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.
Eric’s Note: This article is by Josh White, a street photographer based in Korea. You can also see my interview with him here.
Josh: One of the hardest things to do in the documentary style of photography is to work on a project. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is just deciding on a theme or subject. Of course, that is just the start! In this post, I’ll talk about my philosophy on the subject of photographic projects and how you might start one for yourself.
Sauvetage dun enfant par un enfant (Le Petit Journal)
Eric’s Note: This guest article is by Dan K, a British Camera collector and photography enthusiast based in Hong Kong.
Many of the great photographers whose wisdom we like to quote are successful because they have an innate artistic sensibility. For the rest of us, it is harder to grasp what makes a compelling photo.
I recently attended the gallery of one of Hong Kong’s most famous photographers. Michael Wolf made a name for himself creating images of high visual impact with a subtly dark twist of voyeurism. His own work is compelling, yet his longest wall is filled with countless rows of historical illustrations of Le Petit Journal. These lithographs portrayed the events of the day, in a highly dramatised style.
Eric: This is a guest article by Neil Ta, my homie and babysitter. In this article he shares his new project, “Harmonious China” and his thoughts about the editing process.
Neil: My good friend and International Street Photographer, Eric Kim, first introduced me to the idea of letting photos marinate. The concept is really simple. When we take photos, there is an emotional attachment or bond that reminds us how amazing we felt when we took the image. Photographers who select and post their photos immediately are often times at a disadvantage because they let their emotions at the time of taking the photograph get in the way of their better judgement. To combat this, Eric has recommended to photographers to let their images marinate. As time passes and we revisit our images, we lose that emotional bond that had initially formed and we’re better able to objectively look at our images without biases.
So why the long-winded introduction to my new project, Harmonious China? Taking Eric’s advice, I recently decided to look at my archive of images that I shot in China back in April 2011. I hadn’t looked at these images in a very long time and secretly I was hoping that (by some act of god) I was able to pull something out of there that I had previously missed.
When I began to review the images, so much time had passed that they were fresh to my eyes, Surprisingly, I was able to pull out a number of images that fit into a centralized idea. Because I let the images marinate for so long, there were a number of shots that I forgot I took or had no immediate recollection of where it was taken.
This article is written by Josh White, a street photographer that has traveled throughout Korea, Japan, and Canada. You can follow his blog here.
Josh: Photographic purists, especially ones of the docu/street genre will often argue that photography is a process. They will argue that photography should all be taken seriously and photographs should be left to permeate. They will argue that film photography is good for the up and coming photographer as it teaches patience and discipline. We are more likely to like the photographs taken more recently.
While I believe all this to be somewhat true, photographer’s itch. We itch to take photographs and to look at them. We itch to share them and get feedback. In this world of instant gratification and constant boredom patience doesn’t always come easily.