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Wednesday, December 3

Why I gave up street photography

A Muslim in Paris

A few weeks ago I got an email from a reader wondering why I never did any street photography so I thought I'd write a post explaining my thoughts on the matter. You might not realise it from reading this blog but I was once pretty keen on street photography. You'll see virtually no sign of it on The Online Darkroom because I fell away from it completely around the conjunction of giving up digital, giving up work and giving up holidays. The first two were intentional, the last the unfortunate result of the second.

I've always felt there were two sub-divisions of street photography: the mug-them-with-a-camera-and-flashgun approach and the Cartier-Bresson-et-al version. You might get some insight into my opinion about their relative values from the preceding sentence…


I don't get, don't like and don't see much value in the mugging-style of street photography. Flickr and other such sites are awash with this genre. It basically involves shoving your camera in front of strangers and firing off a few frames. Sometimes you'll catch an odd look of surprise or anger but mostly it's just pics of random strangers doing not a lot in an uninspiring location.

I like to think I fell into the Cartier-Bresson camp - wouldn't we all! - but you're free to disagree with me based on some of the photographs I've posted along with this article, all of which are digital shots (excuse their technical quality: they're small jpegs hauled off various websites).

From what I've seen of current street photographers, the more subtle approach seems to have fallen out of favour, leaving millions of pictures of stunned strangers to represent street photography. That's one of the reasons I find it less interesting now than before but not a reason for me giving it up.

Early morning in the Latin Quarter

In roughly equal measure, I packed it in because of the cost of film, the cost of holidays and legal/societal issues. Despite its long film-based history, I think street photography is possibly better done digitally, at least from a financial viewpoint. Anyone who has tried it knows that the "hit rate" can be disappointingly low. You might shoot off three or four films and have virtually nothing to show for it.

This is something I can no longer afford. Spending a lot of time, effort and £20 on an afternoon's film-based street photography with little return would leave me even more impoverished and still with nothing to write about on the blog!

Trocadero Shadows

Digital cameras, on the other hand, can be quieter than even a Leica and allow you to experiment virtually as much as you like. You could take hundreds and hundreds of pics that same afternoon for free. I'm not suggesting that this is the right approach for street photography but I'd say you're more likely to get some keepers this way than with film.

Holidays were important to me when doing street photography as I always found it easier to snap away in public places as a tourist in a foreign land rather than a day-tripper in Edinburgh or Glasgow. I got most of my best street pics in Paris where no one bats an eyelid at an overweight, bald Scotsman shooting away at anything he fancies.

Now that holidays are off the agenda for financial reasons - at least for a while - I no longer have the same opportunity to practise street photography in a more comfortable environment.

Tribal tattoos

Finally, there's the present society in which I and other photographers unfortunately have to operate where suspicion is everywhere whether it's justified or not and some harassment from the "boys in blue" or their private security equivalents is never far away. Ten years ago I would have been able to nod sweetly at the police, mutter some apologetic words and leave. Nowadays, I'd be telling them to go and bother some real criminals and probably get locked up.

I'm becoming hypersensitive to this sort of authoritarian intrusion into the lives of private citizens going about their business in a perfectly legal fashion. I even had a run-in a while back with a nosey farmer's wife in the country and it didn't even have anything to do with street photography. I'd stopped to take a few landscape pics, standing on a roadside verge, when she appeared behind me and asked if she could "help me". I said "no thanks, I'm fine" at which juncture she just got to the point and asked me in a hostile fashion what I was doing. I raised my camera-totting hand and said "here's a clue".


Well, things sadly went from bad to worse and I ended up telling her to mind her own bloody business. It wasn't one of my finer moments but this tendency today to question things that we've been doing for decades perfectly legitimately really gets me down. If I'm standing in a public place pointing my camera at whatever catches my eye and you want to know what I'm doing then you can just bugger right off.

Anyway, a big brawny farmer's wife is one thing (she'd probably have killed me in a fight) but saying that to a police officer is something else entirely and I don't trust myself now to keep my own counsel even where the state-sanctioned storm troopers are concerned. And this is from someone who had always been a big supporter of the police - the old-style cops. Sorry, but there it is.

I've got your six

So for those reasons, that's why you'll wait a long time before you see anything approaching street photography on this blog, apart from the pics accompanying this post. I wish it were otherwise.


Herman Sheephouse said...

It can be done though Bruce, but especially in a place you know, or, like Dundee, where there's no cameras to be seen, it is difficult.
I've tried it with a 50mm and it didn't work in such a small place. The 28mm was better, because you could do it without being obvious even though you had to be close enough for murder. I feel the 90mm will be best actually, but haven't tried it yet. Still, never say never - I'll bet you could come up with some more excellent results if you gave yourself a push.
Oh and I have had a run-in with the police - if you explain nicely they're alright.

Antonio Aparicio said...

Thats a shame Bruce because you have some great images there and clearly have the eye for shooting people in public (I hate the term street photography).

Nick Jardine said...

I think we have to be precise and break the category down to street photography or people photography.

The first one is often shots of streets with people in them. The focus of these photos tend to be the overall scene. The latter is photos of people, where you tend to direct the camera at them and usually be within, say 15 feet or so.

That first category is absolutely fine as far as I'm concerned. I see many people working away producing great images. The second is more problematic.

Trends in digital imaging and the internet have made us all visually literate. We know how our image can be mis-represented (mainly thanks to tabloid journalism - think of sweaty,irate, shouty celebs looking far from their polished best that adorn the pages of these rags.) Images can be snapped, uploaded and suddenly the whole world can see us - faced with this potential audience, people want control over their representation.

It's hardly surprising that the ordinary punter in the street going out for a pint of milk on a Sunday morning might be a little disgruntled about having a lens pointed at them directly.

Me- If I want to photograph someone in the street I'll ask them and then I'll pose them like a portrait shoot. I'm not interested in any underhand image capturing techniques, it's always been a bit pervy in my opinion, much like taking pictures on naked women.

I have to take issue with your Cartier-Bresson pedestal. He mugged plenty of people with his camera, chasing them down the street, hiding in doorways, hiding behind fences, keeping his camera hidden under his jacket. He maybe wasn't as bad as many of the current crop of paparazzi but he wasn't an angel.

In one documentary someone said of Cartier Bresson, 'you have to remember, he was a big-game hunter' when they were describing his street style.

imagesfrugales said...

I understand you perfectly, Bruce. Behind this story there's a really big one in my opinion: we are loosing freedom and democracy in the name of freedom and democracy. Authorities and "intelligence services" are spying the whole world and blackmailing the free press, journalists, photographers, innocent citizens. Many people are following the ideas of this massive control and don't notice that they loose their civil rights. If we don't name these crimes we will loose everything we fought for since Martin Luther King, Gandhi (to name only two) and all who fought for a free world.

Whatch out - says Reinhold

Bruce Robbins said...

You're dead right, Reinhold, but if you get me started I might not stop! When I started writing the blog, I promised myself I'd stick to photography and not get into politics and I'm quite proud that I've largely managed to do that - especially given the strong libertarian views I have.

Nasir said...

If you haven't seen this little video I suggest you watch it as it's very eye opening and ultimately shows you that photographing in public while standing on public property is completely within the law.

I'm out photographing with film on the streets pretty much every day during my lunch break and I really enjoy it. Sometimes it's candid stuff, other times I stop people and ask permission to make a portrait. The variety is what makes it interesting and I certainly don't burn through rolls with only a few keepers.

Donato Chirulli said...

I completely agree with you Bruce.
I practiced S.P. for a long time, I also wrote a book about it and teach it in some workshop. I'm on the side of Humanistic (Bresson, Doisneau) kind of S.P. but........... actually I'm tired of it... for some reasons as yours and also because I don't want shoot hundreds of images in few hours with digital.
Practicing S.P. needs a sort "inner holy fire" which brings one into the street to catch the poetry of human daily life but, if this fire slows down, it's useless to go on. Better stop, an follow another inspirations.
For now I got some manual film cameras and go slow, very slow.... I read about film in some forums, read books and follow my Scottish friend who write The Online Darkroom.... ;-) Actually I'd like to shoot landscapes but my financial situation doesn't permit me to travel so much. Once I travelled more (working for some travel magazines) and went in Scotland too.... And I loved it so much.....
So, actually i can stay weeks without shooting a frame... but it doesn't matter: I'm not in a hurry.... Better times will come... ;-)

Donato Chirulli said...

I definately agree with Imagesfrugales too.
Hypocrisy, respectability and politically correct are some of the major issues of the our actual Society!

morris1800 said...

You have posted some excellent 'street shots' here Bruce. To me all worth taking because I found myself not looking at the image and thinking ' Who's that ? ' ' Where's that ?'They need no explanation of why the image was captured by the photographer .Could they be described as candid moments captured in the street. Though I do enjoy the street photography of Cartier-Besson and the work of Brassai where the documentary approach gives purpose to street images that may not stand out individually.

Steve Barnett said...

I couldn't agree more, too much street photography nowadays is based on just snapping people walking about without any dynamic interaction within the frame and/or caused by the framing. Additionally editing is thrown out the window in the assumption that all images are of equal and vital social importance.

But your images Bruce are the antithesis of bad street photography, dynamic framing that invokes thought, and clearly something going on beyond 'people walking about'. I don't think you should let bad practitioners steal your voice, you have something to say and they don't.

Pavel said...

I understand giving up. I feel about the same way.

Looking at these few pictures, and I suspect there are a few more somewhere in your archives , makes me feel wistful, because "Dang, what a shame - this giving up!".


imagesfrugales said...

Thank you for publishing my comment, Bruce. I promise not to stress politics too much. But when photography and politics interact, some words may be needed on a blog about photography.

I also agree with Nick Jardine, internet changed the world. And publishing pictures of people as the main subject in public without their permission is clearly forbidden in my and many other countries since many decades. Pictures in the style of HCB or Vivian Maier(!) would be impossible to publish legally here and today. I also wouldn't be amused if a stranger fires his flash unasked into my face on the street. Sometimes I see people who look interesting to me and I ask them if I can take and publish(!!!) their picture.

It's a paranoid world. Of course we have to respect the personal rights and at the same time authorities don't.

David M said...

Well, we all sacrifice our right to drive on any side of the road, because we can see the the point.
It seems to me that there is an intersection of rights and expectations here. We think we should be able to go about our ordinary lives without undue interference from others, but for some people, taking pictures is a part of their ordinary life.
A bit of tricky ground here. There are bound to be disputes over the boundaries, between different flavours of libertarian. I myself would have thought that firing flash into people's faces or obstructing their path would be an infringement of their liberty, at least morally, if not legally.
Publishing, as distinct from taking, is another matter entirely.
In general, the police know the law and will support a photographer who isn't breaking it. It's always wise to be polite to the police, whatever your private views, as recent events have shown.

PhlipD said...

The last image is amazingly cool, well done.

Chris Hensel said...

Just to be clear, you have taken the work of other photographers to illustrate your post, yes? I point this out because some folks that are commenting seem to be of the opinion that the work in the post is yours.

Bruce Robbins said...

No, Chris, these are all my photographs.

Witold said...

Hi Bruce,

I like how you approach photography so I keep returning here. Glad you have cleared up the authorship of the images here as I was also under impression they were not yours simply due to your

"excuse their technical quality: they're small jpegs hauled off various websites"

which to me implied pulled off the web, but not YOUR web.

It is a shame we live in these politically correct times where a lot of things can no longer be done irrespective of associated intent. Street photography can still be quite rewarding and (dare I say) with film approach. I won't discuss Bresson and other icons of this genre as many of them, Bresson especially, had few things going for them few others could ever have. especially today, but it is something that would require a separate topic.

To me shooting good or interesting street must combine two things at once: patience and constant readiness (to take a shot). When street uses people as portion of the total composition, than it often is far less intrusive to humans, most of the time they could not be even recognized in the image, yet they make make a photograph all the more lively and interesting. Digital makes it obviously nearly a costless exercise, but film, as is usually the case with film, pushes the patience to the forefront. You get your composition, than you wait for the light and other elements to fall into place to take the shot. Unlike digital, which even when working through-a-viewfinder still makes it too easy (due to cost) to just keep on snapping, film forces us to be selective, which I think enhances our sense of visual quality of a scene. The latter should improve our chances of ending up with some worthy images once they appear (magically) after processing.

Dnaiel D. Teoli Jr. said...

Very nice street work!

Too bad you gave it up, you have a good eye. Yes, keeper rate is low, but that is the pix biz. When we get a great street shot it screams out at you and the excitement is wonderful.

The godfather on the subject..." is like that and there's no maybes. All the maybes go to the trash. There is a tremendous enjoyment in saying yes, even if it is for something you hate. It is an affirmation...Yes!" ~ Cartier-Bresson

Some photographer don't like the term street photography. It is important to distinguish where one's skills are represented best. Every studio photographer is not a great street photographer and every street photographer is not a great studio photographer. Own what your good at. Don't let ego and pet prejudices get in the way.

Film costs are nil compared to travel costs. If your budget / time is low and is keeping you from doing what you love I suggest you go to digital. Digital will give you a film like experience of sorts.

While digital is not film, it is better than giving up shooting if dealing with film is what is holding you back from freezing time.

Best Regards

Witold said...

Daniel (?? is it)

I totally agree with your assertion that, if film is what's holding one from shooting (of any genre), and digital would not, than by all means go digital.

I keep saying to those "traditionalists" who loudly despise digital form, that at the end of the day it is the IMAGE that counts not how it was made. Also, when I campaign for shoot-on-silver, I also say don't-forget-digital as both have their place and one should not discount the other in any way.

Having said all that, I find shooting film inherently different and not due to processing, but rather to the whole routine (although you can have a late film SLR with most whistles a dSLR would have and shoot in auto just the same, the only difference being the number of shots before a stop is required to reload).

Digital on the other hand, with its nearly zero cost per frame, tends to force a different shooting mantra: take as many as you can then see it on the monitor and pick the ones you like. I see this in lots of magazines, forums, and on line "advice". This is not to say that one cannot control this process, slow it down, think the scene through, then shoot. Yet, I think lots of people miss a chance to study and analyze a scene thinking it will come later in post processing.

I had a time with digital with a long time off from film, and when I started returning to film (never gave up on digital) I found a new old me. Especially when an old 6x9 folder is in use and the slow shooting process is a given. It puts a new meaning on looking at the old good photographs, being Bresson, Kertesz, Sieff and many others, and gives a different sense of accomplishment when all the steps (taken before, during and after) have finally showed up in the frame just the way I thought I saw it (or close enough). For whatever reason, I cannot analyze any of my digital images the way I see the silver shots.

zeitguy said...

Bresson trained as a painter. One of his primary teachers was a Andre Lhote- a Cubist - but Bresson considered himself a Surrealist. Late in life Bresson took up drawing again, which endlessly fascinated him. He had little desire to make more photographs by then, as he felt he had already taken all that interested him.

I have always suspected that Cubism's geometrical formalism and sophisticated sense of time as a spatial dimension had more influence on Bresson's photographic eye than was credited. The term Decisive Moment has a nice ring to it but doesn't get under the hood and show you where the engine is.

A good street photographer translates the dimension of time into a compositional element integral with light and space. It has less to do with privacy or security or manners than it has to do with the celebration of mortality, as all true art is a celebration of boundaries of one sort or another.

In the 1930's politics and art intersected at the point of life and death commitments. We have lost that. We have Google Street View. And Hipsters. Instagram filters which fake a sensibility based on the flawed memory of lapses in quality control!

In the meantime comfortably outside of all the arty blah blah Bruce produces crackerjack photos that are inspirational. Thanks for that. said...

Interesting to see how many comments this post has produced. Photography of people in the street seems to hit a raw nerve just now. It is also the understanding of most readers that Street photography depends on or is defined by the presence of a person in shot which certainly raises more questions,If no one is present is it Landscape?

Witold said...

Bresson was obviously dead wrong thinking "he took photographs that interested him" as that is simply not possible, for ANY photographer. If anything, he became bored with photography and stopped.

As much as I am a fan of Bresson's eye, it must be said that his photo production was approaching that of today's "classic" digital photographer, with thousand frames shot per few images shown. None of the negatives he disapproved are believed to have survived. This in itself does not take away from the mastery of published photographs, but there is a general belief that HCB would go out, shoot 36 frames and ALL of them would be of same aesthetic quality, which is the same as to saying that Scott Kelby is capable of taking a decent picture.

HCB had a great influence on development of photography as an artistic medium, but he arrived there through a lot more than ever met our eyes.