This is part two of my review on Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, ‘On Street Photography and the Poetic Image‘.
For part one, click here.
On Creative Tension
“That feeling of being suspended between two worlds, sometimes floating, sometimes tugged in two directions at once.” – RNW
Another aspect that I’m drawn to in photos is emotion. I suppose why I like them is that they can create a connection with the viewer. I think most of the time a photograph that contains emotion, they’re more often than not quite thought provoking, and that makes me want to ask questions.
I think this is something that I would like to portray more in my photographs. Currently I think the emotion is only felt by me. For example a photograph of the Norfolk coastline at sunrise can bring happiness and melancholy. I think maybe I feel this more because it is where I have grown up and it’s where I call home. However when I look at other landscape photos, even though they might not effect me as much as some of mine, they still carry a great amount of emotion.
I think when it comes to my street photography I’m almost always drawn to peoples faces and the stories they tell. I never ask for people to smile as this is often forced and can look unnatural. What I like to do is talk and make them feel relaxed which allows the ‘real them’ surface.
Slowly as my photography experience grows, I’m being more aware on creative composition and cropping. Alex mentions at how much tension can be created through these simple adjustments.
Composition is still something that I struggle with most. I know about different types of rules of framing, however when I’m out shooting landscapes and setting up for a scene, those rules are only suggestions which might only have a very subtle influence on my framing.
Usually I start out with what elements that are in front of me that I want to include in my frame. I look at those elements and place them about until they feel compositionally pleasing to the eye. The only teaching I have is from looking at other photographers work. This isn’t a bad thing as you can see how other’s have approached a scene. It also allows me to think if I would have done anything differently.
However I think that relying too much on other photographers can be a bad thing also. Whenever I visited a location I would be relying too much on other’s compositions instead of following my natural eye.
I think that’s also another struggle I come across with my landscapes, because it isn’t something that changes drastically often, it’s hard to find new ways of capturing it. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence in my landscape abilities, that I don’t think I could ever capture the location as well as others I’ve seen. Thus I try to be someone else instead of being myself. I suppose that’s the appeal of street photography as it’s harder to recreate.
Lost in Istanbul
“Getting lost in Istanbul’s warren of winding streets was the best way to begin to understand this complicated city” – AW
I recently took a trip to Vienna and is probably the second largest city I’ve visited. I enjoy the city where I live, however in comparison to others in the UK and especially around the world. It’s probably classed as a small one, as it’s easy to walk around in less than a day. I was excited to visit a foreign country and it’s capital, it was a chance to explore a new place and see a different city through new eyes.
When I was abroad, one thing I didn’t do was buy data on my phone. What this restricted me from doing was opening up my map app and constantly looking if I was going in the right direction. I think when visiting a city, you can plan places to go to, landmarks to visit, but what I would say is, don’t take the direct route, zig zag your way towards it.
Every city will have it’s mainstream shopping street and the disadvantage with that I find, is that it doesn’t represent it’s location. I prefer going off the beaten track away from the hustle and bustle. Down off the side streets where smaller independent shops have settled and are more individual and unique, much like their owners. With the calmness of the side streets this can also create a more relaxing pace. I can absorb what’s going on around me and go at a speed that’s comfortable to me.
I was introduced to these small independent shops which also allowed me to spend time with the people inside, as they’re not constantly rushed off their feet. This is definitely something I’d like to do more of and that I wish I had done while I was in Vienna.
Reading the Landscape
While Rebecca was in the process of creating her My Dakota book while travelling across the state, she mentions about reading books. One particular sentence stood out to her and a certain book opened her eyes with a fresh perspective of the Great Plains.
I think whether it’s photography or any other type of art, I believe that any artist should seek other outside influences other than their main medium. For me music has always had an influence on my life. It’s probably influenced my mood and maybe even the way I saw the world, especially when I was younger. I wasn’t much of a reader and it’s only since getting older that I’ve been more interested. However what I found that both music and reading allowed me to do, was allow my imagination to grow, as I created worlds myself without any visual references, only the text and sounds around me.
At the moment I would probably say that I’m pretty obsessed with photography. I guess the main reason could be down to how much it’s helped with my depression and that’s something I don’t to lose because of it. Obsession for me isn’t about gear or gadgets but more about how I can use photography to express my creativity.
Alex mentions that everything has a unique journey and begins with an inexplicable obsession, and part of that challenge is finding out what that obsession is.
When I first started out with photography, it was landscapes which interested me most and was my initial direction I took. I’ve always had an affinity towards nature. I suppose I found it peaceful and relaxing, which brought an inner calm. It was only until recently that there was probably some other deeper reasoning for why I photographed nature. At first I thought it was just me capturing nature and it’s beauty, and making pretty images. It’s really only until I started to collect photo books and writing that it’s made me think about why I enjoy landscapes. There’s just as much of a story to tell in my landscape work as there is in my street photography.
With both my landscape and street photography, I find myself constantly revisiting locations. This also might be due to my lack of travel, but I think it’s also because of obsession. I think revisiting locations is a good idea, the obvious reason being due to the changes of weather, but another reason being the change of time. Both time can affect the environment, and you personally. I think the greatest change would be how I see the world, and returning back to the same location would make me curious to see how my approach had altered.
I think what’s fuelled my obsession recently is due to my project which I’ve started. I have all of this creative enthusiasm for this project, that what I don’t want to do is get too attached that I don’t ever let the project end.
In another section it’s mentioned about keeping an open mind when creating a project, even though I have a story I want to tell and illustrate. I need to keep that open mind in case I notice something along the way that’s more important to tell instead of the one I’ve initially chosen.
I’ve not travelled much, but I’ve always had a list of places I’ve wanted to visit, though there are also others I’ve not had an interest in. I recently took a holiday abroad to a country that didn’t interest me much. However if I hadn’t have visited, I wouldn’t have had met some wonderful people and experienced the city first hand. I came away with some great memories but also returned with broader opinions.
The Art of Failure
Alex says that photography is 99.9% failure. Hearing something like that said by such a prestigious photographer can be daunting and discouraging. However I see that as being quite reassuring, to hear that someone like Alex still has the same problems as me or anyone else.
Even though I’ve only been doing photography seriously for about a year, I often think my photos are failures. I think failure will always be a part of the process regardless of how many years I end up doing photography. As I shoot with film, it’s hard for me to say initially if I got anything or not. However there have been times when I’ve spent a 7 hour day walking about and not even found myself pressing down on the shutter. I guess this could be a couple of things, that nothing was really happening, or likely it’s because my eye hasn’t been trained to see what’s around me. Even on days when I find myself taking more photos than usual, most of them will be unused. Though I’d hope that my hard effort would eventually pay off, otherwise I’d have to start questioning why I’m putting all of this time into it.
“The documentary photographer can never rely entirely on imagination: this is one of this kind of photography’s greatest weaknesses.” – AW
One thing that I also really enjoy about photography is that it gets me out of the house. I think too often than not we’re easily persuaded with excuses not to get off our arses. With both landscape and street photography, I have to physically go out to locations if I want to create something. I think I’ve seen more of East Anglia (small region in the UK) in the past year than I have in 25 years.
Alex mentions an analogy by Charles Hubbard of a man with a camera in a white room and how that man could only create white images. I suppose that’s the downside of photography, in that we’re only able to create images with the objects in front of us. I like to think I have a vivid imagination, but it’s still reality which grounds me. I guess it’s because I can easily relate to it in a personal way.
I think what also fascinates me about photography is that is doesn’t lie, yes you can obscure the truth with what’s in the frame, but a photograph can only be created with the objects presented in front of him.
The Wisdom of Revision
I’m probably seen as quite an impatient person when it comes to my art. I’ve always found myself wanting to create it and finish it as soon as the idea has come into my head. I guess that’s another reason why I’ve always been attracted to photography, because you can see your results almost instantaneously. However because of that, my choices on what photographs work or don’t work are obscured.
Rebecca mentions in the book.
“a creative excavation to uncover and begin to understand what the work is truly about versus what I initially thought it was about.”
One of the struggles I still find in my street photography is seeing interesting scenes. I guess that might be due to my thinking that everything looks the same where I live. I’ve always been fascinated by the past and often wish I was born 40 or 50 years ago. Though even if I was, I have a feeling I’d have the same opinion to what I do now.
To overcome this monotonous feeling I have towards my street photography, I’ve decided to flip it around. I now say to myself “what will my images feel like in 40 to 50 years time”. Obviously I can’t answer that but If I just stopped taking photos because I thought the world around me wasn’t interesting, and I then saw photographs 50 years later from this time, I’d probably end up regretting it.
Symphony and Sonata
Alex mentions about his photo books reading like music, with mood and colour playing heavily as the pages are turned. Even though I don’t have a photo book of my own work, what I do have though are projects and photo sets that may eventually become one. Even if they weren’t they may end up being displayed together.
When I started researching street photography, I came to realise the emphasis on projects instead of single images. No matter the medium whether in film or computer games, I’ve always been attracted most by the stories. I guess with that, that’s why street photography has interested me most, and gave me a means to tell my story. What I didn’t realise though was that my landscape photography also gave me the means. Maybe that realisation only occurred to me because before, I didn’t know what I wanted to say.
Going back to Alex’s analogy, I think it’s a good idea to imagine how a project should be structured. For example my landscape project I am currently doing, I have an idea in my mind that the photographs I want to create and an overall flow of these images.
Emotion is one of the most important aspects that should be included in our photography and editing can either help emphasise that or ruin it by poor flow, much like a well conducted orchestra with each instrument working in unison with each other. I think the next time I pick up a photo book, I’ll see if it has any kind of flow or mood as the book progresses.
Time as Editor
One thing that I’ve noticed that’s mentioned a lot, is to leave your images for a period of time before editing them. Eric Kim likes to call it marinating you images. I was on a workshop recently and he used beef as an example, letting it marinate overnight to allow the meat to absorb the flavours. This term marinate could be misinterpreted in the way that over time an average photo gets better the longer it’s left. However at the end of the day, a crappy photo will always be crappy. I think what Eric is tying to say and what’s also mentioned in Alex and Rebecca’s book, is that you as a person marinate. With the age of digital and social media being the norm in our everyday lives, it’s hard to find good images as the world is saturated with photos.
When I first started getting into street photography, I was so excited to see what I captured on film that I developed it as soon as I could. Still having the buzz from shooting while reviewing the negatives and remembering how I felt when I took them. I started to upload them to social media sites. Though after a little while and looking back at those images, I’d lost that emotional connection and realised the images I’d uploaded weren’t that great at all.
With time going by, I was able to edit my photos more honestly. Of course I will still remember the story behind the photo, but the people viewing wont and sometimes the story is more interesting than the photo.
When I heard about Eric’s marinating process I decided to also include that into my work flow. With film it also sounded like a conventional thing to do. Save back a few rolls instead of sending away one film at a time, especially as I’m a pretty slow shooter.
I guess with digital it’s a little harder, but when I recently broke my camera and had it sent away for repair, I was without it for 3 months. During that time I ended up going back through the previous months photos and found images that I had disregarded, however also rejected images that I had initially liked.
No matter the genre or type of photography medium used, I think it’s a good idea to let your images rest a while to allow your choices to be impartial and less biased towards the emotions associated with them.
The Attentive Eye
In this brief section of the book, Rebecca questions about choosing photos for a book and how one can tell if the images are special, one clue she mentions, is that the photo makes her linger.
For me I’ve always found complex layered images grab my attention most. The image still has to have some kind of order and flow for it to work, but I guess the main reason I’m drawn to them is because my eyes wander across the whole frame, looking at all the tiny hidden details.
Because I’m naturally drawn to those types of images it doesn’t mean I disregard other styles. On the contrary, I’m often drawn to peoples faces and especially older maturer people. I guess the reason is like complex frames, but instead of lots of different elements happening at once, it’s the complexity of that person’s face. Their unique imperfections, the wrinkles, their eyes or even the clothes they’re wearing which add it’s own layered style.
I guess why I’ve been so drawn to Alex’s images is because of their ambiguity. He mentions the images he creates hopefully open people’s eyes, with the worlds “complexity, beauty and pain”.
Another aspect in photos that I find that draw me towards them is when I’m made to ask questions, “What’s going on here?”, “Why is that person crying?”, “What’s going on in that shadow?”. I think the reason is because you have to use your imagination to create a story of your own. I think it’s in our nature to seek answers and it frustrates us not knowing them. Because of that I often find myself returning to images that make me ask questions, in hope that time has possibly helped answer any of them, or if I missed some vital detail in the photograph.
There are two different types of photos, open photos and closed photos. Open meaning the photo is open to interpretation and allows the viewer to create a story behind that image. A closed photo is the opposite, in that what you see is what you get. The content is obvious and all answers are present in the frame.
I think currently at the moment my street photos are all closed types and I’d really like to create more open images. One of the reasons being that I think it would add another layer but also out of curiosity, I’d be interested to see how others interpret my photos.
If you search for any of Alex or Rebecca’s books, you’ll notice that they’ve produced some books together. I think when someone mentions the word collaboration, the initial response is to think that two or more people have contributed physically to a project.
However what I’ve learnt from this books is that collaborating can also be something supportive. Just like Alex and Rebecca, I have someone I can go to for help and who can give me advice and critique my photographs.
I think seeking outside opinions, whether someone you trust or through something like a photo group, it’s a good idea as they can be honest and truthful. I think though if you do ask for outside opinions, not to ask for too many, otherwise the advice received could end up being more confusing.
At Days End
“At dusk, these different kinds of light carve out their own separate spaces, their own distinct worlds of colour” – AW
When I first came across Alex’s work, I quickly realised that he often seemed to shoot in the early morning or late evening. Also when I got back into photography, I became aware that sunrises and sunsets are the most spectacular thing to observe. The array and variety of colour that they produce can be breathtaking and the colours can vary even throughout the time of year.
After seeing Alex’s work and realising that was the time of day he shot most, I too wanted to shoot during those hours. Odd that I hadn’t, seeing as I was used to getting up that early. I suppose I always thought that if I was up for sunrise, then I was going to dedicate that time to capturing it, and thus I would go out to make landscape images.
However I’m going to push myself into shooting more street photography during early and late parts of the day. I think one reason why I’d never done that might be geographically. I’ve always found that because I live in a small city, that it gets pretty quiet in the evenings. However I think this is just an excuse to discourage myself.
I think a great way for me to try this out will be during the Autumn when the clocks change and the evenings are brought forward. It’s something I’m looking forward to as it’ll bring new challenges and expand my knowledge to new situations and lighting conditions.
Living and Dying
When reading this book you’ll instantly realise that Rebecca’s book, My Dakota was made through the death of her brother. For me I got into photography because of my depression. At the moment I don’t have a project to express that part of me, maybe because I’m unsure how I’d like to document and present it. However I’ll continue to keep taking photos regardless and maybe I’ll look back and actually realise that the photos I’ve been taking are in part a representation of that depression. Like Rebecca, she didn’t realise until she was creating her project, that the journey was about her brother.
The Secret of Life
Alex mentions that the secret to life is to have a task or something that you devout your life to, but you know you’ll never be able to finish. Something that makes you move forward and which constantly pushes you no matter hard, or however many roadblocks get in your way. Even if they force you to take detours, because you never know, those detours may introduce you to something completely unexpected that you wouldn’t have initially thought of.
For me my task is photography. This probably sounds quite broad, but for me photography was what helped me in tough times, and it’s something I’m unlikely to stop, in case I regress back to how I felt before. If I was to be a little more specific, I want to use photography to help better understand who I am. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to answer that question and because of that I’ll never put my camera down.
Recently while I was out during an early sunrise shoot on the Norfolk coast, I unexpectedly got caught in high tide and ultimately damaged my digital camera. I had it sent away to see if it was repairable and during that time I was able to dedicate my time to my other photography. However over time my depression started to return. What this told me was that my landscape work was just as important to me.
The roadblock for me was that unfortunate accident, however the detour couldn’t have been more convenient. To fill the void that the digital camera made, I purchased a film medium format camera. I was once again able to find the comfort I had before. However this time, I had a greater connection with what I wanted to say and the vision I wanted to show.
Out of all the stories, this quote stood out most above all.
“For me, street photography does not necessarily mean photographing in the streets. More than anything else, I think street photography suggests a photographer’s particular stance or attitude towards the world”
Find out more about Nick and his work:
Photographs copyrighted and used with permission by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris-Webb