I recently attended Elliot Erwitt’s “100+1″ exhibition at Fotografiska, which will be in Stockholm from December 6, 2013 to March 2, 2014. We were given a brochure with great practical advice for street photographers– which I have shared here. This text for the article is extracted from the foreword dedication written by Elliott Erwitt for the book “Personal Exposures.”
Photos in this article are from my road trip from Michigan to California.
One thing I hate about the modern world is our addiction to speed. We want everything to be done faster, more efficiently, and better optimized. We are frustrated when we are loading up a website on our smartphones and it takes longer than a few seconds. We hardly have the patience to cook anymore, so we just pop something in the microwave. We then inhale our food in a few seconds so we can get back to work and be more “productive.”
Besides street photography, I have a great interest in sociology, psychology, and philosophy. What I love about all these side-fields is that they overlap and add unto one another. Not only that, but I have probably learned more about street photography from these outside fields than from the field of photography itself.
A field I have been quite fascinated with is called “behavioral economics” the idea that us humans act “predictably irrational”. This means that we all have similar cognitive biases in certain circumstances. Although we like to think of ourselves as rational beings– we are far less rational than we’d like to believe.
In this article I want to share some insights I have learned from “behavioral economics” (which tends to fit into the field of psychology and cognitive science).
In the late 1960′s, photographer Tony Ray-Jones wrote a hand-written note on his “approach” when he took photographs. I think these tips are lessons all of us as street photographers can learn from him. Read more to see some of his inspirational images (and this list typed out):
Some of the photos included in this post are from my on-going “Colors” project.
I am an ardent believer in the idea of “subtractive knowledge” and “via negative” meaning that we learn most from learning what not to do. For example, when I played tennis the maxims I was taught by my amazing coach Greg Lowe was the following:
Don’t be tight
Don’t miss a day of practice
Don’t try to show off
Don’t try to muscle your shots
Don’t worry about losing
Don’t worry about the racket (tennis players have the worst Gear Acquisition Syndrome [GAS])
Through this negative principle, I was able to excel in tennis– going from not making the tennis team my first year as a freshman in High School, to making the #1 doubles team by my Senior year in Varsity.
I feel that the same can be applied in street photography too.
I know that we all hate being told what not to do. After all, we should do what we enjoy, right?
I totally agree with that mentality as well– but I believe it is restrictions that can help develop our creativity.
All photos in this article are copyrighted by their respective photographers.
To continue my street photography composition lessons, I want to now move onto the topic of “figure-to-ground”.
What I learned from Adam Marelli is that one of the most important things in a photo is if it “reads” well. Meaning– if you look at a photo, can you tell what is going on– and see all the subjects clearly?
One of the most important principles is if a photo has strong “figure to ground.” Pretty much what figure-to-ground is having strong contrast between your subject and the background. For example, having a light subject against a dark subject, or a dark subject against a light background.
Eugene Atget has always been sort of an enigma to me. When I started to delve into the history of street photography, a lot of people credited him to being one of the “fathers of street photography.” But when I first looked at his work, I was a bit confused. Most of his photos didn’t have any people in them. His photos were mostly of the architecture of Paris: doorways, arches, door handles, street facades, and the streets themselves.
I always thought that street photography had to include people in it. But Atget was talked about thoroughly in “Bystander: A History of Street Photography” by acclaimed photo historian Colin Westerbeck and by the great Joel Meyerowitz.
Westerbeck further explains the relevance of Eugene Atget by writing the following:
“While stop action images of people are bound to figure prominently in many collection of street photographs, this book also contains many pictures in which there are no people at all. The most salient examples are to be found in the works of Eugene atget. Yet even he was, through implication and inference, trying to show us life onthestreets. Suggesting presence in these midst of absence, he was attempting to reveal the character of the street as it inherited in the setting itself. Like every other practitioner of this genre, he wandered the streets with his camera, looking for what would they be called photo opportunities. More important, he’d was also like every other street photographer in his readiness to respond to errant details, chance juxtapositions, odd non sequiturs, peculiarities of scale, the quirkiness of life on the streets.”
Did Atget even consider himself a street photographer? Certainly not. In no records of him did he ever call himself a street photographer (the term was coined centuries after he even took photos). Not only that, but Atget saw himself as a “collector of documents” rather than being an artistic photographer.
Over the years, I have learned a lot of lessons about street photography. Below is a compilation of some quotes, thoughts, and philosophies which have influenced me and my street photography. None of my ideas are original – some are based on personal experiences and others are based on ideas I heard from books, lectures, and on the internet. And of course, this is not a definitive list of what you “have to do” in street photography – rather it is some of my personal thoughts:
If you are not familiar with the work of Elliott Erwitt, you have definitely seen many of Elliott Erwitt’s iconic work all around the globe. As one of the original Magnum members and former president, he has one of the longest spanning photography careers- spanning over 50 years.
What I most appreciate about Elliott Erwitt is his wry sense of humor when looking at the world– as well as his straightforward and nonsensical philosophies about photography. When sharing his thoughts and advice, I think he is one of the most practical and helpful- especially based on his decades of experience.
I share some things I personally have learned from him in the article below.