This blog post is the first of a series on creativity in street photography, which will later become my second eBook. For this project, I interviewed 8 contemporary street photographers that I admire a lot, and asked them to describe to me their creative process. Based on these interviews, I have identified 4 fundamental elements to creativity:
1/ The external world: The people, places and situations that we come across on the streets
2/ Internal experience: Our thoughts, feelings and unique ways of relating to the world
3/ Artistic influences: Artistic influences and encounters that are shaping how we see
4/ Personal vision: A deliberate attempt to articulate a purpose or narrative
Each of these elements influence our decisions in terms of image making. This first post is about the external world as in, The people, places and situations that we come across on the streets – the external stage, as it appears to us.
Street photographers have a fascination for the outside world which they perceive intuitively. Many have a strong attachment to places, associated with different approaches. In this first section, we will explore the role of the external environment in the image-making process, notably understanding the importance of places and locations in defining the set of opportunities. For street photographers, the outside world is ultimately their stage: this is the place where images come to being, and realize themselves in front of our eyes. In this sense, images would never exist without a world outside of ourselves, a world filled with people and cities that tell interconnected stories. The world, in essence, is our greatest source of inspiration – life is the raw material, as Martin U. Walz beautifully explained, and we are the gatherer of this raw material. Without it, our art wouldn’t exist.
1. The importance of cities. For street photographers, cities oftentimes are as important as the people inhabiting them. Cities have a soul of their own, that many photographers will aim to capture. In fact, the individual stories of people that we shoot doesn’t interest us as much – they will remain strangers whom we will never see again, and probably never speak to. Cities are perceived as a limitless source of inspiration for street photographers, never fully knowable, always changing, a stage where stories happen magically – right in front of us, in the most unexpected settings.
2. Intimate relationship to places. Many street photographers have an intimate understanding of their cities and neighborhoods. They repeatedly come back over and over again to the same places, the same streets, neighborhoods, to whom they attach particular feelings and expectations. For example, crowded places will lend themselves to much closer and personal images, whereas architectural areas will spark ideas for minimalist photography.
But it’s also the belief that through developing a unique relationship with places, we can start to see differently – beyond the common and the obvious. To tell certain stories, it’s easier to come back over and over again to the same places that we have grown to know intimately.
3. An intuitive understanding. Street photographers display an instinctive and intuitive understanding of their surroundings – whether familiar or unfamiliar to them. In fact, many of them can’t say for sure why they took a specific shot, and how they’ve come to take this shot, as so much of this process comes naturally to them. Yet intuition as magical as it seems, can be nurtured through continuous analysis and exploration of one’s and other’s work. This intuitive understanding of their surroundings allow them to see stories beyond the reality of a single subject. As HCB explained in The Decisive Moment, this intuitive quality is fundamental in perceiving the realization of an event happening in the external world, and the simultaneous orchestration of forms able to tell this event. Yet oftentimes, this event finds itself at the intersection of people and the city.
4. Of coincidences and serendipity. As importantly perhaps, street photographers believe in the power of coincidences, and in the principle of serendipity - being there at the right time, at the right place to capture a unique moment. Their approach to capturing the external world is in essence filled with mindfulness. Like Rammy Narula said, being a street photographer is belonging to the moment. This is why street photographers never plan – not planning and letting themselves be surprised is a huge part of the joy they take from the experience. If they were to plan or stick to an idea, they would miss great opportunities happening around them. Of course, a certain level of pre-determination is somewhat inevitable. While we don’t plan, the weather, moods and light will all influence what we shoot. After years and years of practice, we know how to maximise the opportunity during grey days for example. This doesn’t mean that we have anticipated everything, but our mind and eyes might be searching for subtle hues and layers that sunny days will not provide.
5. Candid images, subjective POV. When it comes to shooting and framing, street photographers are extremely attached to the idea that they are shooting candid, non-staged captures of people in the street. They have a desire to remain true to the scene they are seeing, with its imperfections and chaotic elements. In this sense, they consider their images to be documentary in nature (i.e. not manipulating what the photographer sees at any moment in time). In reality however, street photographers are not bound by telling the truth with an objective point of view. Their choices of composition, angles, distance and focus will all ultimately create the story, much more so than the subject alone. We could also argue that certain types of shots, such as humans in architectural settings, illustrate a form of “calculated candidness” where composition is more deliberate and precise, and the “moment” is in fact a succession of possible moments.
Case study: Mike Lee
Mike Lee doesn’t reflect on what he does: his mind is always searching for the next shot. He trusts his instincts to lead him the way. Mike shoots from 8 to 10am every day, on his way to work, capturing the lively and rushing morning life of NYC. His work is at times blurred and angled, and reflects his obsession of capturing the story in front of him– much more so than capturing it technically, which is only his second priority.
Mike Lee never plans, it’s part of the joy he takes from the experience. He remains conscious of his surroundings and is a keen observer of the world around him. In fact, he started street photography to become more aware of the city and the people, outside of his world centered on his child. His images reflect an intuitive understanding of his surroundings, but equally a desire to seize and embrace this world through photography: “You run to and embrace the world – it doesn’t come to you”.
Case study: Arek Rataj
Arek Rataj has a special interest in what he calls “situational photography”, a larger umbrella of terms inclusive of candid, unplanned, un-staged photography – whether on the street or not. Immensely obsessed with faces and micro-expressions, Arek fully believes in the principle of serendipity. His quest so far has been to reveal to the outside world these truthful expressions that come to being in front of his eyes.
While his photography is inherently more about subjects and faces than the city itself, all elements within the image corroborate to create strange, intimate portraits of strangers with a darker, sometimes sinister mood. Once he has identified an interesting subject, his focus turns to understanding how to approach the subject, how to frame technically, and how to remain invisible all the while to capture a unique moment.
- The city is the street photographer’s real stage – images happen in front of them, not when they try to control them.
- The city is nearly as important as the people themselves. Combining elements together allow stories to be created.
- Street photographers believe in the concept of serendipity and coincidence, taking a mindful approach on the street.
- They have a particular attachment to places that they know very well, having formed an intimate relationships with them.
- Their style and comprehension of their surroundings is highly instinctive and intuitive at all time.
- They nearly never plan their shots in advance, yet are influenced by factors like weather and light.
- They thrive to take candid photographs, but not to emulate the truth – their POV is subjective.
Stay tuned for the next chapter in this series!
Have a lovely day,