What I Learned From Rediscovering My Forgotten Street Photos

We don’t always feel a fondness for photos we’ve taken in the past (oh, the horrible composition and even more horrible Photoshop work!). But, I’ve actually grown to like my forgotten street photos, leading me to think that we should be revisiting old work once in a while to see them with fresher eyes and better sensibilities.

Not so long ago, I came across the Fujifilm X20 street photos I shot from a photo walk I attended six years ago — all 100+ of them. After realizing that I didn’t really like most of them, I simply set them aside in an external hard drive where they remained forgotten. However, unearthing them gave me a handful of lessons about photography today, and myself as a creative, a photographer, and a storyteller. I won’t say I’m any better at street photography now compared to the time I took these photos. But I now have a better understanding of the genre, and a more solid idea about the direction I want to take. Sometimes, we look at our old photos from our learning days with dislike, simply because we know they can’t be any better than what we can create now that we’re wiser and a little far along into the craft. Looking back can still bring surprises, however, and even some lessons and realizations that help us understand our visions better.

Marinating Photos a la Garry Winogrand Works — At Least for My Street Photos

Despite being a voracious photographer of New York City’s scenes and city life, Winogrand was known to keep his work untouched and unedited for a year or two, or maybe even longer. In fact, when he passed away in 1984, he left behind over 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film — or around 100,000 frames. Suddenly, my 100+ photos seemed like a speck in his ocean of snaps. Sure, not all of those 100,000 frames are keepers. It’s the task of the photographer to review their shots so they can choose those that best express their vision. However, Winogrand often left the editing to curators and museum directors. He prefers to “marinate” his photographs to distance himself from the emotions brought about by shooting them, in a bid to become more objective about his work. “Sometimes photographers mistake emotion for what makes a great street photograph,” he has been famously quoted.

To some, it’s just an excuse, because we’re supposed to learn from our work, adjust our methods, and realign our creative visions as soon as possible. Still, I realized that this “marinate” a la Winogrand approach works for me now, and I don’t really need to justify it to anyone else. It simply allows me to take my time in thinking about my photos carefully, and why I think they “work.” Going back to the photos I unearthed, I realized that my sensibilities have changed. Many of the ones I didn’t like are actually good for me now, and I can tell myself objectively why. Chalk it up to experience, or even the fact that I’m now exposed to tons of stunning photography on a daily basis. But, even if I chose to take my time doesn’t mean I’ll now review my photos every six years!

Social Media Era has Conditioned us with the Culture of Urgently Shooting for Sharing

For every neat thing that social media brings us, there’s a corresponding downside that seems to bring out more bad than good. Among this is the culture of taking photos with the primary intention of sharing on social media. Do it for the ‘gram, as the young ones would put it. Today’s generation of photographers is plagued by influencers, selfie addicts, engagement tracking, and fishing for likes, all of which have put all of us at risk of forgetting why we picked up a camera in the first place.

Relating this back to Winogrand’s preference to take photos over editing, writer and curator Marvin Heiferman made a fitting comparison to today’s generation in a New York Times feature:

“Mr. Winogrand, we’re told, was preoccupied with taking pictures. But so, increasingly, are many of us, as we use our phones to photograph whatever we think is weird or noteworthy and then rush to post it online. So are those who compulsively photograph every meal they eat and everything they wear, or take a self-portrait every day.”

Resisting the urge to edit and post immediately (or just not feeling the need to), I think we also effectively pass up from this culture of shooting for sharing. We become more mindful of what we share, and what we put out there tends to have more value and insight instead of random, throwaway images.

I’m Not a Professional Photographer — and That’s Okay

All I ever really need to be is a photographer. Plain and simple. Doing away with all the other labels attached to being a photographer means not being pressured to fit a certain mold, to produce work with a certain level of perfection, or to meet the expectations of those who feel they need to have a say about what I do. Photography is primarily a creative outlet for me, and as long as I’m taking photos that mean something to me or serve my needs, that’s good enough for me. One day, maybe I’ll be able to take the helm of a professional, but not being one now doesn’t mean I’m any less of a photographer.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Practicing with Old Cameras

I’ve been practicing photography with film cameras for close to 10 years now, so old cameras have long been instrumental to everything I know now about photography. I guess my attitude towards digital cameras is roughly the same. I don’t mind using the Fujifilm X20 again to practice, as the photos I’ve made are satisfactory to me and others — not because of the camera, but what I was able to capture and show through it. Yeah, I’m no professional, so there’s no need for me to count megapickles and all the bits and baubles that come with the latest and greatest cameras out there. All I need to do is practice with whatever I can get my hands on. If that means old cameras, that’s okay.