Looking for Customers by I Nancy, on Flickr
“I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.” Saul Leiter in an 2009 interview with Dean Brierly
In general, I find editing my own work, choosing the good from the mediocre, terribly difficult. With my street photography I find it even more difficult because I don’t have the simplest lesson of beauty to apply. Insted, I have been experimenting with a method of evaluation that I recently developed while studying the works of various street photographers and after a very useful portfolio review with Ibarionex Perello. Ibarionex hosts a podcast, The Candid Frame, where he interviews photographers on being photographers. His interviews are not about gear or situation, but about process and approach. His method for about talking about photography, not photographic technique, was reflected in my portfolio review. Ibarionex and I talked a lot about commanding the frame, intimacy, finding the story, and capturing the right moment. We discussed my strongest images and also my near misses. In the near misses, the photographic technique and framing were fine, but some strong essence was missing. Coming away from the review, my task is to determine how to better recognize the strong work from the near misses and I decided that I would look at some of my favorite street photography and try to determine what made them strong for me.
My initial study was the photographer Saul Leiter. Saul Leiter, primarily a fashion photographer working from the late 1950’s through the 1980’s, also embarked on a personal endeavor in street photography. I am familiar with his work through a small, and inexpensive, volume simply entitled Saul Leiter (Photofile). Using my gut instinct, I chose a small collection images from this volume which were the most memorable and powerful for me. As I studied them, I recognized three elements exhibited in each of these photos: story, visual interest, and strong compositional force or gesture.
Concerning story, in each Leiter image an underlying story is brewing, The story is shown ambiguously and in such a manner that the viewer is only able to experience its beginning or ending. In one image we see the feet of a man on a ladder leaning against a storefront. We wonder what he is doing, how long he has been there, and a dozen other questions?
The second element of my theory is the display of visual interest. This involves visual stimulus in the form of fine details, colored textures, or repetitive patterns, any one of which might be real or reflected. In most of his images there is this captivating backdrop that is full of texture or light or color which in no way distract but instead provide a deep experience within the frame.
And finally, in these images there is always one dominant compositional force or gesture such as a strong diagonal, an overarching shape, a heavy framing, or a contrasting splash of light or color. I can’t find a really good definition of gesture to capture my meaning. I am meaning more than just a human facial expression or body pose. Examples in Leiter’s images include the large shape of figure in shadow, a strong diagonal formed by a ladder, the heavy framing of a window or door, deep negative space of an awning, a splash of light and color on a patterned dress, a red umbrella, repetitive panels of alternating color or texture, and the human gesture of walking or doing.
My working theory of how this photographic trinity works is as follows: the story pulls you in, the visual interest keeps you busy, and the strong compositional force binds it all together.I’ve started to apply this evaluation to not only my own images, but to others as well. It is a theory that goes beyond tips and techniques invaluable during image making such as “get closer”, “look for good light”, “follow good compositional rules”. Instead it is a theory that allows me to understand the whole after it has been put together to try to get a handle on what makes it work, or not, after all your best image making skills have been applied.
Here I present Waiting for Customers taken at the Ventura County Fair, one of my favorite venues for photography because you can do both night photography and street photography all in the same setting. The story here is contained in the anticipatory look of the carnival game operator leaning slightly outward with the ball in hand and raised eye brows, working on enticing customers to play his game. The visual interest is provided by the brightly light game stand which also provides a nice rim light onto the subject. The game prizes also provide a solid framing to provide focus onto the subject while also providing interesting context. And, finally, the gesture is the operators stance and lean and the strong leading line of the game railing.