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?
What little I saw of New York was as overwhelming as I thought it would be. And then some. But that is not where it all started for me, oh no. See, my dear readers, I have an embarrassing secret to tell you. For some of you, it will not be in any way special, whilst others will find it mildly amusing. Certainly, when one of the friendliest and most fun people I met in New York, a brilliant guy named Mark, heard me say it, his immediate response was – “I don’t know how to talk to you.” I laughed and for a while, he just stared at me in surprise. Wholeheartedly hoping the same fate will not strike you, here is the ever so slightly shocking truth – this trip was not only my first trip to New York. Or the US. Or somewhere to the West of Lithuania. It was also, among all these things, my first ever flight. In other words, my first ever big trip just happened to be to New York City, by plane, over eight thousand kilometers away from home – that’s five thousand miles – and every single bit of it, every moment, was new and special to me.
Oh my, the things I am about to write now…
As a follow up to my recent Images in Greece article, this piece features some examples of street photography done while in Greece. This style of photography by its very nature is a very personal thing. What appeals to one person may leave others scratching their heads. So if you’re wearing a hat…take it off and be prepared to scratch.