Stare, Pry, Listen, Eavesdrop
No better advice has ever been given to street photographers than that offered by Walker Evans, one of the greatest American photographers of the mid-twentieth century: ‘Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.’
Evans would never have described himself as a ‘street photographer’. In the decades when he was most active – the 1930s and 1940s – the term still described someone who solicited strangers, often at tourist landmarks and holiday destinations, offering to take their portraits for a fee. A brief pose, a puff of flash powder and the job was done. Evans would have regarded the term far too limiting, for he drew inspiration not only from the street but also from underground trains, front porches and parks – anywhere he could observe honest people going about their daily lives. However, his deliciously provocative instructions reveal the essence of what is now known as ‘street photography’: the impulse to take candid pictures in the stream of everyday life.
Street photography is an unbroken tradition, stretching back to the invention of photography itself. It revels in the poetic possibilities that an inquisitive mind and a camera can conjure out of everyday life. Like Evans, the photographers featured in this book get many of their best shots in shopping malls, parks, bars, museums, subways or coastal promenades. In their spontaneous and often subconscious reaction to the fecundity of public life, street photographers elevate the commonplace and familiar into something mythical and even heroic. They thrive on the unexpected, seeing the street as a theatre of endless possibilities, the cast list never fixed until the shutter is pressed. They stare, they pry, they listen and they eavesdrop, and in doing so they hold up a mirror to the kind of societies we are making for ourselves. At a time when fewer and fewer of the images we see are honest representations of real life, their work is more vital than ever.
We are all photographers now
Today’s street photographers are living in a digital society in which ideas, images and money move with increasing fluidity across national and cultural boundaries. It is easy to travel between far-flung geographical locations with lightweight, high-quality equipment, instantly uploading and sharing images with an expanding global community via the internet. The inheritance of past masters and the growing archive of street photography can easily be accessed online. These are exhilarating times. As William A. Ewing, curator of the New York Photo Festival, puts it: ‘Everything is changing. How we take photographs, manipulate them, share them, store them — even how we pose for them. Our tools are mutating quickly, promising ever faster, clearer, brighter and cheaper pictures. Meanwhile, telephones become cameras, desktop printers morph into mini-printing labs, and high-definition screens threaten to dislodge the venerable photographic print from gallery walls.’ For the street-hardened photographer, the sheer ubiquity of cameras in public life creates an aesthetic obstacle. ‘It’s harder and harder to take a picture without somebody in the picture who’s also taking a picture,’ says Brooklyn-based photographer Gus Powell. ‘We all take pictures now, that’s just what we do.’
Perhaps the most prolific street photographer today is the Google Street View system, in which a remote ocular camera fixed to a car records a continual stream of still images as it traverses the world’s cities. In Paris, German photographer Michael Wolf has made a provocative and illuminating body of work by mining the Street View database for individual frames that show candid human moments not dissimilar to the scenes captured by conventional street photographers. Wolf’s visual data mining has even turned up an image reminiscent of Robert Doisneau’s classic street photograph Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville (below left). At a time when legal objections to street photography have become increasingly prevalent, especially in France, Wolf’s project raises intriguing questions about the relevance of such protestations in the digital age.
Even at a time when CCTV already records vast amounts of our everyday life, street photographers still wait patiently on dismal street corners while gales of diesel fumes clog their lungs and sting their eyes. Again and again, the photographers interviewed for this book told us that they take pictures as a way of trying to understand the world we live in. ‘My camera has led me on a personal journey through the unexpected nuances of life,’ explains Tanzanian-born Amani Willet. ‘Photography has become my tool to investigate, discover, confront and ultimately portray the complex, fascinating world around us.’
What’s in a picture?
Amid the deluge of images now circulating in cyber-space, this book sets out to identify the strongest work by the most committed practitioners. A great street photograph may only show us a hundredth of a second of real life – indeed all the images in this book probably only account for two or three seconds altogether – but in a single frame it can distil a remarkable amount of truth, showing the everyday with such wit or honesty that it will time and again amaze, delight or move us. ‘This is, for me, the most fascinating aspect of street photography,’ says British photographer Nick Turpin, ‘the fact that these crazy, unreal images were all made in the most everyday and real locations. Friends who I met for lunch would just be back from the war in Bosnia and I would declare proudly that I was just back from the sales on Oxford Street.’
A great street photograph must elicit more than a quick glance and moment of recognition from the viewer. A sense of mystery and intrigue should remain, and what is withheld is often as important as what is revealed. The Flickr group Hardcore Street Photography, known for its ruthless rejection of much of the work submitted to it, demands the following of photographers: ‘Give us a reason to remember the photograph.’ It’s the right question to ask but almost impossible to answer. As the great French street photographer Robert Doisneau commented: ‘If I knew how to take a good photograph, I’d do it every time.’
Technical virtuosity, original composition and compelling content are all essential, even if they do not necessarily guarantee a great street photograph. Of the three, the question of what makes compelling content is probably the most contentious. Street photography is a form of documentary but it is decidedly not reportage and rarely simply tells a story. Sometimes a street photographer captures something truly unusual – an extraordinary face, an accident, or a crime in the making. But more often a good street photograph is remarkable because it makes something very ordinary seem extraordinary. Garry Winogrand marvelled that his predecessor Robert Frank could find gold in subjects as potentially uninspiring as an empty gas station set against a featureless desert landscape. The shot, taken for Frank’s landmark photobook The Americans, struck Winogrand as being a ‘photograph of nothing’ with ‘no dramatic ability of its own whatsoever’. What amazed Winogrand was that Frank could even ‘conceive of that being a photograph in the first place.…When he took that photograph, he couldn’t possibly know – he just could not know that it would work’. Frank’s ability to sense a potentially great photograph from apparently meagre visual possibilities inspired Winogrand, who would famously explain that ‘I photograph things to see what they look like photographed.’
Street photography can seem deceptively simple, and very occasionally a great photograph is casually shot or chanced-upon by an amateur. As British photographer David Gibson observes: ‘The avalanche of imagery, especially on the internet, is wonderfully democratic and carefully sifted, is a source of unexpected inspiration. I am both unsettled and beguiled by a website such as Flickr, for example. I have often seen images there by amateurs which rival anything by some so-called master photographers. There is beauty, spontaneity, warmth, and untrammelled imagination – with not a curator in sight.’
However, the photographers who consistently produce interesting, well-composed street pictures do not do so by chance. For every outstanding image grabbed in a rare instant when the photographic gods smiled and all the necessary compositional elements cohered, there are thousands of failures, images that missed the ‘decisive moment’ by a split second, failed technically, or simply seemed to offer little that was surprising on sustained viewing. What the strongest photographers possess, in addition to patience and persistence, is the ability to edit.
Consider a delightfully eccentric image taken by Matt Stuart in a London park (p. 189). Fifteen failed shutter clicks yielded nothing from the elusive combination of child, balloon and dog. Then serendipity suddenly prevailed and for a split second the members of the cast all acted their parts. Stuart may not even have known he had a good picture at the time, and certainly he did not know exactly what it was he hoped the characters might do to make the composition work, but later, looking through the contact sheet, he knew how to recognize the frame in which it all came together.
Liberty or liability
These are not easy times for street photographers, for whom acting suspiciously is an occupational hazard and loitering with intent a modus operandi. Tightening privacy laws and fears about terrorism have created an environment in which to stare, pry, listen or eavesdrop is increasingly to invite suspicion. A poster campaign run by the London Metropolitan Police in 2008 summed up the change in attitude: ‘Thousands of people take photos every day. What if one of them seems odd?’, it asked, encouraging the public to report anyone with a camera who seemed to display unusual levels of curiosity. It has become much more common for street photographers to be reprimanded informally, to have their film or memory card confiscated, or even to be stopped and searched. Some have responded by setting up or supporting campaigning websites such as ‘I’m A Photographer Not A Terrorist’ and ‘Photography Is Not A Crime’. One direct response to the London police campaign reworked the text of the advertisements to read: ‘Millions of people take photos every day. Some of them are brown. Please do not shoot them.’ Most photographers have simply voted with their feet by continuing to get out and make pictures.
Street photographers will always face threats or violence from those who expressly do not want their pictures taken, but most accept this as an intrinsic risk of the profession. In an increasingly litigious era where lawyers will take up their cudgels on behalf of anyone who feels they may been offended, violated or harassed by a photographer, we can expect further legal battles over the right to take photographs of strangers in public. Street photographers argue that if they are forced to rely on model release contracts and posed portraits, they will only be contributing to the manufacture of a stage-managed, air-brushed future. ‘Street photography is an important part of the documentation of our time’, argues New York photographer Jeff Mermelstein. ‘Some of the most significant images in any art medium in the last 150 years have been made in the street by people like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. If that’s discouraged, in the long term it will be a substantial loss.’
However, photographers do not exist in a moral bubble and those who behave as if an unfettered right to point a camera at a stranger is somehow enshrined in the Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights do not help the delicate contemporary situation. The truth is that photography, as a relatively recent invention, has always had to negotiate its place alongside complex social mores. Such was the concern in Victorian England, for instance, that women’s modesty could be at risk from a surreptitious lens that photographers required official permits to shoot in parks. Although we may regret that so few of today’s street photographers will document the spontaneity and fearlessness of children playing in public places, contemporary concerns about photographing minors seem unavoidable.
Public life is unpredictable, and while there are more and more discussed – and disputed – tactics for working on the street, there remain no hard and fast rules. The best practitioners must sometimes move at the speed of light to capture a split-second collision of line or form, at other times have the patience to wait all day on the same corner before the right compositional elements come together. They have to find ways of working that suit their personalities but also be willing to push themselves to the edge of what might feel comfortable. Richard Kalvar puts it succinctly: ‘I’m kind of shy and sneaky and aggressive at the same time. Sometimes I have the nerve, sometimes I don’t.’
The stereotype of the street photographer as a stealthy character able to slip deftly in and out of crowds without any direct engagement is very much a portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson, certainly one of the greatest and probably still the most influential street photographer to date. ‘A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye; these are all one needs,’ he famously pronounced. He once compared himself to a cab driver, ‘an anonymous someone to whom people reveal their inner selves’. Cartier-Bresson also had very firm views on photographic protocol: all his pictures were unposed, he never used flash (he considered it ‘impolite – like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand’) and he rarely cropped his images in the darkroom. In many ways his very pure methods have come to be regarded as the gold standard of street photography. But not all great street photographers work the way Cartier-Bresson did and the diversity of approaches featured in this book testifies to the wide range of role models available to contemporary photographers, along with their readiness to keep breaking the rules and reinventing the genre.
William Klein, the enfant terrible of 1960s street photography, provides an obvious counterpoint to Cartier-Bresson in his methods. Klein thrived on confrontation and was wholly unconcerned at offending people, whether out in the street or with the gritty look of his prints. ‘I didn’t relate to European photography,’ he has explained. ‘It was too poetic and anecdotal for me. The kinetic quality of New York, the kids, dirt, madness – I tried to find a photographic style that would come close to it. So I would be grainy and contrasted and black. I’d crop, blur, play with the negatives. I didn’t see clean technique being right for New York. I could imagine my pictures lying in the gutter like the New York Daily News.’ Contemporary New York photographer Bruce Gilden’s ostensibly ‘smash and grab’ approach owes a clear debt to Klein. ‘I work on negative energy. If you get me mad in the street, I’m flinging a camera in anyone’s face,’ he says with pride. Fast, fluid, intuitive and fearless, Gilden has described his vigorous way of moving through the streets as like a dance. Temperamentally he is the kind of person who would probably relish turning up to a concert with a pistol in his hand, and he cannot imagine working without flash: its very intrusiveness is what gives his subjects their hallmark startle. Where Cartier-Bresson spoke of discretion and the need to approach a subjects as if on tip-toe, Gilden speaks of sneakiness. ‘I have to be a little bit sneaky because I don’t want [people] to know that I’m going to take a picture of them.…Sometimes they think that I’m taking something behind them.’
Klein’s contemporary Elliott Erwitt delighted in chasing street-level high jinks. His cheeky visual non-sequiturs and artful juxtapositions rarely fail to find the funny bone. Photography, he has commented, ‘has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.’ Like all good jokes, Erwitt’s are unforced and his approach to picture-making is laid-back: ‘If you keep your cool, you’ll get everything.’
British photographer Matt Stuart has been hugely influenced by Erwitt’s casual wit. He has a rare talent for spotting a visual pun and loves to play photographic games with signs, advertisements, gestures and reflections. Like Erwitt, his photographs wear their cunning lightly, but few other photographers are quick enough off the mark to spot the scenes he does. Stuart’s work reminds us that humour has long formed as valid a part of the lexicon of street photography as more earnest social documentary.
In theory, Cartier-Bresson would have despaired of Australian Trent Parke’s maverick technical methods, although in practice he would surely have recognized a truly original photographic talent. Willfully ignoring the ‘good advice’ generally given to photographers not to shoot directly into the sun, not to use flash in the daytime, always to keep the main subject in focus and so forth, Parke has developed a haunting, otherworldly visual style that flies in the face of photographic convention and pushes film to its technical limits. Parke cites Czech photojournalist Josef Koudelka as an important influence. Koudelka also aspired ‘to go further, to go as far as I can’ and in the process created urgent, magical images.
Cartier-Bresson was known for using only one type of camera: the Leica rangefinder. Discreet, light, small and nearly silent, it was also the camera of choice for André Kertész, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. In its new digital form it remains hugely popular with street photographers around the world. However, others choose to work more slowly and methodically, using medium- or very occasionally large-format cameras. There are precedents for this, too: even after the arrival of the handheld Leica in the 1930s, Brassaï persisted in working with a camera that used small glass plates instead of film (he would eventually adapt it for film), and required a tripod and long exposures. With such cumbersome equipment Brassaï’s subjects always knew they were being photographed, but this suited him since he was more interested in getting them to cooperate in creating pictures than in capturing them unawares. Diane Arbus made her early work using a 35mm handheld camera but by the time she made her best-known portraits in the 1960s, she had adopted a medium-format twin-lens reflex, which provided a square aspect ratio and, crucially, a waist-level viewfinder that allowed her to keep eye contact with her subjects throughout the process. For contemporary French photographer Thierry Girard, the forward planning required when working with a medium-format camera forces a certain discipline. ‘All my pictures are made with a tripod (even the ones that look like true snapshots) because I need a way to build a landscape, neatly and precisely. Once that is established, I wait for the people to appear like actors on a stage’, he explains.
Shyness is a surprisingly common characteristic among street photographers. ‘When I first started to take photos I’d pull the black cloth over my head and feel totally secure in the knowledge that no one could see me’, Robert Doisneau recalled. ‘What I liked about photography was precisely this: that I could walk away and I could be silent and it was done very quickly and there was no direct involvement,’ admitted Robert Frank. Many contemporary practitioners consider it a matter of principle not to engage directly with their subjects. As Danish photographer Nils Jorgensen explains ‘I don’t really want to disturb the flow of life around me. I much prefer waiting and hoping for something to happen.
It’s also much simpler. For me the whole point of photography is not to interfere with what is happening, or might be about to happen. It could be more interesting than what I might have in mind anyway. If nothing happens, that’s just too bad.’
Polish photographer Maciej Dakowicz also describes himself as a ‘quiet and shy person’. Dakowicz’s documentation of night revellers in St Mary Street, Cardiff, is a sustained anthropological study of one of the more squalid aspects of British social life. ‘When I go out to St Mary Street, I am there to take photos, not to party’, he insists, ‘but sometimes I need a drink or two to pluck up the courage the project calls for.’ Going out with other photographers has also helped him. ‘I don’t like to go out to take pictures on my own, I need company. But when we are shooting at night we split and shoot in different spots of the street, not together. I shoot until I get very tired, it gets too late or too dodgy to shoot (fights and drunk people), or until somebody spoils my mood completely – it might be a girl shouting at me for a longer time, a guy trying to beat me up or a policeman telling me to go home.’
By far, the majority of street photographers like to blend into the crowd, being as invisible and unobtrusive as possible, but for those working outside their own culture there can be increased pressure to explain what they are doing. ‘I struggled a lot in trying to convince people not to get angry at me because I was taking their photographs’, explains Mimi Mollica of working in Dakar. ‘I shared my views with theirs, sometimes I spent entire days talking and not taking any pictures, even if I wanted to, but by showing respect I managed to create a bond that surely helped the final outcome.’
As an American working in Mexico, Mark Alor Powell finds a moment of eye contact or a smile can signal permission to shoot, and a short conversation can open up all sorts of possibilities. In an interview with photographer and blogger Michael David Murphy, he explained: ‘I try to make people feel good about themselves. I like to tell little white lies to get into situations, using compliments and stuff. I just try to make people feel comfortable. I use anything to keep the focus off being photographed. I’ll tell people that I love their necklace or their shirt, or the painting on their wall, or say I got a pet just like theirs, or tell them about my uncle back home, I got to take a picture for my uncle, please, he has to see this. I’ve found that when a picture is meant for someone else, people seem to think it is all right for you to take it.’
Working in predominantly Muslim communities within the Central Asian Republics, American photographer Carolyn Drake had to tread lightly and learn to take candid pictures while being the centre of attention as an outsider. ‘It is rare for an American to visit many of these countries as they are extremely isolated, and getting visas is expensive and a logistical headache, so I am often greeted as an object of curiosity and excitement when I visit. To welcome and feed guests is part of Central Asian culture, but I was not always accepted.’ The experience of being treated with suspicion led her to reflect deeply on the arrogance that many non-Western cultures perceive as characteristic of America. She feels that this perspective has enriched her work. ‘I have also come to the easy realization from all this that our way isn’t the only or best way.’
A new renaissance
Photographic historians often speak nostalgically about a golden age of street photography that blossomed in the 1920s when André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt and Brassaï were starting out, and tailed off in the 1970s with the early deaths of Diane Arbus, Tony Ray Jones and, a few years later, Garry Winogrand. While street photography by no means ground to a halt in the 1980s and 1990s, it did fall somewhat out of the spotlight. More conceptual forms of photography captured the attention of the art world, while traditional publishing outlets increasingly favoured more sensational types of photojournalism, or staged fashion and lifestyle imagery. Many of the most notable street photographers of the 1960s and 1970s, including Robert Frank, William Klein and Tod Papageorge, took their practice in new and different directions. Although much new talent emerged in the 1980s and 1990s – Martin Parr, Tom Wood, Alex Webb and Boris Savelev are among those who stand out – many street photographers worked away during that time receiving little public recognition for their work.
For most of the last thirty years there has been almost no official patronage for street photography, a reality many find frustrating, but which can also be curiously liberating. ‘Having worked for several years both in newspapers and advertising, I am fascinated by the things that I “choose” to photograph when I leave the house with my camera but without a story or brief to fulfill’, Nick Turpin explains. ‘It is important to me that my personal pictures don’t have to “do” anything. They don’t have to sell in a gallery or sit well beside the ads in a magazine. I don’t have to make pictures that are easily categorized. They are not reportage, there is no subject, they are not art, there is no great technical craft or aesthetic beauty. They are just pictures about life.’
With the rise of the internet for popular use, as well as a revolution in digital SLR technology in the early 2000s, street photography has undergone a resurgence. Today, the world’s most popular photo-sharing site, Flickr, hosts over 400 dedicated street photography groups comprising nearly half a million members. The photographer-run website In-Public, which calls itself the ‘home of street photography’, clocks up 40,000–100,000 hits a month. Universities and museums now offer courses in the history and practice of street photography, and increasing interest in citizen photojournalism has opened new online editorial opportunities for street photographers to display their work. Most importantly, the international reach of the practice has exploded as young photographers find inspiration in the cities of the developing world and the southern hemisphere. As soon as a good body of work is produced, whether in New York or Tashkent, a slideshow quickly circulates on the blog sites, bringing instant feedback for the hungry young photographer, sometimes only hours after a particular picture was taken.
These are exciting times for street photography. As Joel Meyerowitz has put it: ‘The seed is spreading like a virus out there.’ Talented photographers – many featured in this book – are finding a burgeoning audience who appreciate the authenticity, rigour and playfulness of their work. The world remains a fascinating and ever-surprising source of human drama and the curious instincts that Walker Evans championed when he exhorted his fellow photographers to stare, pry, listen and eavesdrop are felt as keenly today as ever.
© Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren
This text is from the first chapter of Street Photography Now by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, Thames and Hudson, 2010. It must not be reproduced without permission from the authors and publisher.
Street Photography Now can be purchased here.