A Little Perspective on Street Photography
I have been shooting on and off for over 35 years. I was the guy on the junior high field trip that brought the instamatic and extra film. Back then like today, you really don’t need much equipment or instruction to start snapping. Today’s technology has so many advances that I am almost afraid to see what is next. I still shoot film and lots of it. My trusty Leica M4 has never failed me. It requires no batteries, just a bit of film. My son tells me that I am just stuck in time. I am not sure how he can say this. I shoot digital too.
Just the other day as he was admiring my Leica. I described to him various types of films, grains, color vs. black and white, etc. Astonishingly, he looked in my bag and pulled an old flash extension with flash cube. It was an old Agfaflux C with Sylvania Blue Dot Flashcube. After I explained its purpose, he thought I was joking began laughing hysterically. Oh well, what the shit does he know. For those of you who as perplexed as he, I thought I would add the history of the photo graphic flash http://photo.tutsplus.com/articles/history/a-brief-history-of-photographic-flash/
So, what is street photography? I’ve seen lots of definitions and observed lots of images from “masters”. I am not sure if there is a precise answer. I shoot lots and have my own simple definition: Street Photography is the capture of a random act in a public place. An act need not be active like a person running down the street or a dog jumping over a puddle. It may be passive, a person in thought, a man sleeping on a park bench or a dead bird lying on a sidewalk. There is no subject matter. It is not necessarily journalistic or storytelling by a series of images. There are no rules. It is about you seeing and reacting in a moment of time.
There are many known photographers; Gary Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and less mentioned but one of my favorites, Robert Doisneau who gave us thousands of frozen whimsical moments. And more recently, an unknown master discovered at an auction with the sale of discovered negatives (mostly medium format) named Vivian Maier. Vivian shows us that there are those of us that are less recognized but with talent that religiously and passionately snap random acts in public places. Her work is simply phenomenal. I am now studying her work. You can read more about Vivian here at this link, http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/
I could sit here and write as many do about technical composition, geometry of the framing and other things that quite honestly I would rather save for another time for those that may be interested. The truth be told is that I just love looking at and studying the works of those that are famous and of work of those that are well I guess like me to gain different ideas and perspective. When I shoot those random street moments I shoot both digitally and by film. For a little of my personal perspective, I will share a bit of perspective when I shoot film.
I purchased my first proper camera in 1977. It was a Canon AE-1. Before that though, I was stationed with the USAF at King Salmon Air Force Station, Alaska. Besides protecting the air against the Russians (cold war was still on) among the few things one could do at a remote station was use the hobby shop dark room. So, before I even began shooting with that proper camera, I started assisting this old crusty sergeant in the dark room mixing chemicals and developing his film. Not long after he introduced me to shooting with his camera a Mamyia 645. I was privileged I think to be indoctrinated into photography in this way. I was hooked from there.
I am not hooked on any one type or style of photography. Unlike music, I like it all. If I travel to scenic locations I shoot lots of landscape stuff. If I am more urban, which I mostly am I shoot lots of street. I use several types of black and white film. Primarily though, I have been using lots of Ilford XP2. It is a chromogenic film that is C-41 processed which means it is processed the same as color film that anyone can process cheaply at the drug store or Costco. I mainly like it because it is cheap and you can get it developed pretty easily. You will find many folks who have bad things to say about this film. I could care less. Use what floats your boat and forget about ridiculous opinions.
I like shooting with film because I am thinking more. In my Leica M4 I mainly use a handheld light meter to measure light unlike a digital camera where it figure out everything for you. Doing this make one think more. You have to set manually shutter speed and aperture. Your brain has to work fast so you can capture great shots. Sometimes you don’t trust the meter because there is a mix of lights and darks so you compensate. There is 35 years of experience behind the thought of it all. And even after 35 years do I think I am an expert! No! So, Let me show you a few:
Initially, I saw a boxer. I have a fondness for boxers. I recently put my pet boxer down after 12 years. I just plain ole love boxers. Yep, that is what I saw initially until “Java Man” walked into the scene. In his left had he is carrying two cups of coffee. Not one but two! Why? Who in the heck knows. You could say he was on his way home from Star Bucks. It is about 30 feet away and to the left across the street. No doubt you can see he is on a mission. Besides the coffee he has a rolled up Sunday newspaper (yep it was taken on a Sunday). So, I know he is on a mission. He is on his way to sit and read the paper. What is the young man sitting on the bench thinking? What is his loyal boxer thinking? Who really knows. Only you can make your own conclusions! This is the beauty of taking a random act photo (RAP for short).
How did I come across this scene? Just like any other. I hear lots of commotion. The civilian to the right was a loud mouth. His buddy to the left was scared straight. Both had a bit to drink but the little guy on the right was a loud mouth and causing a disturbance. The police began a simple pat down on the guy on the right as he was talking to him. I took a few shots and left. As I was there though, I could not help but wonder about the police officer to the left straddling his bicycle. He took no defensive position. He appeared uninterested as you see in the image. One guy in the background looks on. I wonder what he is thinking. What about the two civilians with the officers? Who are they? What is their story? Where are they from? Do they have a job? Do they work at Microsoft? Hey, don’t judge a book by its cover!
I could not resist taking this one. A horse patrol officer looking up and sitting tall on his trusted steed. What is he looking at? Me? No, I am to stealth, not that it matters for this one. As I look at this I am wondering about the tourist to the left snapping one-off. He’s taking a shot of the ass end. Can you believe it? Or is he shooting at the market across the street? I haven’t a clue but, if I had to guess I think he’s shooting the horse and officer. I like that it is an everyday scene in Seattle. People conversing. People strolling. What is going on here? Make up your own story. Give it your own twist? That is the beauty of taking a random photo.
There are lots of way you can approach taking a random photo. Oh yeah, there are some rules. These rules are more opinions of others who have the same passion as I. They love and feel connected to people and what happens randomly on any street corner, anywhere, anytime. If you have an old 35mm lying around or you need to dust off your digital then do it man! Do it now! Get connected with everyday life in your own way and your own time. You don’t have to take photos from 100 miles away. Get in the scene. Be part of it. It is up to you!