This is not going to be a popular opinion. However, in the course of starting a discussion, sometimes it is helpful to speak from a dissenting position. I want to talk about street photography.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love street photography. In fact, I have been known to do it myself. However, there is something about street photography that just isn’t sitting right with me. It has to do with what street photography has become, as a result of digital technology.
One only has to see what is being posted online to see the current state of street photography. No time in history has there been more pictures of the homeless, street entertainers, and the backs of people’s heads. And never have I seen more pictures of poorly framed images shot from the hip. Sadly, all this gets passed off as street photography. And it’s not just everyone else to blame. I too have contributed to this decline.
I’ve been bothered by this problem for a while to the extent that I’ve stopped doing street photography. Instead, I’ve decided to look into the problem before I resumed shooting on the street. For me, there has been a considerable amount of introspection and critique of my own body of work. But I think what offered me the most insight was a review of established precedent – works from the old masters, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Louis Stettner (who just passed away last week).
For this article, I’ve decided to use the street “photography” I took when I was in Paris, during the spring. I figure I might as well use these pictures for something.
There is nothing special about this image too. It’s just an opportunistic image capture of two smokers talking in Paris.
Honestly, I don’t know what the significance of this image is. Other than being street documentation of a brasserie in Paris, there is nothing special about it.
In going through precedent, what we shoot today looks very different from what the old masters shot. When I made that discovery, it puzzled me. Admittedly, I expected differentiation from the changes in fashion and design, in what people wore and the way the streets looked. But what I didn’t expect was the overall lack of impact with today’s street photography compared to the past. Something obviously accounted for this change – but what?
The only thing I could think of was the change in technology. Could that be the culprit, I thought? I mean, the old masters shot in film. We’re shooting digital. It made me wonder. Did digital technology ruin street photography?
Let’s take a closer look.
Not so long ago, during the film era, photographers generally loaded 36 frames of exposure at a time into their cameras. And because they were limited to that very finite number of exposures, the common practice towards taking pictures was conservative. Photographers didn’t want to waste film, so they tend to take a more deliberate approach when capturing an image.
By contrast in our modern world of digital technology, we don’t need to be as deliberate anymore. We can shoot unshackled from the limitations of film, capturing anything we want, without having to give any forethought in how to take the picture. It’s not like we’re stuck to just 36 exposures, anymore. With a memory card, we can shoot hundreds of raw images, if not thousands of jpegs.
With digital technology, your chances of getting a usable image is greatly improved. Basically, the more you shoot, the better your odds. So, you just keep on shooting. And with the electronic aids offered in modern digital cameras, capturing a good image has never been easier. Analog cannot compare to digital. It is thus no wonder that there are more people enjoying street photography than ever before. With more “keepers” captured, street photography feels more rewarding.
A woman getting onto a bus. Not exactly interesting. But since I was just standing around the bus stop, it was an easy photo opportunity. So I figure why not. Not exactly much thought was put into it.
Shot from the hip. You can tell because of the angle of the framing, plus the fact that I didn’t get the subject’s feet, while getting quite a bit of building above his head. Again, not very interesting, and another example of street documentation.
The backs of people’s heads. Well technically, one person’s head did turn slightly visible towards the camera. But who am I kidding. It’s just a poorly shot photo.
Fundamentally, the problem lies in this false sense of security, believing that digital technology makes street photography easier. In truth, it hasn’t made it easier. At the very best, digital technology made image capture easier and more accurate. But the process of street photography hasn’t changed. It is just as difficult today as it has always been (if not more challenging, given how much more resistant the public has become towards being photographed).
Much of what’s passed off as street photography is street documentation. You would think that taking pictures on the street is enough to satisfy the condition of what street photography is – but it isn’t. Mere documentation isn’t what street photography is about. If it were, then image captures from CCTV cameras would also be considered as street photography. Street photography is more than documenting the mundane and banal.
How did street photography become this way? Much of it has to do with the photographer prioritizing the end goal over the process. In other words, if the photographer only cares about successful image capture, then image capture becomes the priority. Consequently, a reliance on digital technology to increase the odds of successful image captures becomes the knee-jerk approach. Unfortunately, all this will accomplish is more documentation of the mundane and banal.
To avoid that pitfall, the photographer needs to focus on the process of street photography. That means that the photographer needs to do more than just rely on digital technology. Instead, a photographer needs to be more observant and less averse to engaging the subject – all of which goes against the so-called benefits of digital technology.
Honestly, there is nothing interesting about this street capture. Another man smoking in Paris. How very unoriginal.
A woman walking across the zebra crossing on a typical cobblestone street. At the time I thought that this was a very Parisian street scene – which it is – and which is why it’s unoriginal.
This would be a better street capture if I shot from a different angle, and if that person on the left didn’t photobomb the image. But since I was in a hurry, I only took a quick snap. Not exactly much thought was put into it.
It is surprising how distracting digital technology can be, in making the photographer less observant. It is no wonder why contemporary street photography seems disconnected. That’s what happens when a photographer depends on equipment to capture chance encounters. The image will likely appear random and without preparation and care. However, if the photographer is observant, the image will reflect the effort.
In being observant, the photographer will be compelled to choose a perspective. This the photographer will demonstrate in what to photograph, and how to execute that photograph. These are both decisions that the photographer makes deliberately. As a result, the image will no longer appear arbitrary, disconnected, and flat. Rather, perspective will make the image more meaningful and engaging, thereby more likely to draw our attention.
In street photography, process is key to successful image capture. However, it is taken for granted owing to our reliance on digital technology. But perhaps digital technology isn’t completely at fault. Perhaps it is our lack of confidence in engaging intended subjects on the street. Because of our hope to avoid awkward situations from people we don’t know, we rely on digital technology to make up for our insecurity.
In retrospect, I think that many of us would not do street photography, if we didn’t have digital technology helping us take better pictures discreetly. But because digital technology does exist, those who wouldn’t be doing street photography in the past are now doing it. As a result, the world is inundated by an endless barrage of street documentation – including mine – all passing off as street photography.
Another image shot from the hip. You can tell, given the orientation of the subject in the framing. Luckily, as a composition, it does work. But the way I photographed the image has nothing to do with my perspective. It’s just another opportunistic street documentation.
The subject is in the process of eating something. How is this a good image? At the very best, it’s just another example of street documentation. If I actually took the time to observe her, I probably wouldn’t have taken the shot.
A final example of another opportunistic image capture. I liked her silhouette, but I hated her rolling luggage and the car turning behind her. This is why it is important to be more observant than opportunistic. Getting the perfect shot without thought and preparation is near impossible.
So has digital technology ruined street photography. Yes it has, because it made us lose sight of the process to do it properly.
Though to be fair, it’s not entirely the fault of the technology, but rather our lack of self-control in limiting our dependence towards it. A simple solution to get back on the right track of street photography is to shoot in film. It makes sense, if you think about it. When you eliminate technology from the equation, the photographer is forced to overcome bad habits, in the absence of digital shooting. Only then would the photographer approach the process of street photography the appropriate way.
When you consider the number of successful contemporary street photographers that shoot exclusively in film, switching to analog seems like a logical solution.
If you do decide to switch to film, please remember to work on your people skills. Have confidence in yourself. Learn to do the decisive moment quickly. Thank the subject sincerely with a smile. And then move on.
All images on this post were taken with the Leica M Typ 246 Monochrom + Leica 35mm Summicron ASPH, stopped down for zone focusing. All images have been optimized on Lightroom. Most images have been cropped for better framing.
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