(Pablo Picasso’s original quote: “Bad artists copy, good artists steal”)
When I first started street photography, I remember doing a ton of google searching on street photography. Of course, the first street photographs I saw were street photography from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Andre Kertesz, and the work of the greats. I also remember seeing a lot of street photography from the guys at in-public, being especially drawn to the work of Matt Stuart, David Gibson, and Jesse Marlow.
I was quite drawn to capturing ”decisive moments”, humorous juxtapositions, and surrealistic images. That was all I was exposed to, and all I knew. I thought that was the only way to shoot street photography, and devoted myself to shooting that style.
I shot in a similar way of working for around two years. I would look for interesting backgrounds, wait for the right person to enter the scene, then try to capture the right person walking past. Either that, or I would always have my camera ready by my side, looking for interesting moments to capture.
However after a while, it got quite boring to me. That way of working started to feel a bit contrived: just wait long enough, and you might capture something interesting.
Therefore I got my ”quarter life street photography crisis” and was in dire need of trying something new. I took my best images from the last two years, and added them to my ”All the World’s a Stage” series to my site. I then turned to YouTube to find some new sources of inspiration.
Around the time I remember seeing Bruce Gilden’s video, and thought to myself, ”Man what an asshole!” I could never imagine flashing someone in the face and taking their photograph from around a meter away. Not only that, but I was curious why he didn’t get punched in the face after a while. However being intrigued by his approach and powerful images, I decided to experiment and try something similar.
Around that time, I then had my buddy Rinzi Ruiz record a video of me shooting street photography with a flash in the streets of Hollywood. The video got considerable negative backlash on the internet, and I got tons of feedback people telling me that I was just a ”Bruce gilden wannabe” and that I had no style, and was just copying him. I got lots of other overly negative feedback (and just plain hate) as well. My favorite one was someone saying, ”I’m ashamed to call myself Asian after watching this.”
People say, ”sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” That’s a bunch of b.s. For a few weeks after getting all this criticism online, it got to me quite personally. I lost sleep over it and constantly would ask myself questions like, ”Do I really have my own style?”, ”What makes my vision of the world unique?” and ”How do I find my own style without copying others?” Realizing that I hadn’t picked up my camera for a few weeks, I sought the advice of some people in photography I deeply respect and admire their opinions.
Bill Reeves is an incredibly talented documentary photographer based out of Austin Texas, and has taken courses with Magnum photographers Eli Reed and even has Paulo Pellgrin as his mentor (lucky bastard). Anyways, he told me over the phone, ”Style isn’t something aesthetic”. That phrase jumped out at me, and I sat down and had to think about it for a second. I asked myself, ”Wait, if style isn’t something aesthetic, then what is it?”
Curious for more answers, I asked my friend Adam Marelli, a street photographer and artist based out of New York city. I asked Adam the same question and his background studying art gave me huge amounts of insight. He told me something along the lines of, ”Whoever says that you develop your own style doesn’t know a thing about history. If you study history, pretty much what happened was that apprentices would study under master painters and tried to copy their style for many years. Once they got to a certain level, they would then be able to find enough variations in their work to either overcome their master or go off in a separate way. This is how apprenticeship worked.”
Hearing what they had to say, I also stumbled upon a quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson who said something like, ”There is no such thing as originality. Only a novel rearrangement of pre-existing ideas.”
Pablo Picasso even once said, ”Bad artists copy, good artists steal.”
After hearing and reading all this advice, I sat down and let these ideas marinate in my head. I took away three important things:
- Style isn’t something aesthetic
- The greatest artists ”copied” their masters before finding their own voice
- Originality doesn’t exist
I then worked on breaking down these ideas and tried to apply them to myself.
1. Style isn’t something aesthetic
I always thought my ”style” was shooting in black and white, waiting for the decisive moment (when shooting like Henri Cartier-Bresson, or shooting up-close with a flash (like Bruce Gilden). If style wasn’t something aesthetic, it must have been my subject matter.
I read in Magnum photographer David Hurn’s book ”On Being a Photographer” that the photographer is essentially a subject-selector. When shooting on the streets, I would choose certain subjects while ignoring others. What was my decision based on?
Well I studied sociology while a university student at UCLA. I had always been fascinated by human interaction, and started taking photographs as a first year. Therefore combining both interests, my passion for street photography emerged. I had always been interested in themes like socio-economic differences based on class, the unhappiness that wealth can bring us (and the evil of the ”rat race”), the ugly parts of consumerism and capitalism, the effect of technology on our interactions, and the way that globalization is changing the world.
A light then instantly turned on in my head. My ”style” of street photography wasn’t what lens, camera, distance, or medium I used for my photography. It was my interest in sociology and applying that to my photographs. At the end of the day, I wasn’t really a ”street photographer” but a sociologist with a camera as my research tool to analyze, document, and criticize the world around me.
2. The greatest artists ”copied” their masters before finding their own voice
The concept of ”street photography” is only a phrase coined by art critics, historians, and academics. Most of the famous ”street photographers” don’t even like calling themselves street photographers. Even Garry Winogrand, arguably one of the best of this century said he despised the term.
However the term is important to differentiate ourselves from other types of photographers to masses. Calling yourself a street photographer is easier to describe what you do than calling yourself a landscape photographer.
Therefore if you discover you enjoy taking photos of people in public candidly, it is ”street photography”. Whatever you find on ”street photography” on google is dictated by what images turn up on the top of google images or what websites pop up. That’s why we always think that street photography has to look like the classic work of henri cartier-Bresson and so forth.
However if you look up ”street photography” on Youtube, the first thing you may see is a video of gilden in action. Therefore people in the ”Internet generation” may think that ”street photography” is what gilden does when shooting on the streets.
It is impossible to start street photography or even have a notion of it without having seen the work of others before you. I always think that it’s b.s. when people say that they are never influenced by the work of others. Of course you would have seen amazing images of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s couple kissing in times square, or the lifting of the flag at iwo jima, or the photo of the afghan girl by Steve McCurry without having ever touched a camera.
Most photographers I have met who are quite established always have a similar story of either seeing incredible images when they were young that inspired them to pick up a camera, or by their parents who were also photographers.
Therefore I think that style in street photography is something that we can learn to develop by first studying the work of those who came before us. We learn not only which subjects they chose, but how they framed and composed their photos, and what equipment and approach they had. After all, it is useful to know that Henri Cartier-Bresson used a Leica that is compact and agile, whereas Ansel Adams used a large-format camera that was bulky but captured incredible detail in his landscape work.
Therefore steal all the work that you can. Look at all the images of the famous street photographers that came before you, and look at a lot of the great work from contemporary photographers, and even the work of those online. Be a sponge and absorb all the knowledge and insights as you can, but synthesize everything that you has learned and apply it to your own unique vision of the world.
3. Originality doesn’t exist
The idea that any sort of photography (or art) is ”original” is absolutely absurd. We look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and think it was original. But it wasn’t. His first interest in photography came out of his interest in drawing and painting. He learned drawing from his master, and his master learned from the master before him, who ”copied” the work of renaissance painters, who ”copied” the work of sculptors from the ancient Greeks, and so on.
In David Hurn’s ”On Being a Photographer” book one of the things that he mentioned is the most damaging to an aspiring photographer is to say, ”Don’t do that, it has been done before”. If that aspiring photographer tried to work on a project on food and someone said, ”Oh, martin parr has already done it, don’t do it” think about the effect of that statement.
That aspiring photographer may have never even heard of Martin Parr, therefore his or her images most likely wouldn’t look anything like Martin Parr’s work. Even if the photographer knew the work of Martin Parr, no matter how hard he or she tried, they could never take an image that looked like Martin Parr– as they aren’t Martin Parr. I’m quite certain that even the work of Martin Parr was heavily influenced by the work of others he has seen (Parr collects a massive amount of photo books, memorabilia, postcards, prints, and random things).
You are unique and see the world in a different way. That is the ”lens” you have of the world, and your ”style”.
In this article I discussed some of my personal experiences in finding my own ”style” when it comes to street photography, and I am discovering new things everyday. My views of the world and feelings of street photography constantly change and evolve, based on the work I see from other photographers, and the people I meet. People say it is contradictory and bad. I see it as being open-minded and positive.
Steal ideas constantly. Read a ton of books, photographs, movies, music, and literature from others. Use the ideas of those who came before you, and synthesize them to create your own unique voice.
Realize that style isn’t something you learn, but rather discover. Your ”style” isn’t something aesthetic, but how you see the world. It is the reason you make the decision to take a photograph of an old couple holding hands on the train, versus shooting a macro shot of a flower (with tons of bokeh).
Take in the criticism and critique from others, but in the end don’t try too hard to please others and everybody you know. First aim to satisfy yourself, and create a body of work which shows how you see the world in a certain way. Work on a long-term project for a year with one camera and one lens and don’t worry too much about being ”original” or about the gear. Constantly experiment, but not so much that you lose focus.
Ask yourself the question, ”How is the way that I see the world different from others?” After all, every photograph you take is a mirror of yourself.
TLDR; style in street photography isn’t something aesthetic, but rather how you see the world and what statement you are trying to say.
Thoughts, opinions, comments about originality and street photography? Which parts of the article do you agree/disagree with? Contribute your ideas in the comments below!