Eric’s Note: OBSERVE is a new international photography collective focused primarily on the practice of candid street photography. I have sent questionnaires to all 14 of the members, and will feature their responses and images on the blog for the next upcoming weeks.
Chris Farling: To me, street photography has more in common with other improvisational arts than it does with other types of photography. As such, it is as much about enjoying the process and working at it as it is about the final results, with near-misses sometimes being more interesting than their more polished counterparts. Ultimately, I see street photography—despite its occasional rude manners—as an honest way of actively living in the world.
1.What does street photography mean for you on a personal level?
It means something different depending on the context. If I’m out with camera in hand it means an extra gear of engagement and attention. If I’m on the Internet, it means community and appreciating other’s works. If I’m at the computer going through my work in Lightroom, it means tedium occasionally punctuated by a moment’s satisfaction…
2. What do you want your viewers to take from your photographs?
It depends on the photograph sometimes, but in general I think SP work should primarily convey the artistic sensibility and personality of its author.
Whereas classic documentary à la Life magazine takes you to places you haven’t been and introduces you to people you haven’t met, SP is primarily a connection with the photographer: it’s like seeing through someone else’s eyes with their brain as a tour guide pointing out what’s interesting.
Then of course there’s the added element of how the nature of photography is different than seeing with human eyes and how that is also taken advantage of to convey something.
3. Why do you photograph?
I think humans should participate in artistic pursuits. Communicating with an audience—foremost an audience of self—using an abstracted language like photography (or music or painting, etc. etc.) is an elevated thing and something worth putting a lot of labor and thought into.
SP has the bonus of being enjoyable both in the moment and in the long challenging pursuit of getting some good results.
4. What are some other types of photography (outside of street photography) which interest you?
I feel closer to many other art forms than I do to the types of photography that worship their subjects more: sports photography, tripod nature shots, studio work, etc.
Obviously, documentary and portraiture are more closely allied forms but I’m mostly interested in SP because its improvisational nature keeps it fresh and exciting.
5. What excites you most about being a part of a collective? And what do you hope to contribute to the collective?
I’m most excited about growing in tandem alongside individuals who have already contributed to my growth immeasurably. I’m also intrigued by the challenge of figuring out how we proceed in different areas but relieved to have a group of talented people to help make sense of those choices. Trying to bring your work before a public is difficult terrain for an individual, especially if that’s not what you really get off on—better to be in it alongside others.
I know it’s not a prerequisite for a collective, but I also think it’s a fine group of people that I would be happy to go into any endeavor with. In terms of what I hope to provide, I hope to be useful to my colleagues in whatever way possible (and to rep NYC to the fullest!).
6. Tell us the story of one of your favorite street photographs
Well, it’s probably too early to judge whether it’s one of my favorites, but I’ll talk about the circumstances surrounding this recent shot since it kind of highlights how the shot that you first envision may not be what you get when dealing with unpredictable subjects, but it might lead you to something else that works:
I was in a coffee shop when I saw a girl walk past the window with an acoustic guitar slung over her shoulder. All I could see from the side was long hair and the shape of the guitar and thought I might be able to make something out of it. I had just missed a good opportunity for a shot on the way over and was beating myself up about that a bit, so I decided to act. I still had to get my coffee and run out, but I was able to catch up with her most of the way down the block without looking like a maniac chasing after someone. It’s only when I got close that I saw the enigmatic “Help” sign.
I took a few shots on the sidewalk walking behind her but it didn’t really come together—too many other distracting elements in the frame. But I did figure out then that hiding the neck of the guitar might be a good response to the Help sign, as if it were a weapon buried to the hilt. I was hoping she’d get to the end of the block where there was a good pocket of light, but she made an unexpected and abrupt turn into the entrance of a building. I quickly noticed that there was someone else standing outside to play off of, and did my best to capture what I did before she was gone.
7. Who were some of your photographic heroes when you started off?
It’s hard to say, because I’ve engaged with photography in stops and starts. Around the time I started off with film in high school, I was introduced primarily to the likes of Stieglitz, Strand, and Steichen. I didn’t make a more serious study of photography until I was already taking some baby steps in the genre already.
8. How did you discover “street photography”?
I had encountered SP in museums, of course, but they are such lofty environments that it’s hard to make the mental connection that this is something that you could actually practice yourself. So it was really through flickr that I would say I discovered it.
That’s where I slowly edged into the world of street photography, by seeing someone’s work that I liked and making them a contact, trying to add meaningful comments and analyze what I thought worked or didn’t in other’s photos, and then finding and participating in critique groups and other SP-related groups.
From that foothold, I built out a modest library of street photography books that I was able to appreciate much more for having seen more works that weren’t up to that standard first.
9. Can you share one of your favorite photos (from another member of the collective) and share why you love it?
Though it’s maybe a bit atypical of his style, I’ve always been struck by this photograph by Anton Damolescu:
I love the push and pull between the inviting written message versus the hands imploring “something” to stop. It has the elegant graphic look of a magazine ad, but here it’s being deliciously subverted with the strong sense that something is very wrong. That the image resonates with the events of the day in Greece when it was taken raises the emotional stakes.
The palette is tightly controlled, with only pink skin breaking up the black and white. Plus, that near-invisible white background lets us focus just on what’s essential and creates a subtly disorienting effect (you almost can’t tell whether the wall on the right is angled towards or away from the viewer). Though I’m aware of the argument against photos that derive part of their magic from words that won’t be understood globally, I’d rather not shun the pleasure by pretending that I don’t understand the words.
10. If you started street photography all over again, how would you do it differently?
I’m not sure that I would do things differently, actually. It’s with no small amount of fondness that I recall how I stumbled through every clichéd problem that experienced street photographers will tell you to avoid. There’s simply no substitute for working through problems yourself. Certain things you’re only ready to hear at a particular point in your development.
11. What is one question nobody has ever asked you about your work–that you wished they asked you?
What my favorite color is. Thanks to Van Gogh, it’s a tie between yellow and blue.
12. What are some visions you have for the collective?
I see it as being an important cog in the SP community, by whatever means that is achieved. I’d rather see the foundation built slowly rather than racing to be first with some new wrinkle.
13. Do you feel it is valid if a street photographer participates in making a photo, not just observing the event?
Sure, but with a caveat that it depends how the picture is represented. I’m all for leaving out the details of the circumstances surrounding a photo’s creation to enhance its mystery, but I do feel that it’s wrong to intentionally take advantage of the viewer’s expectation of street photography being unposed and happened-upon.
It comes down to earning the trust of one’s audience and I wouldn’t want to be one who breaks that trust. You can obviously make great pictures either way and as long as you’re not representing a shot as something that it isn’t, all is fair game.
14. How do you think your photos reflect who you are as a person
They have no choice but to reflect who I am to some degree and in ways that I can’t anticipate or even always put my finger on. There’s something confessional and diaristic at the heart of SP, hidden as it may be through a layer of visual abstraction. Also, I think that the process of navigating the ethical terrain that every street photographer must deal with is one that helps you mature as a person.