Street (Photography) Smarts

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

If your street pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.

Or, maybe you’re too close.

Maybe you missed your focus, or lost your resolve. Maybe you released the shutter a microsecond too soon, or too late. It could be that you’re just out of sync with the rest of the universe today and you keep finding yourself on the wrong side of the street, regardless of how many times you’ve crossed back and forth. Street photography is hard. It’s frustrating. Richard Avedon tried to do it, wished he could, but gave it up.

It’s not like the studio. As a photographer, you don’t have much control over things when you’re shooting on the street.

It’s scary too, at least when you’re first starting out. Making a picture of a stranger on the street is one of the most nerve-racking things you’ll ever do with a camera.

Scary, frustrating, random events beyond your control, a high level of difficulty — these negatives are really positives. They are what makes street photography a crucial component in developing your photographic skills and improving your eye. They also make it extremely fun.

Street photography isn’t a new thing. The first photograph ever made was of a street, or maybe it was a building. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what it was. It could have been a flying saucer for all I know. Still, about ten years later in 1838 or 1839, on Boulevard du Temple in Paris, Louis Daguerremade the first legitimate street photograph, as it shows the street and a person. Well, at least it shows part of a person, which is close enough for jazz.

In the 1800’s, exposures times were long, they were measured in minutes, or even hours, not fractions of a second. Long exposures don’t record things that are moving. That’s why if you make a long exposure in a crowded place, you might not be able to see any people in the final image. You might see a ghostly blur where the people moved through your frame, but no actual people. Daguerre lucked out. There happened to be a fellow getting his shoes shined in his image, so you can see one of the guy’s shoes (and leg) that didn’t move throughout the exposure. Which is why historians call this the first street photo, as they say a true street photograph has to be made on the street and reference a human.

As the photographic process improved and shutter speeds got faster, pictures of people on the street started to be made on a regular basis. Street photography came along very early in the photographic timeline. It’s a cornerstone of the art. There’s never been a time when photographers, serious and amateurs alike, didn’t do street photography. Today, judging by the many books, blogs and Instagram feeds that are devoted to it, street photography is more popular than it’s ever been.

As a student of photography, those facts alone mean it’s something you should check out, but there’s much more to it than that.

The street is always moving. Always changing. People come and go. The light changes. Everything is in motion. The variables are too numerous to count. I think this is why Avedon gave up on it. As a photographer who excelled in a controlled environment, the chaos of the street must have drove him nuts.

In the studio, Avedon’s setup didn’t vary much. He eliminated variables to concentrate solely on the subject. The moment he was concerned with was when his subject revealed something of their true self to him.

The studio allows a photographer to control and eliminate variables so they have a chance to capture the images they desire to make. The wise street photographer is receptive to whatever the street gives her. She doesn’t try to control things. Because the street, if you’re paying attention, will give you pictures that you could never imagine.

On the street, embracing the variables will give you the best chance of capturing the images you desire to make, even if you have no idea what those photographs will look like.

When you think of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. That brief instant when the chaos of the street forms to reveal something that makes sense to the human brain, in a poetic, revealing and/or aesthetically pleasing way, you realize that he and Avedon were working with the same goal in mind. Both were trying to capture a decisive moment, they were just going about it in completely opposite ways.

Photography, as an art form, is always a study of contradictions.

Ansel Adams, who often worked from the roof of his car with a large format camera mounted on a tripod (basically the outdoor, scenic photographer’s studio), was chasing the decisive moment as well. Adams would drive around searching for scenes that had potential. When he found what he was looking for, he’d setup his gear and wait in his studio for the moment when Nature revealed something about herself.

His decisive moment centered around light. How the clouds moved, where the light landed, how it bounced around before or after a storm. He couldn’t predict exactly what the light would do, but when the perfect light did come along he was ready to capture it.

By lowering the number of variables and allowing themselves to concentrate on the moment, Avedon and Adams increased their chances of being successful, but make no mistake about it, their pictures depended on capturing a fleeting moment when all of the elements came perfectly together.

Like most successful photographers, Avedon could read people. He watched as Marilyn was getting that deer in the headlights/little girl lost look on her face. Adams could read the sky, he knew when the clouds were getting ready to break. Both photographers relied on their experience and knowledge, combined with a knack for minimizing variables, to help them make the images they were after.

A great example of this, is seen in Adams’ most famous picture, Moonrise Over Hernandez.

Adams was driving when he came across the scene of the moon rising over a church and graveyard, near Hernandez, New Mexico. He immediately recognized it as a picture, drove another two hundred yards (hey, it happens more often than you think), backtracked and hastily set up his 8 x 10 view camera.

He couldn’t find his light meter, so he used his experience to make an educated guess on the exposure. After he exposed a single sheet of film, the light disappeared and the moment was gone.

In large format photography terms, the five minutes or so from start to finish it took to make the frame, is instantaneous. It’s the same as Cartier-Bresson, seeing a picture, raising his Leica, focusing, and releasing the shutter in a single movement.

It was actually made on a street, U.S. Route 84–285.

The graveyard gives it the needed human element (close enough for me).

So yes, it’s fair to say that Moonrise Over Hernandez, the most widely know fine art photograph of the twentieth century, is a street photo.

Text and header photograph copyright 2017 Kenneth Jarecke.

This is an excerpt from the second chapter of my ongoing book about photography, Pictures — How to Make Them. Each chapter is available on iTunes as it is completed.

Click here for chapter two, Street (Photography) Smarts.

Click here for chapter one, Fascinated with Photography.

Click here the introduction to the book.

Many thanks. I hope my words are helpful in the making of your pictures.

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