I feel one of the most important traits to become a better street photographer is first identifying what makes great street photography. This means having good taste.
A quote from Ira Glass from NPR comes to mind– in terms of having good taste:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”
‘Glass continues by sharing the importance of persevering:
“A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
So pretty much when it comes to street photography (if you have good taste) you are easily disappointed. Easily disappointed in your photography because you think it sucks. You see the work that came before you (from the masters)– and you ask yourself, “Why can’t my work be that great?”
But know that being disillusioned and disappointed in your photography is a good trait.
Why is that?
Well– if you are disappointed in your street photography, it means that you have a pretty good understanding of what makes a good street photograph. And you are frustrated because you can’t make what you think is a good street photograph– because you compare yourself to the masters.
One of my aspirations is to one day– become a great photographer. I think it is a life-long journey, but I think I am starting to scratch the surface.
For example, this one photograph I took for my “Suits” project I think is one of my best photos so far– and I aspire to make more photographs like it. I showed my “Suits” project to David Alan Harvey in Dubai, and for the photo below, he immediately stopped and said– “That is a great shot.”
I think what makes it a great shot is that it is unique– I haven’t seen many photos exactly like it. But I have seen many photos similar to it (that is where I got the inspiration).
The story behind the shot is that I was at a restaurant/bar in Lansing, Michigan with Cindy– and needed to go to the bathroom. I always carry my camera with me (even to the restroom)– because I never know when a good street photography opportunity will arise.
I had my film Leica and flash– and I saw this bored couple (one of them wearing a suit). I liked the background and their expressions, so I pre-set my focus to 5 meters, put the flash to full power at f/8 and 1/50th of a second, and just fired off one shot. They looked at me weird after with a “WTF” look– but then I said, “Cool place, huh?” They laughed and said yeah, and I went to the bathroom and they went back to their conversation.
Therefore I am grateful that I had the photographic knowledge of knowing all these great photos that have been taken before me– so I can draw upon it for inspiration. They often call this “visual literacy”
being literate and knowledgeable in terms of what makes a great photograph.
I think it can be discouraging to compare yourself to the masters. Of course, there is a huge gap between their work and yours. Their work is amazing, and your work sucks. I constantly remind myself that my work sucks too. I think I have only taken 3 photos that I am quite proud of the last 8 years I’ve shot street photography (my Red Cowboy photo, guy sleeping at the beach, and the suits photo above).
But by identifying that gap– you can learn how to bridge the gap. Meaning– slowly inching your work forward to being better, and creating work closer to the work of the masters.
Some traits of master street photographers that I try to emulate:
- They don’t work on single-images, but work on long-term projects (that will take 5-10 years).
- They aren’t obsessed about posting their photos on social media
and aren’t hungry for likes, favorites, etc.
- They aren’t satisfied– they are constantly hungry to create work that hasn’t been made before.
- They are constantly disappointed in their work, and re-think why they shoot photography.
- They don’t look on social media for photography inspiration– rather at photography books and the work of the masters that have come from before them.
- The great work taken in history was done on film (to be quite frank– I haven’t seen any new great work shot on digital from the masters that I personally like).
So for my photography, I try to be extremely harsh on myself. I would say I make 1 good photograph every 50 rolls of film that I shoot, and I take 1 shot I am really proud of once a year. Past that, all of my work is garbage. I try to be ruthless when it comes to editing my shots.
So as practical advice– I would say to you, my dear reader, to embrace disappointment in your photography. Don’t let disappointment discourage you from creating great work. Rather, let your disappointment be an affirmation that you have great taste in photography— and it shows that you are knowledgeable and capable of creating great work. Because if you see the gap between your work and the work of the masters, you can strive to bridge that gap– and hopefully become great one day too.
So things I recommend not doing (if you want to become a truly great photographer):
- Don’t spend too much time on looking at photos on social media (the best work is done in photography books).
- Don’t worry about “likes” and “favorites” on social media (focus on your longer-term photography projects).
- Don’t always switch up your camera or focal length (most of the great projects done in history were with one camera, one lens, and one type of film).
- Don’t focus on single images (once again, longer-term photography projects).
- Don’t take my advice at face-value (rather, experiment and try to do what makes you happy).
So to build some visual literacy, I recommend learning from the masters.