Or at least a longer focal length than conventional wisdom suggests. I’m always reading that so-called street photography is best undertaken with a prime lens within the 35mm to 50mm range and I understand the merits of this range for reasons I will elaborate on further down. But convention is naturally a gauntlet that Alpha Whiskey cannot ignore. So before meeting my date I decided to kill an hour in town the other night shooting with a telephoto zoom and mostly at the maximum focal length (210mm: 420mm equivalent field of view).
For the past few weeks the United Kingdom has been undergoing a period of turbulent, momentous and mesmerising political events. Rest assured I have no intention of discussing politics here; this site is not for that. But there are decades when nothing much happens for weeks on end and then suddenly a week when a decade’s worth of events thunders down in a blurry, breakneck deluge. Instead of trying to keep up with the speed of our evolving future I felt like taking a moment to revisit the past and seek contemplation and reflection in the company of some of the architects of our history (you can tell I’m a simple guy).
I am sad to say that the world of photography lost one of its true masters this past Sunday. Chinese photographer Fan Ho, known for his intimate street photographs of 1950’s Hong Kong, died of pneumonia at the age of 84. His photographs are more than simply beautiful; they show an understanding of light and composition is truly unparalleled. I cannot write anything that does justice to work like this, so I will leave with one of Fan Ho’s quotes – among the most beautiful sentiments I have heard from a photographer: “I put my whole life into a single photograph.”
From time to time I like to go out for a walk with a camera and create a small challenge for myself. This morning it was walking a few blocks up one side of a city street, then down the opposite side, while capturing a few images along the way. Unlike many photographers I never take images of people when I am out on a street walk as I am much more fascinated by what people create…and tend to leave behind as a legacy.
I’ve written before about making the familiar unfamiliar with a view to creating a more original image or a different take on something. An important element of making an image more interesting than a mere capture can be to reveal a story or intrigue within it. In a world awash with random snaps and selfies it can be a challenge to find images that hold our attention.
Street photography is one of the most feared and uncertain types of photography, in which almost nothing is in your control and almost everything is based on luck, persistence and the ability to see and capture the moment. A lot of new photographers who like street photography for its classy/candid look and feel typically get nervous to actually do it, as it demands a lot of time & devotion, ability to interact with strangers and sometimes even ability to handle stress if things go wrong.
Firstly, a couple of apologies. One to Nasim for not contributing much lately; my only excuse is that I have been ridiculously busy on this side of the pond. Another to the readers if this subject has been covered before. But Nasim’s excellent posting about Jordan inspired me to consider something he alluded to, about people potentially in the way of the composition, particularly if time is of the essence and you can’t wait for the place to be suitably vacant.
If you become a student of street photography, the curriculum is littered with advice and maxims on what defines and makes a “good” street photograph; I use the word “littered” intentionally – because much of that curriculum is just that… things that can be tossed out. Within that heritage, I don’t claim to be a master, let alone a division chair or associate professor, or even a teaching assistant. But I am a student, or a ‘disciple’ of the genre if you will – one that realizes that that I will never stop learning the craft, and that beyond the techniques or gear used or the aesthetic of an image I am working to create, the genre is itself as much about a process of self discovery, growth, and expression of who I am as it is about the final “result.” That may sound out of place in a discussion of street photography, but to that end, I want to state that – in this student’s opinion – what matters most in street photography is the choice and act of your presence, and shooting “who you are” in an image. Grab some coffee, as this isn’t going to be another “three essential ways to improve your street photography” kind of article.
I’m a European. Through and through. Even now I am sitting at a coffee house, tired from a sleepless night, my mind a little hazy. And yet, despite that, I am quietly remembering my favourite streets of my favourite city that I got to know with my favourite people, and that city, at least the loveliest part of it, is European down to last brick. It’s just outside that big window and it’s called Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. I love the narrow streets and tiny churches. I love how old, confusing and irrational the planning is, at least at first glance. I love its outright beauty and history, too, and how the only two means of transport that don’t seem out of place in those narrows streets are scooters and bicycles.
Imagine how strange it feels to also love what little of Manhattan I saw during my five day visit. For, in just about every single way, it’s the complete opposite of what I just described.
The growing popularity of street photography is probably best explained with one word: accessibility. Street photography is accessible both because of location (big surprise – there are lots of streets in the world. Go outside. There’s a street. Right there…) – and because you don’t have to be a full-time “professional” photographer with thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Just go out and shoot. Heck, the genre of street photography doesn’t even require you to be on a street. Just go and shoot. Simple, right?