This post is by Dan K, a writer, camera collector, and photographer from Hong Kong.
Dan: Today I have the pleasure of summarising Eric Kim’s contribution to street photography. At a loss for ideas, I threw the question open to my social media followers. Big mistake! All I got was flames and no tips at all about actual street photography.
When the seat of my pants had sufficiently cooled, I sat back and mulled it all over. Why is one of our generation’s best known street photographers so successful when opinion of his work is so… “divided”?
What can we learn from the way he works that would be useful to the modern street photographer keen to emulate his name recognition?
1. “He thinks a photographer’s entire career, philosophy and body of work can be summarised in 10 observations.”
Of course that’s not true, but ten observations is nine or ten more observations than most people can make about a given photographer. You need to be fully conversant with an artist’s works and writing… and ideally get to know the artist as a friend and teacher before you can claim to be the definitive authority on his work. However a summary article can provide valuable insight for relatively little effort on the part of the reader.
No matter how different the photos and lives of the photographers that Eric Kim has presented are, he manages to put them all in his scheme with take-away points. This shows how simple photography is.
2. “You don’t need knowledge or experience to teach.”
Eric acknowledges that he isn’t and old hand; he has only been shooting street photography for 7 or so years. Nor does he claim to be the best street photographer out there and is still deep in the learning phase. It’s interesting to see a journeyman photographer learning his trade through real-life experiences on the street including all his personal difficulties and self-doubt laid bare for the world to see.
3. “He doesn’t teach photography, he just teaches confidence.”
Everyone that has met Eric knows that he has an exceptionally friendly personality, especially compared to some of his peers and forebears. This is the key to getting the shot is actually getting in there and taking the photo, not to mention getting away with it.
By nature, I’m a very private person, a shy introvert with a fragile ego. My candid photography, street portraiture and writing has proved to be valuable therapy for me. Skulking about with a long lens is no way to shoot engaging photographs. I needed to get in close with a wide lens, become part of the action and that acceptance and intimacy has shown through in my better works.
In capturing the moment, there is usually no time for a self-introduction and to ask permission to shoot. The moment, the emotion and the momentum is gone. Therefore, I am occasionally confronted by an angry subject who feels his privacy or personal space has been invaded. Being confident enough to take the shot and open and accepting of the response I may get, is often the difference between an escalating problem and defusing it.
4. “Using a loud American accent helps bring drama to any situation, perfect for shooting.”
As a travelling photographer, Eric often finds himself standing out as a foreigner; he doesn’t try to hide it. As a person of mixed races and cultures who has lived and worked abroad I have learned the knack of fitting in. Like most street photographers, I’d dress down to the level of the people I was shooting and try to blend into the background. A couple of years ago I gave up and was content to be myself, a weird eccentric foreign photographer. Often still dressed in full battle dress – my work suit, and puffing on a fat cigar, I stood out from the crowd.
This had a positive impact on my photography; rather than being seen as the creepy foreigner failing to look inconspicuous, I became a character and a curiosity and more in tune with the odd characters and curiosities that were my subjects. The genuineness and openness was apparent and disarmed otherwise cagey subjects. My fragrant smoke drew attention and I passed out my cheap stogies to share with the people of the streets. Sat there under a bridge in a Jermyn Street pin-striped suit, I was accepted by all and drawn into their world.
5. “Target novices in a popular photography genre. There’s always lots of novices around.”
In any clique, it’s the ruling cabal that determine who is accepted and who is not. Many artists were rejected by the Salon in Paris, only to go on to become famous and commercially successful. By targetting the uninitiated, your work appeals on a more basic level. As we become more sophisticated it is easy to lose touch with what matters in photography. Some simply become better; many become overly stylised. I’d rather have the admiration of a tribe of followers than the acclaim of a handful of dispassionate and self-serving art critics.
6. “Talent is not a pre-requisite to successful art.”
I’m a writer, a camera collector and a photographic technician in that order. I admire those with an innate artistic eye and the talent to realise its potential. Not everyone is the son or daughter of an art teacher or gallery owner and most of us are untrained in the visual arts. 99% of photographic enthusiasts do not have it and the majority never will; at least not enough to achieve acclaim through merit alone.
So why shoot? First and foremost, we shoot for ourselves. When we start out, it’s very hit-and-miss. You have to enjoy the process to carry it through. Do study art theory: composition, lighting and so on. Equip yourself with the tools to draw the eye and elicit emotion.
Eventually, I hope to improve to the level where my work can inspire and evoke feelings so that my images will reach the public consciousness and stand the test of time. For now, I’ll content myself with enjoying the process.
7. “If you have no style, ape the masters.”
Such a sharp barb penetrates to the core of the problem! We must all learn to speak the language of art. Art is full of expectation. Viewers are rarely receptive to radical departures from the norm. Learn what looks define a genre and don’t depart from the formula till you’ve done your apprenticeship at the feet of the masters. As Sir Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Research how they worked and how they presented their message. Only when you have sufficient skill can you make a statement by differentiating yourself and define your own style.
8. “He thinks Facebook and YouTube is the best medium for street photography.”
Personally, I’m a lover of black and white images shot on Tri-X and big silver gelatin prints. It’s like speaking in Latin. Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur. Translation: “Anything said in Latin sounds profound.” Yet, my love of the old school risks my getting left behind. Today, social media is the best way to reach the masses and the market too, until you have an agent.
New media, including video cannot be ignored. Today’s artist must use all available social media tools to reach the market. I have been inspired by documentaries about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy and method and enthralled with Ansel Adams’ darkroom process. Vivian Maier would not have been hailed “One of America’s Great Street Photographers” without a video documentary; her work spread primarily through social media. Today, video doesn’t require a production team and a big budget; Eric runs through the streets of LA and films himself with a GoPro. Whether you agree with his methods or not, he involves his viewer in the process of capture and this helps us to understand the circumstances of the shot as well as the reason a shot was taken.
Eric is also the Grand Master of search engine optimisation. The fact that you can’t google any of the famous street photographers without seeing one of his “10 Ten Things I Learned About Street Photography from…” articles has brought no small measure of derision, yet has been instrumental in his success. Many of you reading this will have found his blog through a search engine, if not through his many social media feeds.
9. “There will always be haters.”
If you plan on marketing through social media, then you’d better develop a thick skin and positive outlook. If I were to pick the one take-home message from this article that would be it.
When I told Eric that I was planning to to a Top 10 mick-take for April Fools Day, he responded: “Haha love it- roast me alive man! Looking forward to it.” and immediately offered to publish it.
I consider attitude and personality to be crucial to success as an artist. Even if you never publish your art for the public to criticise (and I heartily suggest that you do), often the author is the harsest critic of his or her own work. You have to come to terms with the occasional failure before you can move on and improve. It’s all part of the learning experience.
10. “If you have nothing to say, just give a big thumbs up”
In summary, Eric is the consummate socially connected connected photographer, one of a new breed. He doesn’t mind that half the community doesn’t get his work. He perseveres, and focuses on that which he does best: getting his message out, encouraging newcomers and eliciting emotion. After all, what is the point of art, if it is not to elicit an emotion and effect change?
Your comments on my article, both positive and downright hurtful, are all appreciated. Both are catalysts for meaningful discussion.