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Dave Collerton

A Personal View of Street Photography

A Personal View of Street Photography

It;s often difficult to know where to start an article so perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning.

Setting the Scene with some Background Information

When I first picked up a camera many years ago, to put this in perspective this was a 35mm Pentax KM film camera back in the 1980's (which I still own today), my main focus was very much on landscapes, places and people in the way where perhaps many people start. A photo of an interesting statue in the town square, that ruined castle on the hill, an exotic foreign holiday. Looking back on the images from that time that I still have, yes they do provide some great memories and indeed some interesting photos. In the years that followed my love of photography waned somewhat until such time as mobile phones started to emerge with in-built lenses and camera applications. Like many reading this, my re-introduction to photography really started with mobile phones such as the Samsung S4, then the S6 and laterly the Huawei P20 Pro. This prompted me to consider once again being a "serious photographer" so having decided in November 2016 to purchase something more akin to what "real photographers" use, I finally opted to buy a nifty little mirrorless camera called the Panasonic Lumix GX-80. My rational was simple, it had to have a huge range of reasonably priced interchangable lenses, it need to be small and lightweight and it had to do 4K video recording. It also helped that Panasonic were offering a very tempting £200 off the in-shop price making it an absolute steal at £350. The deal was finally done in December 2016 and armed with my new purchase I hit the streets and of course, immediately reverted to type photographing pretty much the same subjects I did back in the 1980's. However, having a lot more time on my hands nowadays I soon realised that working in a vacuum was unlikely to move my photography forward by any great degree and so I decided to join a local photography club, this being Paignton Photography Club (PPC), which I knew from scanning the internet incuded a rich vein of talent amongst it's many members. Indeed, this certainly turned out to be the case and I rapidly turned into a sponge absorbing the very best ideas from the very best photographers around me.

Why Street Photography?

I think that the primary reason for my interest in street photography is that I'm not really very good at landscape, sport or wildlife photography. It was this discovery that really heralded the beginning of a new journey for me, one that led ultimately to my interests in street photography and street portraiture. Besides,  Alex Tehrani hit the nail on the head when he said“Anyone can shoot chaos but the most perceptive photographers can make compelling pictures out of uninteresting moments.” For me this is so true, it is the normality of life that I find the most interesting. 

Another plus point for me as someone with dodgy knees, is that as a genre, street photography is simplicity itself because there is generally no hiking, climbing or indeed, heavy equipment to carry. There is also no real planning required as it really is basically just "point and click". Sure if you want to capture someone's head behind a smiley face balloon then there's likely to be some manipulation of the situation and a prop involved. However, for the most part it's just pure luck. As photographer Matt Stuart says, "buy a good pair of comfortable shoes, have a camera around your neck at all times, keep your elbows in, be patient, optimistic and don’t forget to smile".

And Matt's not the only one with some insight into this genre, others include:

Robert Doisneau - “The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.” 

Joel Meyerowitz - “You fill up the frame with feelings, energy, discovery, and risk, and leave room enough for someone else to get in there.”

Susan Meiselas - “The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong. It gives me both a point of connection and a point of separation.”

William Klein - “Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work.”

Elliott Erwitt - “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

Chase Jarvis - "Allow yourself the freedom to step away from perfection because it is only then that you can find success."

Ernst Haas - "Best wide angle lens? Two steps backward. Look for the ‘ah ha’."

Jay Maisel - "If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it."

 

So, what can be considered as Street Photography?

Since this is an article primarily on Street Photography, let's take a look at the definition as summarised by one well known source.

The Wikipedia definition of Street Photography, also sometimes called candid photography, is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places. Although there is a difference between street and candid photography, it is usually subtle with most street photography being candid in nature but not all candid photography being classifiable as street photography. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.

In truth, the response you get to this question depends on who you talk to. Some photographers see street photography in it's purest sense, raw, unedited, candid footage that captures something extraordinary in the ordinary. A perfect example of this would be the work of someone who I admire, Rod Fry ARPS who is a published contemporary photographer with interests in street and other social mediums. Rod's images, for me at least, encapsulate the very meaning of street photography in it's purest forms. This was highlighted when I was recently joined for coffee by Ryan Hardman, a young local street photographer here in Torbay. We spent a good hour or so talking about street photography and in particular his experiences and views on the genre. Ryan outlined his many influances, for example Bruce Gilden, Paul Russell and Nick Turpin and it was during this conversation that he mentioned about the current problems between Turpin, who is a well established street photographer, and the In-Public photography group he formed in 2000. This story perhaps best highlights how difficult it can be to label someone as a street photographer. The issue in question, In-Public's picture of the month which is highly stylised and distorted candid shot and which for Turpin at least, is a step outside of his vision for the genre. For Turpin and others, what you see is what you get and while clearly some of Turpin's commercial work is clearly contrived and indeed, post-processed, in his work as a street photographer any editing of the image is a step outside of his purist concept of street photography.

Against this background of turmoil, I looked back at the body of work I had created in the past 12 months or so and decided that I am a street portrait photograher for the most part. In writing this article I flicked through several hundred or so images and the vast majority of them fell into the definition of street portraiture. One of my favourites, and I'll explain why in a moment is the image I chose for the header of this article. Here it is again.

My guess is that many people will give this no more than a cursory glance but for me at least, it is a perfect representation of what street photography is, the capture of an ordinary moment in time that has a hidden depth of meaning. It's this ordinariness that I love and indeed, a quote that I found from Gilles Peress while researching this article yields one explanation as to why I love street photography so much. He says , "I don’t care so much anymore about ‘good photography’; I am gathering evidence for history."

Does street photgraphy imply that every photo you take has to be "street related"? Far from it, if you take this term literally you will be missing a huge opportunity to capture interesting moments in many other situations and locations. If you re-think the term as candid, documentary or even art based photography then additional doors start to open. Although not considered as street photograhy in it's purest form, the image shown below captured my attention. What I found amusing was the individual pose of each person, clearly deep in thought in very different ways. It's a seemingly mundane image with a hint of humour.

Another example is this image which was taken at a 93rd birthday celibration. This is a candid shot which strongly highlights the difference between age and youth.

In a similar photo, this time taken in Amsterdam, kids were clambering all over a huge sign on the bank of the river which spelled out Amsterdam. What captured my attention though was the old man, wheelchair bound, to the left of the sign. It's this contradiction which captures my attention in many instances.

This shot, of an exhibit in the ONIRIS Museum in Rennes, France, caught my eye purely because of the fact that people just stood and stared, sometimes for a few minutes or so. It's there reaction to a simple exhibit that I wanted to capture.

While for some, razor sharp images are everything in photography, for me I don't really care. It can be grainy, B&W, colour, sharp, out of focus, whatever. While I recognise that for most other forms of photography, landscape and portrait for example, image quality is highly prized. In street photography though it's the content itself which is the prize and the style and quality of the image can, in my opinion at least, be somewhat more relaxed. Most often this is when the situation is candid, comedic, out of the ordinary or just plain startling but to my point of view, even a seemingly mundane image can have huge depth if the viewer takes the time to absorb the messages within the image.

This is not to say that image quality is not desirable, it's just for me at least, it is less important than the content. Often candid images are "snatched at" images so what tends to suffer is exposure. Because I pretty much always shoot in manual mode snatched at images are often under or over exposed but where time permits, it's possible to get a bang on image where light, exposure and content are all aligned. 

My thoughts on the Gear required to do Street Photography

In order to practice any form of photography it is necessary to have the right gear. I'm a member of a great many groups and forums where all I hear all day long is about this lens or that lens, this or that camera. It's as if the photographer is paralysed if they don't have the very best wide angle lens available today. Personally, while I do agree that a top quality pro lens will undoubtable make your images better, I don't necessarily think it will make you a better photographer. Street photography relies quite often on capturing a fleeting moment in time, one that will never be repeated. For this reason the best camera you have access to is the one on you. If it's a smartphone, so be it. If it's a Sony A7 with a top notch f2.8 pro lens, so much the better. Which will take the better photo? Who knows. Nowadays, a mobile phone can create as compelling a street image as say a top quality Sony, Nikon or Canon. It's really not about the equipment, it's purely about the opportunity and the person holding the camera. For me, street photography is 80% luck, 20% skill as for the most part, you really don't have a lot of time to get ready for that perfect image. Photographer Harry Callahan sums up the expection of getting outstanding shots when he says, "I guess I’ve shot about 40,000 negatives and of these, I have about 800 pictures I like". Henri Cartier-Bresson nails the lid on the coffin with his remark "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." I've got a long way to go before I've taken 10,000 shots so pretty much all my stuff should be in the bin!! Nonetheless, the journey is enthralling.

With regards my own kit, my personal favourites for this genre are my pocket sized Canon G7X Mk ii, my Lumix GX-80 mirrorless and laterly, my Huawei P20 Pro smartphone. Compacts such as the excellent Lumix LX100 are really ideal for this genre of photography as they are small, lightweight and descrete yet offer much of the functionality of a full blown dslr. As to using a smartphone, newer phones such as the iPhone X, Samsung S9 and Huawei P20 Pro have exceptional lenses, sensors and firmware and as such are begining to blur the edges of what constitutes acceptable in photographic terms. While tradition dictates that you wouldn't use a smartphone on a commercial shoot, I really don't feel that I'm any less of of photographer because I've used the Huawei rather than say a compact or dslr camera. In general terms, it's often all I have on me so I'm not going to get precious over the fact that I took this or that shot with a smartphone.

This next couple of examples were again captured at the OSIRIS Exhibition in Rennes, this time using the Lumix GX-80. This first exhibit created quite a buzz amongst the audience I suspect mostly because of the subject matter. I was hoping that one of the young boys would get a little closer but eventually had to conceed that this wasn't going to happen, at least while I was standing there. I shot this in manual with a high dynamic contrast because I wanted some grain in the image. My only regret technically was that I never had time to adjust the white balance.

This second image is a nod to pure street photography in that it captures a snatched moment in time with no particular focus uther than the image itself. Here I have tried hard to meet the rock solid tenants of street photography in that what I saw when I took it is exactly what you are seeing now. Normally I would be chomping at the bit to edit out the feet bottom left but no, this one shot has to be true to the genre. In truth, I love it for what it is rather than for what it could have been.

With regards using flash, although this is popular with some photogrphers, for example Bruce Gilden and even closer to home, Ryan Hardman, my flash generally stays at home unless it's already a feature of the camera. While flash photography does create some startling images, this image provided by Ryan Hardman for example (https://www.ryanhardman.photography/), for me flash photography is perhaps a step too far at this moment in time. By definition, Street Photography is already invasive and so I don't want to shake the tree too much. People tend to react in different ways when you stick a lens in front of them let alone a flash. Bravo to Ryan for being gutsy enough to use flash.

Image courtesy of Ryan Hardman. Visit https://www.ryanhardman.photography/ for more information and additional photos. 

Here's a couple of my own photos based on a similar situation but without flash. Most people are used to having their photos taken nowadays, God knows how many images we all appear in on a daily basis, so they tend to be quite relaxed if you are not being agressive or pushy. 

In Conclusion

For me, Street Photography opens up a world of opportunity that doesn't require lots of expensive equipment, or indeed, vast amounts of planning. While I recognise the value of good hardware, and in particular good lenses, it's amazing what you can capture with a kit lens and a good bridge camera. Armed with even the most basic of equipment, everyday a myriad of opportunites exist to capture something interesting, funny, suprising or just plain different. Given that there are no barriers to entry into this arena, it's a golden opportunity for you to try something new and to explore the naive and the raw as opposed to the extraordinary and the sublime. 

And finally, this image is perhaps a fitting place to end my take on what has been a very personal voyage into street photography.

To conclude, here are some of my personal favourites from the last year.

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Dave Collerton

A Pictorial Approach to Photography

A Pictorial Approach to Photography

The more I get into photography the more I learn and the more I realise that I have a lot to learn. For example, I now realise that the majority of photographs that will endure the effects of time, are those which in someway, capture a life or time lost, that document society, that makes us ask questions, even somethig as basic as why? These types of images have long legs, and those that depict society, seem to call out to us more.

Here I am trying to create a timeless image. It's not pretty, it's not colourful, you won't want to save it for your screensaver. It's simply a statement. If you saw this photo in 20 years time I'd hope that you'd have a problem deciding whether it's it from 1950, 1970 or 2017? It actually doesn't matter of course, it's simply documenting something that happens everyday here on the coast. A preditory seagull eyeing up a tasty meal, just waiting for the guy to drop his guard. For me the most important thing is that I managed to capture an image that says something about life today, albeit it's a pretty timeless image. It's not particulalry unique although the action of the old man is, for example, he is unlikely to eat that hamburger in exactly the same way in the future and that seagull will have long moved on to other victims. What it is is a pictorial representation of life, simple and stark.

Does this mean that landscapes have no purpose as time progresses. The members of Group f/64, which included a number of celebrated photographers, will beg to differ on my perspective. These photographers, which included 

Imogen Cunningham for example, was a notable botanical photographer but look through the body of her work and I guarantee that the photos that will stop you dead, will be her portraits. They are incredibly powerful, moving and evocative. Examples can be found by visiting this link. 

I can hear you saying that hey, wait up, every landscape is different. Yes, it is, you're right, and in a hundred years time photos of all the beautiful places that surround us will be just as facinating as they are today. But my argument is that when you look at archives from 50,100, 150 years ago, are they littered with landscapes or of people. In my opinion, and this is a personal perpsective, enduring images capture life, people, a time lost. They encompass a social commentary far beyond the most beautiful landscapes, sunsets and sunrises. The best photography asks questions and indeed, illicit different answers from different viewers. That's not to say that some landscapes won't endure, undoubtadly some will and quite rightly. My guess is though that these, for the most part, will include us, because people are interesting. 

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