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Part 2 | Building a vision: Self-discovery

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image and text by Rohit Vohra

Image and text by Rohit Vohra

The importance of understanding the why

One of the most important insights from this project, for me, was the necessity to question the why we are doing the things we are doing. I had always suspected that without an answer to this question, very little could come out of our work. But seeing that so many photographers agreed, and had slowly resolved to answer this question for themselves, made me realise just how important this was. And indeed, building a vision is a journey to self-discovery. Images tell as much about ourselves as artists as they tell about our subjects. In street photography, where subjectivity is king in contrast with documentary or portrait photography for example, this is even more true and required to succeed.

Image by Martin U. Waltz

Image by Martin U. Waltz

All too often, younger photographers tend to emulate their mentors or idols, trying to impose a style to their work which they believe will attract attention from the audience. But the real work starts after that. The technique, the copying is only there to put the bases in place. After all, no work is purely original, and we all copy someone without intending to because some photographs have marked us and will remain with us. But that is not enough. The difference between talented artists and would-be artists lies in their understanding of themselves and their art. It starts with acknowledging that unless we define what makes us unique, we won’t achieve this level of unicity that is required to have a singular voice in the field.

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Succeeding in this journey

The first step in the process of developing a vision is to acquire the technique. David J. Carol notes in his interview that learning the technique was critical to get him where he was today. He’s now able to take the shot of what he sees, just the way he’s intending to – and by doing so, he has removed a significant barrier and can entirely focus on the story unfolding in front of him. Martin U. Waltz explains that in his extravert mode, where he consciously enter the private sphere of his subjects, a lot of practice was required to take the right shots intuitively, leaving intact the experience of shooting. Both photographers have acknowledged the necessity to take away the need to think about the tool, as a way to more centrally focus on the possible stories instead.

Image by Rammy Narula

Image by Rammy Narula

While many photographers achieve a satisfying level of technicality, we all face the fear of not doing anything relevant. But measures of relevance are hard in the artistic world, and this leads many young photographers to emulate their mentors versus developing their own style. As Rohit Vohra highlights, “As a mentor, your students tend to emulate your work without trying to be themselves. They can see now through social media what works, what’s trending, and that influences them to produce the same images than everyone else. At some point in their career, they will need to learn to make photographs for themselves, and to turn away from their peers and mentors. But that takes courage, because it’s safer to copy the best versus suggesting a different way.”

Knowing the why: photographers’ testimonies

“I am a gatherer of raw material. I am inspired by the flow, by the moment. My work has a clear intent: creating beauty out of the mundane. I then look for patterns emerging from the raw material – an ever changing narrative between myself and my work.”  Martin U. Waltz

“When I shoot, I feel unconstrained and a sense of joyful freedom that allows me to do what I want. I don’t reflect on what I do  – my mind is constantly searching for the next shot. I trust my instincts to lead the way, and I never plan, which is part of the joy I take from the experience.” Mike Lee

“I shoot for myself, it makes me happy. I am not a greedy shooter like a lot of photographers I know. I am happy to step out and come back without a shot. I shoot very little now and only press the shutter when a scene intrigues me, if it moves me or if I see something unusual. The urge is to capture that moment, not necessarily to share it with the world.” Rohit Vohra

“I’ve always been an obsessive maker of things, photography makes a continuation of that possible in a life leaning towards having fewer actual things. At this point, making more stuff seems unsustainable, so making photos is a fabulous way to indulge in creative gluttony. There is also the ineffable pleasure of walking through the streets of New York City. Everyday here is history in the making, and I am so fortunate to be experiencing it.” Melissa Breyer

“As a man who has non sexual fetish for faces, my photographic interests revolves around human micro expressions. I am interested in situational photography, which really is an umbrella term to include candid, social, documentary photographs of people.” Arek Rataj

“A street photographer believes in the power of coincidence. I became a street photographer to bring myself back into the moment”  Rammy Narula

Image by Rohit Vohra

Image by Rohit Vohra

Case study: Rohit Vohra

In 2004, when Rohit Vohra got his kids, it all came back to him: the joy, the experience, the value of having images for the future. Photography became his break, his “me time” and getting the results had never been the point for him. The camera in fact is a tool against shyness for Rohit - with a camera, he becomes more social, want to travel and discover the world. He becomes another person, more social and extraverted.

For Rohit, finding his voice in street photography is all about creativity – and creativity is the contrary of predictability. In fact, a few years back his mentor commented that his B&W photography was now easily recognizable: “That made me uncomfortable rather than making me happy. I don’t like being predictable and I didn’t want to be a slave to a style and got back to color. I like doing new things and experiment a lot.“ Now a mentor himself, Rohit aims to support younger photographers in their quest to finding themselves artistically, whatever risks they need to take to get there.

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Conclusion

  • A vision is not about how we take pictures, but why we take pictures on the first place.
  • There’s a learning curve for each artist where they’ve got first to learn the technique, send imitate their mentors / peers and finally detach themselves to find their unicity
  • Mastering the technique is critical to allow ourselves to focus exclusively on the elements of the story as it happens, not on how to take the shot
  • Imitating our mentors and peers is oftentimes a necessary step before developing a unique style. However, social media makes it harder to define a unique style, as copying what works appears the safer option
  • Finding a style or voice doesn’t mean that we need to stop searching and challenging oneself. Some photographers thrive on constant challenges of their style

Part 1 | Building a vision: The paradox of unicity

We’ve already seen in this book that our creativity is driven by internal and external elements that are unique to us – namely our experience, the environment, and critical influences in our lives. All these elements already mean that our vision of a particular scene will be unique to us. As Rohit Vohra said very well: “We are the director of this shot. Should we have taken this shot some milliseconds before, or using a slightly different angle, this would have resulted in a very different shot. Street photography is highly subjective for this reason.”

But moving away from a single shot, what does building a unique vision really mean? Rohit Vohra describes it as “developing a unique voice in street photography capable of influencing others”, while Mike Lee defines this as “developing a unique style combined with a powerful narrative”.  In essence, a vision is a unique way of seeing and capturing the world that transcends every picture one takes, creating a sense of consistency and unicity in one’s work. It means stepping away from imitating others in order to create images that are truly ours: unique in themselves, yet consistent and recognizable as a whole.

Building a vision over time

Building a vision, for a street photographer, can be incredibly difficult at times.  Because a photographer is not planning consciously his shots, it is hard to create an output that shows unicity and consistency. It’s as if trying to take the best shot coming in front of us, all the while making sure that this shot reflects our unique way of seeing the world, not anyone else’s. Not a simple task to achieve, for anyone!

Winogrand used to say that a photographer should take 10,000 images before figuring out who they are and what they do. And indeed, it takes time and practice to reach a level where an artist develop what we call a unique vision – a style, a voice – that is consistent across their work and resonates with others in the street photography world.

•        “I admit I was naïve about what the hell I was doing until one day I was in a café watching and realized I got my eye back. From that point on, the train started rolling.” Mike Lee

•        “My style found me when I stopped trying to have a style. Despite my yearning otherwise, I kept coming home with moody/abstract/pretty photos. So I decided to go out and take whatever I was drawn to.” Melissa Breyer

•        “I found myself slowly, through doing 25 years of assignments. Before that, I was interested in taking important pictures like Robert Frank. Nowadays, the subject doesn’t matter anymore. Only the story does.” David Carol

 

Case study: David J. Carol

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David J. Carol aims to paint the absurdity of the world, a constant theme tying together a 35 year long career as an artist and professional photographer. For David though, his photographs are primarily a reflection of who he is: “all my pictures look the same. I am just being myself.”

When he was younger, David tried to be edgy, to take intelligent shots, to always create something new. He shot with many different formats and lenses with the hope that something new would come out of it. He now understands that ultimately, he takes pictures for himself – pictures that look like him, and he remains the only judge of whether he’s been successful or not. After years of practice, the importance of the subject is no longer relevant to him. He can afford to take the images that he likes, favoring unexpected moments over events with historical significance. The story is all that matters to him nowadays.

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The paradox of unicity

David J. Carol has clearly established a style and a voice in photography, and the thematic homogeneity of his images – across both new or old work – appears clearly to the viewer. However, not all photographers follow a similar approach, and the meaning of unicity and consistency can largely differ based on what drives you as a street photographer.

As an example, here’s what Mike Lee says about style and unicity in his work: “You have to develop your own style, but it doesn’t mean that you have to stick to one style or form of composition for the rest of your life. I like to play across a large sets of styles influenced by Saul Leiter, HCB, Lee Miller, Robert Frank for example. I still see unicity in my work across these different styles – my pictures are still mine.” On the other side of the spectrum, some photographers favor a project-based approach to their work, so consistency and unicity are more easily shown within a project or series, as opposed to the entire portfolio.

Rammy Narula’s vision is a constant exploration for him: he gets drawn to a subject for a while whether he intends it or not – and it becomes central to his work. Now that he’s done with Platform 10, he’s moving on to a very different subject, about patterns in light. His work is no longer about people at a particular location, but about colors and light everywhere. Change is key for him – his creativity is tied to a subject, one at a time. He doesn’t come back to creating the same images over and over again, and keeps evolving with his each new subject.

 

Conclusion:

  • A vision means creating a unique voice or style in street photography, that is recognized within the artistic community. In other words, it means creating photographic work that is clearly distinct from others.
  • Building a cohesive vision means achieving a level of consistency and unicity in one’s work, which is often a challenge for emerging street photographers
  • It takes time and self-knowledge to be able to create something truly unique, meaning that the evolution is long and requires a high level of maturity from the photographer
  • Some photographers keep producing the same pictures with high level of consistency in their work, while others display more diverse styles sometimes dependent on the project they are working on.
  • Very often, the work we produced at the beginning of our journey will be greatly influenced by others, while the more we know ourselves, the more we are able to find our style.

Elements of creativity: Key external influences (3)

This blog post is the third of a series on creativity in street photography, which will later become my next ebook! Through the lens of 8 contemporary street photographers, we will explore in this article the workings of our creativity –  decoding a mysterious process as unique as the artists interviewed here. David Carol, Rammy Narula, Rohit Vohra, Mike Lee, Melissa Breyer, Martin Waltz, Nima Taradji and Arek Rataj – You’ve inspired me. Thank you!

 

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: The people and art that are shaping the way we see

4/ Personal vision: A deliberate purpose or narrative framing the work we do

Each of these elements influences image-making and creativity for street photographers. This third post is about key external influences, that I define as: The people and art that are shaping the way we see – an ongoing dialogue with the world.

 
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introduction

Photography is a constant dialogue between the artist and the external world – a refined stream of ideas that nurtures, inspires, and guides artists in their photographic journey.

Sometimes we meet an artist who will define forever how we see, and sometimes these are the multitude of interactions we will have with others – our mentors, peers and critics alike – who will push us further in our art. The commonality here is that no artist creates in a vacuum, in an ivory tower.  We are all susceptible to be influenced by those who’ve changed art before us, and by those who will come next. And this is because our art belongs to something greater than ourselves that it will be able to touch people we don’t know, whom we’ve never met. In this chapter, we will be looking at the role played by these external influences on how we think, create, and evolve our street photography –  through an ongoing dialogue taking place with the world.

key insights

1. Artists as social beings. All artists, street photographers included, belong to a world much greater than them. A world with whom they interact and exchange ideas, find new sources of creativity, question and challenge themselves. We may be producing images for ourselves, but would we do it if we had no audience? It’s unlikely that art would play the role it plays in our society if it was not used as well as a two way communication medium.  To put it simply, we need others to create art, and others need our art to become themselves. This ongoing exchange has a tremendous impact on our own creativity as an artist: from the art created by others to the feedback we receive from our peers, we keep evolving our vision through these interactions. As Arek Rataj pointed out: “Influences from others are felt both consciously (through new ideas and experimentation) and unconsciously (intuitive triggers happening on the street)”. Therefore it’s both conscious and unconscious material that we take from others, from their art, their ideas and their dialogues with us.

2. The role of mentors. More common in Eastern civilizations than within our Western traditions, mentors – whether official or not – are a key element of growth and becoming for street photographers and artists. Mentors are there to guide us, to help us change or evolve direction with our work. They are essential as artists are in constant change themselves, and in constant need to redefine their art along with this change.

For Rohit Vohra, now a mentor himself, it was a meeting with his mentor that acted as an eye opener a few years back: the challenge was not B&W vs. colors, it was really about form vs. content. This realization made him focus on content first, which totally changed the way he sees, and heavily impacted both his B&W and color work from that point on. Interestingly, it seems that whatever we take from our mentors is more akin to an organic learning process: it has to come from inside of us for us to make good use of it. Following a mentor blindly will only lead to emulating that person, and not developing a real artistic self.

3. The need for perspective. As previously discussed in this book, others are also critical to self-awareness. There are so much that we can see and notice about our art without external perspective. Others not only bring an objective opinion devoid of emotionality, they can also see unconscious patterns in our work that our mind is not seeing and understanding yet. Arek Rataj and Nima Taradji saw these patterns emerging through interactions and feedback from others: they were literally pointed out to them; Rammy Narula got help from David Carol, his friend and editor, for putting together his first photo project.

4. A thirst for culture. Perhaps not surprisingly, all interviewed photographers are deeply cultivated, with a thirst for discovering and consuming other forms of art such as books, music, painting, cinema as part of their everyday life. They see art as a continuous fuel of inspiration, and are unstoppably curious about other artists, new exhibitions and art in general. Rammy Narula found the color work of Harry Gruyaert to be a strong source of inspiration for his project Platform 10, his favourite authors and artists always in the back of his mind as he formed a new idea for a project.  Melissa Breyer takes inspiration from NYC writers as she goes out looking for possible shots.

5. A medium for other arts. As interestingly, some of the photographers I interviewed were also skilled at other arts – and actually started like Melissa Breyer as a painter, or like Mike Lee as a writer.  Mike Lee, after spending some years focused on his child, started doing photography again as a mean to reconnect with his surroundings, and deepen the depth and quality of his writings (characters, details). He since then has continued to use both medium for creativity, and even use entire photography series as inspiration for new short stories and novels. Some of his written work now include his own photography –  as an ongoing dialogue between his words and his images.

 
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Case study: Rammy Narula

“My vision is a constant exploration: I become drawn to a subject for a while whether I intend it or not – and it becomes central to my work. Artistic influences are constantly in the back of my mind, reminding me of possibilities, pushing me forward in my next project.”

Unlike many street photographers, Rammy Narula works on one project – or one central idea – at a time. While his projects evolve organically, he recalls being greatly inspired by many artists – looking for Tarantino-like drama on the streets, or for the colors and shadows present in Harry Gruyaert’s early photographic work.  Highly talented but equally very cultivated, Rammy effortlessly merges styles and art to produce unique series – his artistic influences coloring his vision of the world and pushing him forward in his discovery of himself.

Rammy Narula believes in the power of coincidences: his love for street photography stems from the unpredictable nature of the world around him.  His vision is elaborated and complex, dramatic and meditative at once. Each project brings a little more light, and a little more depth into his multi-faceted world – a gracious nod to the artists that have shaped the way he sees.

 
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Case study: Mike Lee and Melissa Breyer

Mike Lee and Melissa Breyer had fallen in love with art way before they took on photography in earnest. Melissa started as a painter, a career that she wanted to pursue professionally for a while. Mike comes from a family of visual artists, and has been a writer since he was a child. Photography, to them, came later in their life, and their work is tinted by the many influences they’ve gathered over time.  Melissa sees the world as a painter, capturing blurry, imperfect images hinting at the essence of life, as opposed to making factual statements. She takes her influence as well from NYC writers most specifically, whose words are like songs in her mind as she captures the world around her.

Mike Lee not only writes and photographs in his idle time: he actually uses his photographs as inspiration and material for his future short stories. He needed to reconnect with his environment: photography gave him the fuel for his imagination.

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Summary

  • We do not create art in a vacuum, and our art is greater than ourselves – which is why the external world matters.
  • External influences are expressed consciously (in ideas) and unconsciously (as intuitive triggers on the street).
  • Photographers need others to see their images objectively, and increase their understanding of themselves.
  • In particular, having a mentor is seen as critical for growth and evolution as an artist – as we are ever changing.
  • Street photographers are incredibly cultivated, with a deep and wide knowledge of art across man genres.
  • Some photographers commonly use their proficiency in other arts to fuel their photographic work.
  • External influences are seen as critical to continuously get inspired and push one’s own boundaries.

Be ready for the next article, which will cover personal vision - as a deliberate purpose or narrative framing the work we create.

Have a lovely day, and thank you for reading!

Marie Laigneau

Elements of creativity: Our internal experience (2)

This blog post is the second of a series on creativity in street photography, which will later become my next ebook! Through the lens of 8 contemporary street photographers, we will explore in this article the workings of our creativity –  decoding a mysterious process as unique as the artists interviewed here. David Carol, Rammy Narula, Rohit Vohra, Mike Lee, Melissa Breyer, Martin Waltz, Nima Taradji and Arek Rataj – You’ve inspired me. Thank you!

 

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 influences image-making and creativity for street photographers. This second post is about our internal experience, that I define as: our inner thoughts, feelings, and unique ways of relating to the world – how we feel internally.

 

introduction

Being a photographer means learning how to see – but the way we see is heavily tinted by our own experiences: how we relate to the world, and to ourselves.

In this second section, we will explore the role that inner experiences – our thoughts, feelings, moods and desires – plays in the making of an image.  As Arek Rataj remarked: “Street photographers are not interested with the facts, they end up telling their own inner stories instead”. Given such a high level of subjectivity, it’s even more important to understand the power of emotions and moods on what we create, and further on, developing greater awareness of ourselves. Understanding who we are, what attracts us, and what makes our work unique in a way, is a critical step in finding one’s own voice in street photography. The more we know about ourselves and our art, the more we can become whom we are meant to be.

key insights

1. Seeing beauty in the world. In essence, street photographers are not interested in showing the real world around them, but in the possibility of turning the mundane into the extraordinary. While being keen observers of the world, it is not the world itself that makes street photographers see what they see, but the specific way they relate to the world. And it is as much a thought as it is a feeling that bring them to specific scenes and subjects. As Melissa Breyer beautifully explained: “I feel something from what I am seeing – and my hands make the camera follow suit”.

Yet recognizing such beauty requires a very personal, intimate relationship with the world, and oftentimes results in stories that tell more about ourselves than the world around us. When describing her Waitresses series, Melissa Breyer said that her work was closer to a self-portrait than a documentary. She recognized herself in these women, and was more interested in capturing moods and subtle hints of their lives than exposing their real story to the world.

2. The depth of the mind. Many street photographers have sooner or later realized that recurring patterns and themes have been emerging across their work. Arek Rataj never consciously realized his obsession for micro-expressions until it was pointed out to him. Similarly, Nima Taradji discovered that hands played an important role in many of his images when David Carol mentioned it to him. It appears that our work is filled with inner symbols and themes that are very unique to us – in other words, a representation of our feelings and desires, whether we are conscious of them or not.

The importance of our personal experience is even clearer when we look at the output that we’ve produced. “All my pictures look the same” says David Carol. While he tried to produce something new, more edgy, more serious when he was younger, notably using many different formats of lenses and cameras, he realized that he was still producing images that “looked like him”. This unconscious part of us appears to have a strong influence on our personal vision in street photography.

3. Emotional attachment. Many street photographers have experienced an emotional attachment to certain pictures displaying objective shortcomings.  It is as if the experience of shooting this image was enough to make them fall in love with it, after the fact. Our internal experiences as such strongly influence what we shoot, but also how we appreciate and edit our work.  Winogrand was quite aware of this fact, and always recommended to wait “at least 6 months” before looking at your pictures. “Photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the picture as judgment that the photograph is good.” While this length of time will rarely apply to the digital photography world, it’s important to realize the power of emotions when it comes to assess the value of our work.

4. Mood and creativity. For many street photographers, “seeing the world differently” requires to be in a specific mood, in a certain state internally. It requires Mike Lee to “get into the right internal rhythm”, while Melissa Breyer confesses following her moods when it comes to choosing her subjects.  Our internal moods are therefore intrinsically linked to creativity. Moreover, it seems that moods can also influence directly the type of images that we make. Martin U. Waltz explains that he alternates between two different mood states: Introverted vs. extroverted. While his default state is introverted, resulting in precise and sophisticated compositions, he’s started to enjoy acting as an extroverted. In this latter mode, Martin gets very close to his subjects, entering their private space to take raw moments of life.  Mood shifts therefore result in vastly different sets of images for Martin.

5. Blurring the boundaries. Street photography is art, and for this reason, street photography is life as well. Our personal experiences can have a huge impact on our art. Rohit Vohra, for example, keeps a diary with text and drawings, and messages addressed to his late wife. It has become a log of his life, a trace of time passing, and a critical source of creativity for his photography.  He notes down questions and thoughts that stick in the corner of his mind and change the way he sees.

 

Case study: Martin U. Waltz

Martin U. Waltz is a gatherer of raw material – his work is authentic, raw, and inspired by the flow. From this raw material, Martin aims to see and reveal the beauty in the mundane. But as Martin says “it’s a learning process, and it never stops”. To refine his personal vision, Martin pays attention to patterns and themes emerging across his images, eventually aiming to create a “unique narrative between himself and his work”.

As a street photographer, Martin U. Waltz alternates between two modes: introverted vs. extraverted. The mood states have a strong influence on the images he will be making: introverted will lead to sophisticated compositions where Martin observes the world but doesn’t engage in it. Extraverted will lead on the contrary to positioning himself at the heart of the action, in the middle of the flow – with personal, subjective close-ups taken at short distance from the subjects.

 
 
 
 

Case study: Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer creates moody, dreamy pictures of New York, a stage that she never tires to explore. She shoots very shallow to isolate and abstract, emphasizing impressions and visual cues rather than revealing the detailed facts. Her motivations are simple: she’s interested in capturing how it feels to be in the city.

Melissa’s work is intensely personal and intimate – a reflection of her own stories and moods that she projects on the world around her. She describes her recently published Waitresses series as “much more of a self-portrait than a documentary”. For Melissa, a day’s shooting is primarily define by her mood, which sets the stage right out of the door. Weather and light go hand in hand with mood for her, further defining her subjects and scenes. As Melissa describes herself: “Everything is determined by an inner pull. It’s like a magnet; I feel something from what I’m seeing and my hands make the camera follow suit.”

 
 
 

Summary

  • Street photographers are not interested by the facts, they often tend to tell their own inner stories.
  • Seeing the beauty in the mundane requires to experience the world differently, trusting our instincts and feelings.
  • What we see and how we see is determined by both conscious and unconscious factors that are unique to us.
  • Recognizing patterns and themes emerging from our work is critical to develop a unique voice and vision.
  • Street photographers tend to become emotionally attached to their images, making it hard to self-edit their work.
  • Mood influences our images and sets the stage for a day’s shooting – it is a key driver of creativity.
  • The boundaries between photography and life are often blurred, and our personal history changes what we see.

Be ready for the next article, which will cover artistic influences - from art but also from our mentors.

Have a lovely day, and thank you for reading!

Marie Laigneau

Elements of creativity: The external world (1)

This blog post is the second of a series on creativity in street photography, which will later become my next ebook! Through the lens of 8 contemporary street photographers, we will explore in this article the workings of our creativity –  decoding a mysterious process as unique as the artists interviewed here. David Carol, Rammy Narula, Rohit Vohra, Mike Lee, Melissa Breyer, Martin Waltz, Nima Taradji and Arek Rataj – You’ve inspired me. Thank you!

 

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 influences image-making and creativity for street photographers. This first post is about the external world that I define as: The people, places and situations that we come across on the streets – the external stage, as it appears to us.

 
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Introduction

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. Waltz beautifully explained, and we are the gatherer of this raw material. Without it, our art wouldn’t exist.

Key insights

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.

 
 
 
 
 

Summary

  • 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,

Marie Laigneau