parents are steering their kids away from their tablets (devices… erm, not pills) towards more wholesome activities. I also think it’s a great time for artists – and that the arts will have an ever increasing role to play in people’s well-being… to reflect, analyse, criticise, shed light on the issues that challenge us as human beings.

            Anyway, that’s enough of a workout for the brain for one morning. Time to take the dog for a walk, make a cup of tea, talk to my wife… y’know, real stuff.

            Nice chatting anyway Ming. It’s a BIG subject, but it beats ‘what lens do you recommend for my…’ 😉

            • Could the inability to differentiate also be because the boundaries between the two are slowly eroding? It is no longer clear what is objective content and what has been sponsored; if anything, the ‘new’ content-driven business model almost requires some degree of bias in order to make it the economics viable. I consciously avoid this because a) I have other income and b) it defeats the point of aiming to be objective.

              Certainly, increased awareness of the arts and creativity in both human well-being and long term evolution of society is helping things – though again I suspect this is because disruptive innovation is also highly lucrative and therefore encouraged. I see this as a platform to keep us able to create and live and hopefully still change things for the better.

              I’m certainly trying to keep my daughter away from the electronics for as long as possible though…

              • ‘… I suspect this is because disruptive innovation is also highly lucrative and therefore encouraged.’

                Creative it may be, but I wouldn’t confuse disruptive innovation with the arts.

                Tangent. Talk about the influence of the media and large corporations. I’m just about to drop my wallet on some Fuji primes. After a flirtation with a D810 that lasted precisely 15 minutes (not sure why it took me so long) I’m back with my spiritual family… at least that’s what Fuji would have me believe… how ironic. Chuckle.

                • Creativity is the common link between the two. You can’t have art without creativity and you can’t have disruptive innovation without it, either.

                  It’s ironic because my flirtations have gone precisely the opposite direction.

  3. G’day Ming,

    I enjoyed reading your comments on your ‘style’ and how and why you like to shoot the streets. I also enjoy looking at some of your street work, when I see it.

    Even though I find much of the work I see as totally distasteful, horrible, and invasive, by self styled street photographers – I don’t agree or accept your judgments, because that is exactly what they are. You have a pre-disposition that you are weighing things against, and therefore judging the status quo from.

    If we are following a projection of someone else’s idea’s then we will be in a position where we judge everything else from this limited viewpoint.

    I found this post by Michael Earnest Sweet below which I wrote the following response, I’m posting here as there seems to be this trend of people slating others:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-ernest-sweet/street-photography-has-no_b_7842038.html?fb_comment_id=939988722726501_940652362660137&comment_id=940652362660137#f286992268

    ‘I see this article as a projection of Michael’s own mind and philosophy. I did the same thing he has suggested he does, looked at his portfolio and guess what, I saw the same boring, copied, crap I see from every other “Street Photographer”. Sounds to me, just feeling the energy of the post that it is Michael, whom is the one that is jealous of others. The thing is Michael, why are you trying to dis people for the effort to be creative, are you some authority or Photography Police out there, coursing through the Flickr galleries saying, ahh.. another shit photo. Howsz about encouraging people to not follow the crowd, find their own place and creativity. To be honest, I’d encourage you to do the same, your ‘following’ the ideas of the masters from 2 generations ago – just like most other people. It is replicated. This is not the first article out there dissing other photographers. With art my friend, there are no rules, no ego, no thought, it simply is. I think the largest mistake is that people, just like you, are following others down a well-trodden path of repetition, trying to find some resonance with 2 seconds of fame. Any interpretation on art takes away from the original meaning that can never be put into words. Avoid following, avoid repetition, and be creative, that’s the highest of aspiration we can be, in the now. The fact that you suggest documenting some ‘thing’ is a higher level of photography is another judgement, which again, takes away from our ability to observe the outer condition with clear discernment. Bottom line mate, try and be original.’

    Bottom line, I see many people are just copying and regurgitating someone else’s work. We need to be careful in alienating entire genre’s of people, perhaps they are moving through this and searching for their own style, in the end ‘this’, is what it’s all about.

    Keep shooting,
    Jeremy
    abstractionsdephoto.com

    • I’m not jealous of anybody. I’m stating I don’t like a) the repeated themes, b) the lack of originality, and c) the lack of thought that goes into a lot of so-called ‘street images’ – including my own earlier work. I have defined my own direction and am attempting to explain it. I think that’s perfectly justified given it’s also my site…

      • I’m’ not suggesting, nor suggested ‘your’ jealous, I put the link to Michael’s article as a link to similar people slating of other photographers.

        If you read what I’m saying; perhaps we should think in terms of evolving group consciousness rather than judging it, by our perceived pre-determined position.

        If where judging others, the wheel turns.

        I agree with many points you wrote, but my perspective is different, and that’s ok.

        Personally I’d like to see other comments in which share there own thoughts not follow yours, that way it’s more fulfilling.

    • Mr Thein has expressed in his reply to my comment, his post may be considered “an evolution of personal vision” (towards what street photography and its evolution is). I can say Mr Thein at least has a vision and expresses it with his pictures.
      I agree with many points in Michael’s article. There is an army of hungry, selfish, jealous and uncertain street shooters who wander the streets and produce millions of mediocre street shots. The interesting work is buried in that garbage. Curated groups on flickr (which almost never accept my shots – is that a bad sign, BTW?) try to filter out the notable images. These groups however seem to favor particular visual language… body parts sticking out of the sky or many shadow silhouettes I am sick of.
      What makes image strong is its impact, expressed in an artful way. Is it at least funny, or there a message, a interesting story, an emotion, a cognitive friction?. This term is borrowed from this brilliant article https://juanjosereyes.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/the-five-levels-of-street-photography/). Read it, read it now!
      No help will come from these groups or the renowned street masters from flickr, 500px or alike to stop that army. Rather, everyone must to find a way to pick his best and discard the rubbish. If you keep producing trash after years of shooting – sorry, this art is not for you. Move on. BTW, Michael is at least a good writer 😉 .
      The above article at least offers a selection system towards street photography that is worthy of one’s consideration for real.
      Let us all find such system for ourselves.

      -Mike
      https://www.flickr.com/photos/128900737@N08/

      • G’day Mike,

        I don’t personally accept another’s viewpoint on how one should or should not be shooting, otherwise we follow, repeat, and regurgitate what others are doing.

        To me, this is why talented shooters aren’t accepted into these so called Flickr galleries, they’re not following the herd. That’s the way it’s probably always been.

        Definitely when we all see a good image it resonates within us. When I go to a gallery or look at an artists work, I can say that I don’t think of style, technical details, etc, it is totally absorbing, to, ‘me’ that’s what a great photo is.

        Surely we need to be careful judging and dissing entire genre’s of shooters, though, no matter how justified we maybe, or perceive we are, in our thinking.

        If it’s an evolution of a personal vision, as you suggested, and we are all evolving at our own rate of speed, why judge others for the same thing?

        Perhaps they just picked up a Ricoh GR, or spent some cash on nice Fuji etc, for the first time took and took a few shots which they’re very pleased with, only to be flogged for it?

      • Hi Mike, there’s more hack bloggers out there than shooters, lots more 😬

  4. Johnson Cheung says:

    I enjoyed this article. I believe in the socio-documentary aspects of street photography – I enjoy pictures of people with priceless expressions (like some of Doisneau, Capa). In a way, though, any accomplished photographer can take this kind of pictures. These are great photographs is 50% vision/ 50% showing up at the right place at the right time.

    For street photographs to become works of art, it requires a higher degree of input from the photographer as an artist. It implies recognising patterns or structures in the scene, waiting for the right moment, and choosing the best angle or motion blur, on top of the basic execution skills. A lot of HCB’s pictures have this creative aspect and are timeless for this reasons. (incidentally when I first saw your B&W photo of the woman in Sydney, I associate it with his Gare du Nord for the structural overtones). Unfortunately HCB was also limited by technical short comings of his time (or maybe he deliberately chooses these parameters, it does not matter).

    Now that we have color photography, incredibly high ISOs and even flash capability, fantastic lens, we should move beyond what HCB and other greats in the past have explored. This doesn’t mean what they do isn’t a nice sub-set that is still worth doing.

    • Thanks Johnson. I actually think our vision adapts to both hardware and ‘end goal’ – think about the difference between pre-Hanoi and post-Hanoi, for instance. I bet you’re now looking for things to put in between you and the subject! There is definitely merit to following the past masters: if nothing, learning control and technique and why an image works (or doesn’t). These are all necessary if one is to create and evolve his or her own vision.

      By the way – I don’t think it’s Sydney as I’ve never photographed there 🙂

  5. Mr. Tien,

    In another article, you express your views on what the street photography is and conclude it is generally about “reporting on life”. In this article, you go step further and express how this reporting on life could be done.

    Instead of going wide and close, invading personal space and capturing disturbing images, let us rather from the distance report life with carefully chosen environmental details. There is also some noise about B&W or not, hight contrast or not, but this is the scoop.

    In your view such transition must represent the evolution of street photography and further promote its the reporting nature. The attached images complement this view, being well composed observations of some human figures in different environment settings.

    Even a skilled photographer with perfect sense of light and composition may not produce good street pictures. Why? because street photography is a special kind and its hard. Why is it hard? because the challenge of it is to create images that not only capture a candid situation in an aesthetically pleasing way, but to tell an interesting story and interact with the viewer’s psyche, causing a range of emotions – surprise, distress, confusion, sadness, laughter and so on.

    Is there an evolution there? There is and its in further developing the photographic language used for the street. And the modern instruments of photography help.

    While the fathers of the street photography used a normal wide to 50 mm setup, a modern generation uses a wide array of smaller frame cameras with prime as well as short to medium zoom lenses. Everyone eventually picks the rig that suits his style and budget. The new toolset makes capturing technically challenging images move approachable. Wider DR, faster shutter, flash, multiple exposures and alike extend the opportunities to a wider range or shooters. General availability of good cameras has helped emergence of many interesting photographers who dare to take photographic language for shooting the street to a new level.

    There is another side of this modernization. General availability of decent inexpensive cameras has also helped producing many “street photographer” wannabes. Mediocre images with people in a street setting have polluted the internet. It has become hard to find interesting images just due to the volume if so called street shots.

    These developments do not change what the street photography is. While everyone needs to answer how he relates to street photography individually, its definition exists outside of us and must remain pure, especially now.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/128900737@N08/

  6. I don’t see much of the “street photography is a wide angle on Leica up close”. In fact, I most of what I see on “street” is articles a lot like this one, which boils down to “street photography is whatever I personally want it to be”.

    On the one hand, I am not a prescriptive linguist, if the meaning of a word changes, so be it. On the other hand, in modern terms, “street photography” doesn’t mean anything it all. It is basically the opposite of “fascist” which just means “bad person”, it means nothing more than “whatever I do, which is totally cool”.

    It’s depressing to see words lose their meaning.

    Just because a genre was defined in part by the technical limitations of its time doesn’t mean they’re not part of the genre. It’s a smooth bit of rhetoric, but fallacious, to dismiss “B&W and grainy” as mere technical limitations.

    • I think you’re missing the point. There may be a lot of people who say ‘it’s whatever I do’, but look at the images. They follow the same few stylistic traits because that’s been subconsciously drilled in. Few challenge this.

  7. interesting article Ming and some nice tasteful images as well.
    I’m not much into what is typically defined as street photography but one artist who at least to me redefined what the word can mean is decorcia. some of the most inspiring “street photography” i’ve ever seen. he mixes studio and fashion techniques but uses the street as a set to produce some fascinating images.
    keep it up….

    • He does have some interesting work but I believe uses set lighting, and is perhaps less candid and more like ‘found backdrop’?

      • from what i have read he typically chooses a “set” on the street, sets up his lighting (mounted flash, etc) and camera (large format for the most part i would guess) but the actual human participants are largely chosen from people who wander into the “set”.
        since many street shooters certainly have their “favorite spots” that they return to repeatedly i suppose it’s debatable as to whether dicorcia’s street stuff is or isn’t “street photography” (he also obviously does fully set up shots in studios or chosen locations using paid models, etc that can be clearly defined as NOT street photography). for me the results are more interesting than parsing strict definitions tho…and they certainly are beautiful and intriguingly ambiguous images.

  8. Thank. You.

  9. Hi Ming, I notice that you did not correct the skewed horizon in the last photo ‘Escape for the day’. May I know your rationale for doing so in capture and/or post-processing? In general when should one not correct for skewed horizons and verticals?

    • Easy – the pier ran down to the right; I left it in because I wanted to have that subtle draw towards the figure; otherwise I generally always correct horizontals, and usually verticals. It’s all about directing the flow of the viewer’s eyes through the image 🙂

  10. I love the shadows on the couple leaving the slideway. Street photography can be “the pleasure of seeing” in an urban setting.

  11. Good article, its funny in the last few days I’ve been doing the exact opposite of what he says. I’ve been experimenting with using small apertures and hyperfocal focus with a old 28mm wide lens at high iso. I’m living in a crowded environment (Manila) and want to show individuals among the chaos by making them relatively big in the frame, instead of trying to nail the focus and letting depth of field separate them.

    To me really good images have at “it” factor work less on an intellectual level than a more basic level and are timeless. Taste and fashion are good for the more marginal images. Of course the really good ones are few and far between.

  12. An interesting read!

    Of the “four things” you often allude to as being the components of a successful image, maybe certain genres stress one “thing” more than others, and with street, it seems to be that this “thing” is clearly the message. This whole essay seems to be suggesting that a good street photograph needs a good message (“the picture alludes to the ambiguity of x,y,z”, etc), more so than does a good landscape (“here is a landscape. It is pretty!”).

    I would back this idea up by saying that if one was in a “street photography” setting, however one defines that, and had a great moment happen, camera to hand, but the light wasn’t very good, one may very well still shoot, right? Whereas if you had a stunning mountain vista opening up in front of you but it was a dull, grey day, you might well NOT shoot because a huge part of a good landscape picture is in the light.

    Interestingly, I’ve found recently that when I’m in an urban area and I’m taking pictures, there are elements which help the picture but of which I’m not aware until I review the picture afterwards. An example would be a picture of a girl about to cross the road. She is standing a particular way. Something makes me want to take the shot and then later, when I open it up on the computer, I notice another person in the background standing in exactly the same way – yet I didn’t consciously see that when I took the shot. As well as this, the girl has a design on her bag which is similar to the design of the shop across the road. Now this happening once might be considered a coincidence, but I’ve noticed these things several times recently. It’s almost as if my subconscious is seeing things and prompting me to shoot…the shot in particular, if I will be forgiven the self-promotion, is here…

    http://tinypic.com/r/w9wja0/8

    I’d never claim it to be a particularly good shot, but it’s an example of what I mentioned about the subconscious seeing things before we notice them consciously. Were it not for the other girl standing the same way, it would be an entirely pointless picture.

    Hope this doesn’t come across as a hijack – a good thread on here is always worth the time to read!

    • Agh. I tried it just to be sure and that link doesn’t seem to work…oh well, sorry for the bad link.

    • No, the ‘things’ I’m looking for are abstract elements rather than subject elements – light is subject independent, for instance. The problem is as you say: street photography is both too defined (“must have people in urban environment”) and too loose (“there’s a road!”).

      Your image link worked for me – I see what you mean about the similarity in pose, though I’d have come lower and more to the right to put the two figures closer together and hopefully eliminate some of the extra unnecessary stuff around the edges.

      Perhaps it all boils down to the evolution of a genre: men with hats and newspapers were the previous generation’s people on smartphones of today. Does this mean people on phones is bad? Not necessarily, it’s probably just a sign of the times – which in fifty or a hundred years will undoubtedly change again.

  13. Draw a Venn diagram of “street” photographers and people who write with exclamation points; the intersection is depressing.

    You are essentially a still life photographer. The surveillance camera in shot #3 is brilliant.

  14. For the past week I’ve been watching YouTube videos of Robert Frank. His book “The Americans” was shot down when it came out but over time people have now renamed it one of the greatest photo books ever printed. Then, the great photographer Ernst Haas, decided to do a similar book called, ” In America.” Time for Ming to do his version. A good third attempt would seal his legacy!

  15. Very insightful article. I know you’re not the biggest fan of McCurry but I can’t help seeing similarities: either he presents people in a wider context, not focusing so much on any individual but trying to show how people live, or makes honest portraits that try to capture the personalities. You could probably say the same for most professionals who do documentary work. Unsurprisingly National Geographic hasn’t switched over to high-contrast monochrome yet 😉

    • Actually, his new work seems to be a lot better than the old stuff – perhaps a little more ordered, a little more structured; overall, I like. Much better than the last roll of Kodachrome, at any rate 🙂

  16. Many thanks Ming, for this authoritative and thoughtful essay.. and for putting into words ideas/concepts that I am sure many of us have been struggling with intellectually for a while. I have felt for a long time ‘mood’ is key to what makes for a great photograph. Regards Drew

  17. Hi Ming, great post and well said. With so many options its easy to over stylize shots (I have been guilty of this), but as you say its important to know why the shot needs to look a certain way, rather than following a perceived social ‘norm’.

  18. I like to judge the success of a photograph in terms of how much I react to it. Some by Gary Winogrand leave me stunned (in a good way) the sloppy compositions notwithstanding. But they work for me, and that is key. It’s all a very personal thing. Others can leave me feeling indifferent, including many by HCB (his portraits are mediocre, IMHO). But one can argue that Winogrand’s hit ratio is pretty low, given his prodigious output. Looking at more contemporary photographers, I do love the work of Joseph Holmes.

    • Winogrand just needed to curate more – perhaps part of the problem is a) somebody else did his curation and b) there was no iterative learning as a lot of his film went undeveloped and unviewed by the creator – this means there’s no feedback/development cycle, but on the other hand, a surprising amount of consistency over a long period of time.

  19. Well, one point of view. There’s plenty of great work out there of many forms. Color, BW, faded, high contrast, whatever. What’s important is, I guess, WORK, as in: working to develop a unity of vision and apply it, hopefully, to meaningful subjects. Meaningful to YOU. Then, and only then, perhaps, your work will resonate with others. Fashion changes, but Armani remains Armani. Like it, not like it. Just avoid the polar opposites of sloppiness and snobbery.

    • Absolutely: if you’re not developing your own point of view, you’ll hit a creative dead end. To some that may not matter, to others, well, what’s the point of doing somebody else’s work? 🙂

  20. stric75 says:

    This is spot on. The term “street photography” is misleading to an extent and I dislike it because it has become nothing but an attribute for aimless copying of the works of the photography’s greats such as HC-B. I prefer “social documentary”. As such, photography should assume a different role and hopefully triger a response among viewers different than a “like” on some sort of social media.

    • Or worse, it’s now just come to mean ‘random snapshots of nothing while out walking in an urban area’. Even if one could copy HC-B, that time is past…the obsession with social media is puzzling as it’s not as though that does anything other than reinforce the photographer’s ego.

      • Random ‘people walking in the street’ shots are what they are: the photographic equivalent of the shopping bag debris of a plastic society. Unfortunately, in order to discover gems in the social media pile, you have to go through a lot of smelly crap. But gems exist, and are worth digging for…

  21. Ming this post is so ‘On The Money’ thank you for posting as it has triggered much thought in my own mind that has been brewing for a while.

    My thoughts:
    So what is going through the mind of the Street Photographer, self satisfaction, the using of a tool, documenting scene or a moment, or the need to post for LIKES ?

    Street Photogs on the social media circuit at some point have produced great work hence their following, but they have set rods for their own backs. Feeling the pressure to produce, they are now churning out more images that say Nothing IMHO. I follow many ‘Street’ blogs and +Google pages many of which exclusively B & W, I am brainwashed into thinking these styles represent the genre, and mainly they do because that is all im seeing.

    Its like people have no confidence in their own work for it to stand on its own. They resort to following the trend, and using the grainy film high contrast look to add drama to what would be a lifeless image.

    What Is The Photo For?
    A pleasing piece of eye candy while on coffee break vying for popularity on an ever broadening social media leader board or part of a work that does not come to fruition until it has matured.

    Imagine creating your own body of work, you wouldn’t broadcast it until it was complete it would end up with its own inherent style.
    On the other hand “Street Photography” in the context of ‘social media high contrast mono chrome’ is an online collective/instant body of work that Photogs add to daily. It is what it is and will burn itself out through waning interest. (probably wont, to prove me wrong) It has little in the way of regulation to the point where the big names are posting utter rubbish, getting hundreds of LIKES in a self perpetuating circle.

    It has to be for your own interest, I cannot develop my own style if I constantly broadcast my images (im only just discovering this). I just end up with a hotch potch. Projects are where im heading watch this space! (or rather my space, but I wont post a link as im not self advertising)

    May I point you in the direction of ‘Jimmy Forsyth’ a photographer operating circa 1950’s a time when folk where pleased to have their photo taken. His images were developed and printed at Boots the chemist.
    Images that are as Pure as you are ever going to get, some of which are very ‘ooh yes sir I like that one’. Did Jimmy have influences?

    Jimmy’s body of work has matured, with real value now, we are appreciating his work 50-60 years later despite being black and white from an era of soot and grime it is very fresh to view and a relief from the current trends.

    I sincerely hope you all enjoy these Street images, here is my favourite:
    http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/scotswood-road/exhibits/gloucester-street-1957

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Forsyth_(photographer)

    I think it is an ironic travesty that a reporter has posted this photo of Jimmy in this style.
    http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/photographer-who-captured-newcastle-dies-1457248

    • Great work on Gloucester Street. That image of the empty street under the snow. Wow.

    • Thanks. Interesting thought: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with showing your work unless the feedback you receive is affecting your next work in a way that stops or discourages or influences you away from what you were doing previously; the problem is it is almost impossible for us to operate in silos. I suppose it’s possible if you’re extremely stubborn, which I am. It’s the reason Idea of Man finally got completed and will be shown in a coherent set for the first time in October, at the Rangefinder Gallery in Chicago. Perhaps then it will make sense… 🙂

      • Without feedback (or experience from past feedback) it is difficult to know if the photos have the intended effect on the audience. At least I tend to drift towards overly formulaic output and a vision that isn’t visible to anyone else, unless I compare a lot to others’ work and ideally get some direct feedback too. The risk is of course to just keep emulating others. Finding unbiased feedback is the difficult part – everyone’s focused on their own stuff or reinforcing the standards of some group (e.g. street photography “experts”).

        Anyone up for a challenge: establish regular feedback sessions on the MT flickr group discussion?

        • I think that’s a great idea – and yes, it’s tough to get objective feedback since opinions by nature are subjective! I would welcome such a discussion in the flickr group, but honestly doubt I’ll be able to contribute much as I’m already running pretty much flat out as it is.

  22. Really, you have no competition. Both your writings and your images are best in show!

  23. I really enjoy how you dive deeper than anyone else into why you take a photo and then determine the best way to execute. I’ve always enjoyed your street photography. I think that when I see your street photography the first things I think about are where is it such as country, city, urban, suburban, or rural. Then I think about time of day and what it is the person is doing – working, reading, relaxing, walking, running, etc. And then I appreciate the combination of quality of light, composition, and technical precision (sharpness, contrast, shadows/highlights, straight verticals/horizontals). All of the elements of a photograph that I appreciate and try to achieve seem to be always present in the photos you share. I travel to Peru next month and will take these ideas with me! Thank you.

    • Thanks. It isn’t possible to make a stronger image without thinking about ‘those things’ – photography is a conversation beyond the immediate and conscious and that has to be taken into account by the photographer even if the viewer may not be consciously aware of it…

  24. Martin Fritter says:

    Lots to chew on here. Are you familiar with Scott Schuman of The Sartoralist? http://www.thesartorialist.com/ – Generally shoots with a 85mm f1.2 Canon, I believe. Also engages with his subjects. Whose street work do you like? Example would help clarify your perspective. Also perhaps a clearer definition of categories. Photo journalism, documentary, street, casual portraiture – a lot of overlap. Is Gene Smith a street photographer? Is Bruce Davidson’s book on Central Park street photography or documentary? He spent several years on it. What about his subway series (in color, with a flash)? FWIW, I hate invasive work where the subjects boundaries and dignity are violated. Personally, I’m reluctant to take pictures of people I don’t know. Much prefer members of my social circle.

  25. Great article, Ming. Outstanding even regarding your standards.

    I personally like the style and look of HCB and other masters. But time goes on, and life evolves. Most of my pictures are black & white. I think, there should be a reason for color, otherwise it’s just a distraction. But I do try to find my own way of showing, what I witness and the emotion that the atmosphere evokes. Success varies, but copying what had be done in the past due to technical restrictions does not take anyone further.

    Best regards
    Matt

  26. Sun's Shadow says:

    Stunning article! Simply speechless…

  27. Nice photos! ‘Implied intimacy’ in particular stands out for me.

  28. Len Harrison says:

    The best article I have read on street photography.

  29. You truly understand who you are as an artist. That in itself is inspiring, and brings clarity to every image you share.

    An enjoyable read that has brought much self reflection.

    • I don’t think we ever do, but I do know what kind of images I like to make and why…I suppose for now, that is enough.

      • Maybe this is all that matters when it comes to “understanding”? Though, I have the privilege of not depending on my artistry for my livelihood…

        • If understanding is to translate into a livelihood…then perhaps art is no more than another commercial product catering to a specific audience, and it is again a case of the usual supply-demand relationship…

  30. Quite right. A photographer should be free to develop his own style and not be held captive to, nor cling to the comfort of, what has been done in the past. Aping others’ work is exactly that- mimicry without an understanding of the underlying meaning.

  31. jacobmarty says:

    Nice post. I like street photography. From the photos above, it seems street photography now tries to capture peoples’ every day life. It can be very touching.

  32. Wonderful article Ming! Thanks for posting! Very well written and thought provoking.

  33. John Bresnen says:

    Hello Ming, Never got page two of this post…..thanks John

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  1. […] is there a more ‘classical’ recipe for what might be traditionally classified as street photography? Perhaps, perhaps not. The whole genre is so fluid that I think it is impossible to define anyway; I […]

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