“I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.” - Garry Winogrand
The photograph above was taken in Toronto’s Chinatown area; I sometimes venture out during my lunchtime to do some street photography, and Chinatown is a frequent destination. More often than not, I’ll find some kind of interesting characters or situations that lend themselves to being photographed.
In the shot above, I was actually walking back to work, when I noticed this woman really giving it to this fellow, whom I can only assume is her husband (or perhaps would-be purse snatcher?). Anyway, I approached the scene, raised my X100 (which autofocused wonderfully, FWIW), and took the shot.
I wasn’t trying to make a statement with this image; this was not a heavy social commentary, akin to the photos of some self-anointed sociologist. Nope; this was just an interesting photograph.
The more and more I read others views on photography, the more I realize that there is a certain segment of the population that is obsessed with the ‘rules’ that apparently govern photography. I’m not talking about compositional rules (e.g. rule of thirds, leading lines, etc), but rather what should (and mostly what shouldn’t) be done in the taking of photographs. Since street and editorial photography is my ‘thing’, I’ll focus on this genre. Some common ‘rules’ of street photography are:
1. Always shoot in B&W.
This is probably the most common ‘rule’ of street photography. There’s no question that B&W is the foundation of modern street and editorial photography. There are, I think, two main reasons for this. First is the simple fact that in the early days of modern street photography (beginning in the early part of the 20th century), right up until the 1970′s, only B&W film offered the necessary speed (a whopping 400 ISO) to allow for sufficiently fast shutter speeds at reasonable f/stops. When the choice was between Tri-X at 400 vs. Kodachrome at 25, and you needed 1/250, Tri-X was almost always going to be the way to go.
Of course there were also artistic reasons to choose B&W over colour, some of which was simply snobbery, but much of which was legitimate. Even today, a (well-composed) B&W photograph has a special kind of power; the elimination of colour removes a distraction (which I mean non-pejoratively) from the image which lets you focus more on the subject and the light.
So let’s be clear, I have nothing against B&W photography.
But to claim that “a B&W photo is more appealing than a colour one”, as Thomas Leuthard (who I will come back to) does in his book “Collecting Souls”, is just crap. Has Leuthard seen the work of Joel Meyerowitz? William Eggleston? Steve McCurry? Is he aware that we’ve moved on just a bit since Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB; who, it should be noted, also shot in colour from time to time)?
So go ahead and shoot in B&W, if that’s what floats your boat. But do not ignore the power of rich colour (or even subdued colour) to tell stories.
2. Don’t crop
This is another common ‘rule’, which is actually derived from another, more general, rule that states that real images should made in camera, with no post-processing (which Leuthard deftly summarizes with the moronic statement that “Photoshop is not needed in Street Photography”).
The prohibition against cropping seems to derive from the fact that HCB apparently didn’t crop his images (or do his own printing, for what it’s worth), as if that mattered one bit. Street photographers tend to worship at the altar of HCB. HCB was great, and ‘Behind the Gare St-Lazare’ is probably the finest photograph of the 20th century, but again, we’ve moved on since HCB was roaming the streets of Paris. For one thing, HCB was working with grainy 400 ISO B&W film, which was already being massively enlarged for gallery prints; cropping would have substantially lowered the quality of the images.
Why shouldn’t I crop or post-process? For journalists, I understand the prohibition against substantial editing, but why should I, as a street photographer, not be permitted to alter my image after the fact, to show exactly what I want to show?
Photographers are in the business of altering reality. Make no mistake: a photograph is not a pure description of reality. Don’t believe me? Next time you’re out shooting, take an exposure at 1/2000s (assuming you aren’t crippled by using a maxed-out-at-1/1000 Leica M6 or MP, like a certain sociologist), 1/500, 1/125, 1/4, and 1 second. Or shoot a scene at f/16, f/8, f/4, and f/1.4. Notice the (substantial) differences between shots (motion blur, depth of field changes, sharpness, etc)? We photographers are constantly changing reality to suit our desires. So why must this process end with the closing of the shutter blades?
Again, if you don’t want to crop, then don’t. But it’s not a sign of weakness if you don’t get the composition exactly perfect in camera, or feel that a tighter or looser crop would better suit the photograph. It’s not a capital offence to boost contrast, or alter a curve, or add a split tone. In fact, I’d argue that in many cases, a different edit would vastly improve certain images (Thomas, I’m looking at the cover of your latest book…what’s that crap in the top left?)
3. Your photography should have a vision/project/goal.
Bullshit. Read the quotation from Garry Winogrand at the top of this page. Watch this (long-ish) video of Joel Meyerowitz:
Meyerowitz’ goal on the street is to find interesting and unique scenes; to document everyday life, and to examine the little nuances of the street that ordinarily go missed. While this could be seen to be an overarching ‘goal’, in reality, each image stands alone. If this is a ‘goal’ or a ‘project’, then any image taken on the street could be seen to be a ‘project’, with ‘street’ as its theme.
One look at Meyerowitz’ portfolio confirms that while there is a unity of style and subject, each image stands alone as a unique window on the world.
Winogrand was even more stark in his opposition to the photography ‘project’. He photographed beautiful women because, well, he liked photographing beautiful women. They looked good to him in photographs.
The sociologist thinks you need a project; that we’re all too focused on the Flickr mentality; that is, the goal to get as many hits as possible on individual, otherwise disjointed images. While there is a kernel of truth here (insofar as the feedback – or lack of feedback – that we get on an image should not be the final arbiter of quality), again it’s an arbitrary rule that only seeks to codify and compartmentalize.
Without question, photography projects are useful endeavours. Steve McCurry’s life’s work has been focused on documenting Afghanistan and the middle east (with enormous success). But ‘Afghan Girl’ is an incredible photograph, whether or not it was taken as part of a larger ‘project’ of images.
When I’m out shooting, I’m only thinking “Is this scene I’m currently looking at worthy of a shutter click? Does it speak to me, or tell some kind of story? Does it look interesting? Is there humour here? Sadness? Irony? Anything at all that suggests I should waste precious silicon on its immortalization?” If the answer is ‘yes’, I take the photo. If not, I move on. My images – whether you personally like them or not – are one-off creations, each of which ticks at least some of the boxes that I’ve listed above. Above all, my images are of those things that I – to the exclusion of everyone else in the world – have deemed worthy of my time and effort. They may inform a greater theme, or they may not. But to infer that all street photography needs to exist as part of a larger theme, or in a collection of like-minded images, is ignorant of both reality and history.
4. You shouldn’t shoot on sunny days, due to the harsh shadows
Another nugget of shit from one of Leuthard’s books. Why not? Not to keep going back to the same well, but Meyerowitz did it all the time. You’ll certainly get a very specific look by shooting this way, but who’s to say it’s wrong?
5. Street photography is shot with short focal lengths and prime lenses
Again, more shit. I personally like 35mm; Bruce Gilden shoots with a 21. HCB used primarily a 50. Some folks swear by 28mm. There is an argument to be made for short focal lengths (and it’s the same argument for using a Leica…see below): stealth. But who says you need to be stealthy? Perhaps you enjoy the fact that your subjects know you’re shooting them with your 500mm lens. I personally don’t, but you might. All the power to you. To his credit, at least the sociologist isn’t dogmatic about this (or at least his guest bloggers aren’t).
Similarly with prime lenses; I use them exclusively. But others are doing great work with zooms. To each there own. It’s all about the image, at the end of the day.
In street photography, this is perhaps the biggest ‘rule’ of all: to be a real street photographer, you must either shoot with a Leica M or at least aspire to do so…even if this means shooting with absolutely ancient technology which, given modern conveniences like electronic viewfinders, autofocus, and ridiculous high ISO performance, provides absolutely no benefit to the photographer, other that street cred. For about $11,000, I can buy a Leica M9 and a 50 Summilux. For $2300, I can buy a Fuji X-Pro1 and a 35 f/1.4 (50mm equivalent). The XP1 gives me better image quality at anything at or over ISO 400, equivalent or better sharpness at every f/stop, autofocus (NOTE: yes, I’m aware of the AF issues with the XP1, though I also own the camera and can tell you most of the issues are user error), and a whole host of other niceties. The only thing the XP1 lacks is the Leica badge.
Don’t get me wrong; the M9 is a nice camera, and I’d shoot one if I were given one. But it’s not a $6000 body; not in 2012. It wasn’t even a $6000 body in 2009. And don’t even get me started on the monstrosity that is the Leica Monochrom. Veblen good, my ass.
The major argument for shooting with a Leica is that they are small cameras, capable of very high image quality. That’s absolutely true. So is the X-Pro1. So is the Fuji X100. So is the Olympus OM-D. Panasonic GF1. Etc, etc, etc. This is 2012, not 1953.
If you shoot street photography with a Leica, good for you. You’ve got a great tool there, no doubt. But there’s no really good reason to do so anymore.
7. Real street photographers shoot film
This one isn’t ubiquitous (even Leuthard gets it), but I’ll be blunt: in 2012, there is no good reason to shoot a film body. Film looks great, but can be emulated VERY well in Lightroom. It costs a fortune, has terrible performance at high ISO, costs a fortune, is inconvenient, costs a fortune, is hard to find, costs a fortune, has to be developed and printed and/or scanned, and, above all, costs a fortune. The sociologist thinks that film makes you think differently about your photographs (it’s somehow tied up with the ‘project’ mentality – yeah, I don’t get it either). He even sold his overpriced M9, and now shoots with the even-more-overpriced MP.
35mm film is dead; kaput. Medium format film is on its death bed (thanks, Nikon D800), and while large format film is feeling smug about its superior image quality, the writing is on the wall there, too.
It’s no surprise that the biggest purveyors of this garbage are folks whose livelihood (or at least their Internet following, which is rich, considering their distain for the ‘Flickr mentality’) depends upon throngs of people consistently showing up for (and paying for) their workshops, where the ‘rules’ are handed down.
Not one word of this post should be taken as me saying that my approach is correct, or that I’m a better photographer than anyone else. I’m crap. So are you. I’m trying to get better. So are you. We’re all in the same boat, here. But I fail to see how following a set of arbitrary rules (or ‘guidelines’, as the sociologist euphemistically refers to them) will produce anything but a generation of ubiquitously boring photography.
Go out and shoot photographs. If it’s sunny, shoot photographs. If it’s raining, go out and shoot photography. If there’s a hurricane, stay inside and read about photography. If you shoot with a rangefinder, DSLR, iPhone, camera obscura, or whatever, good on you.
Show me the image.
But fuck the rules.