The Lessons of Shooting Street Photography in a Small City

"Take it inside..." - Keith Chastain
"Take it inside…" – Keith Chastain. Berkeley

Eric: For this guest post I am pleased to feature Keith Chastain, an incredibly passionate street photographer who currently lives in a small city. Many of you in the past have asked me advice about shooting street photography in a small city and franking speaking– I wasn’t quite sure what to say. However Keith is able to balance his life in the small city, while scratching his itch for street photography while hitting up big cities like San Francisco. Read more to see his images and read his insight about the subject.

Keith: I’m thinking of an unoriginal analogy for street photography…Bear with me here…Street photography is a lot like fishing right? We have our favorite spots that usually guarantee us a few bites. Sometimes we come home with a few catches that are small and should have been thrown back, while other times we might return with the big one….A capture worthy of hanging over the fireplace like a fat marlin an old angler dreams of. The fundamental aspect of fishing is fish, just as people are the ones we street photographers set out to catch on any given day.

I love watching people. Maybe that’s why I fell deeply in love with the widely interpreted photographic genre we call street photography. When I look at photographs from masters like Cartier, Winogrand, or my favorite Helen Levitt, I see simple genius in images of people. Taking the ordinary and common mental pictures we see every day, these masters make the normal stand the test of time as works of art. What common subject do we see in their work?…you guessed it…People. I love watching people.  So, the name of the game for the quirky people we are as street photographers is to go where people are and start shooting right? Exactly…but…what if there aren’t enough people swimming in the pond of opportunity for street photographs?

"Balloons..."- Keith Chastain
"Balloons…"- Keith Chastain. Merced

I live in a “small city” by everyday terms. I live in a roughly 80,000 farming oriented- underdeveloped, under-cultured person kind of small city. I live in Merced, and I love it here. I grew up here, went to school here, went off to a University, and came back here. I’m raising my family here. I will most likely die here.

Merced, while not the tiny cow town it used to be 75 years ago, is still small compared to the likes of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, or the Mecca of street photography, New York City. Let me tell you something about shooting street in a small city…It’s hard to do. More than any other area of photography I’ve explored, I love shooting street the most; however, I live in a small city… a small town that rarely offers the river of people you see in large cities. Until the other day, I thought I needed what large cites have in order to relieve the shutter itch I get so often.

"I'll get what she's having..." - Keith Chastain
"I'll get what she's having…" – Keith Chastain. Merced

Since we’re speaking of people let’s look at the math of one city I often travel to in order to shoot street and another city I hope to visit someday. San Francisco has an average of about 16,000 people per square mile, and it’s fairly condensed and not stretched out to the horizon like Los Angeles is. Most of my work is from San Francisco and the outlying areas of this beautiful city. Now let’s look at New York City. New York has an average of 32,000 people per square mile. That’s double what San Francisco gives me, and a hell of a lot of people. Just being there presents a plethora of photographic opportunities for street shooters that I never see here in Merced. In large metro-cities you not only have tons of people at any given time, but you also have culture, daily events, and an endless sea of life passing before your eyes. Most importantly, in a large city like LA or NYC, the street shooter can remain anonymous…Which for me, is paramount to the context of my street photography. If my subjects know I’m there, I just lost my best fishing lure for street photography.

Now let’s examine Merced. A small town that I have grown up in, have taught in for 18 years (I’m a Jr. High teacher by day), and unfortunately for shooting street…I am recognized in. I can’t be anonymous here, unless I wear a disguise, and I have yet to wear a wig or fake mustache.  So, shooting street in a small town is very challenging to say the least…especially one where you have spent the better part of 40 years calling home.

"It's Showetime..." - Keith Chastain
"It's Showetime…" – Keith Chastain. Merced

Ultimately though (or so I thought), it is goes back to people, and the amount of people that live here. Unless there’s a big city-wide event that brings thousands of Mercedians together, I’ll be lucky to see more than twenty people at any given time walking down main street…and the further from the center of downtown I go, the less people there are. So regrettably, I rarely shoot here, and the lack of local material I have in my street portfolio is digital proof of this. It can be done and I have done it, but I don’t get the “bites” I do when I travel to other cities to do street work. This brings me back to the title of this article…The lessons of a small city.

A couple months ago I went to the  San Francisco/Berkeley area to get my street photography fix and came back happy and content that I had some material with which to work on. I don’t know about you, but because I don’t live in a large city, eventually my posted material runs out, and I’m left once again with nothing new to work on or post…and the itch to “fish” soon returns.

"Love & Hate..." - Keith Chastain. SF
"Love & Hate…" – Keith Chastain. SF

Last week, I went on a trip with my family to a small–and I mean small– coastal city called Pismo Beach. We went with my parents to get out of the valley heat, spend time with my family and surf with my two kids. Located in San Luis Obispo county, Pismo has only about 9,000 people living there. If Merced’s population can be compared to a school of minnows, Pismo’s would literally be a single fish.

Like always I brought my gear, as we photographers, (like the old American Express ads used to say), don’t leave home without it. Street photography is my true passion behind the glass, but I also enjoy shooting macro and landscape photography if it presents itself. I brought my camera and a few lenses thinking, “Hell…I’m going to a beach…there has to be some good landscape shots or dune shots there right?”…Wrong. It was foggy most days so the landscape lighting was non-existent and there were dune buggies or footprints everywhere a sand dune sat. So, with my camera left in the corner, I went to do other things with my family.

"Surf's up" - Keith Chastain. Pismo Beach
"Surf's up" – Keith Chastain. Pismo Beach

The more I went downtown in Pismo and walked around, the more I thought of Merced and it’s lack of people. Once again,  the itch to shoot street was there and I thought, “…Maybe I could try to shoot some street instead of seeing my wife go into girly shops, while I sit outside on a bench with the other husbands.”  I swear, they put those benches there for that very purpose.

Anyway, next time we went downtown, I took my camera, slapped on my wide angle 12-24mm Nikkor, and just went for it.  There was something new here. There are always your average tourists which don’t interest me much, but the locals of Pismo suddenly opened a door for me. I never thought I could get street shots of surfers, or bikers in leathers lounging outside their local haunt, smoking and drinking and dreaming of where the road will take them tomorrow. And there it was…it hit me like a breaking wave. I didn’t need a cargo ship full of people to shoot street. I didn’t need events, or streets crawling with people like so many urban crabs…it was an epiphany…I just needed people…or if there was a minimalist approach to my street photography…a single person. Just one person was all I really needed to throw out my line with bait for a possible “big one” to add to my street photography work.

"Surf Bros" - Keith Chastain
"Surf Bros" – Keith Chastain

I came home from Pismo tired, but happy. I had shots of the family, aching ribs from surfing wipeouts, and low and behold…I actually had some street photography material from a small city of 9,000 people. That small quaint city by the sea gave me lessons to take back with me. It taught me that I don’t always need to travel to a large city to get street shots, and it inspired me to shoot street in my own backyard. Yes, I may be recognized here in Merced but there are many who won’t know me…and those people, my people, might be some of my best work yet.

I came away from that Pismo trip knowing that indeed, shooting street photography in a small city might be challenging, but in many ways it has greater rewards…it forced me to work a little harder for that shot, stay a while longer in that spot, and to always remember that where people are, or a person is, a beautiful and magical human moment might be waiting to be captured and framed forever over the mantel.

Keith Chastain – 6/2011


So what have your experiences been in shooting street photography in a small city? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below!