Not interested in rules – tell me a story

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by Nancy Lehrer

“I am not interested in rules and conventions … photography is not a sport.” Bill Brandt

Since the discovery and publicity of the Vivian Maier collection in 2011, it seems that the genre of Street Photography is experiencing resurgence. Vivian Maier is the Chicago nanny that left 100,000 medium-format negatives and thousands of prints in a storage locker. John Maloof discovered her work when he purchased the collection at a furniture and antique auction while researching a history book about Chicago’s NW side.

With resurgence, however, also comes strong opinion and debate about definition and process. Some street photographers insist that ‘street’ must include people, others object and opine instead about the street photography aesthetic and approach. Some street photographers focus on gear and follow after the footsteps of the early 20th century practitioners, Henri Cartier-Bresson for example, using only range-finder style cameras equipped with 28, 35 or 50mm lenses, loaded with B&W Tri-X film. Others, such as Jay Maisel, freely use high-end digital SLRs with general-purpose 28-300mm zooms.

Additional topics of debate include the use of color or black-and-white, the inclusion of people, the role of a street portrait, the use of long-focal length lenses, and what amount post processing is acceptable.

The term street photography actually came about as a means to differentiate it from the kinds of photography that were done in a studio setting or dealt with pictorial landscapes. The pioneers set out to capture the common-day life around them and, as a result, their cameras evolved to support their new ideas and, needless to say, required portability. I suggest that it is not so important to debate the gear and definition or rules of street photography, but rather how to go about creating and evaluating your own street images.

Studying both historic and modern street photography, you begin to realize that street photography is far more than just B&W images of people in awkward positions with dumb or surprised looks on their faces. Each image should be both visually compelling as well as tell a story.

Similar to writing, a good story is one that is clearly told, has character development, and leaves something to the imagination. In visual story-telling, clarity is managed by deciding what to exclude from an image. You must ask yourself if all the elements in the image are contributing to the story. Character development is achieved by the use of perspective, color, lighting, and the juxtaposition of image elements. You must explore how to exaggerate the message in your story. And finally you must pique the viewers’ interest by leaving out something important with either spatial or temporal reference to something exterior to the frame.

Today, there is a vast array of digital cameras that can meet the needs for the agile street photographer, ranging from the modern dSLR, to the new mirror-less and micro-four-thirds systems, to the digital point-and-shoot cameras, and the camera phones. Our job is to use our eyes to find our modern stories and capture them with clarity.

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6 Comments to “Not interested in rules – tell me a story”

  1. Through the many fine examples you have posted here and elsewhere on the web, you make it clear what street photography is when you do it. What is not so clear to me is how willing you are to include as street photography the work of photographers who photograph on the streets from a very different perspective.

    In particular, I wonder what you think of photographers, such as Mark Carline, who photograph the streets themselves and _not_ the life that goes on in the streets. He is doing an extensive and excellent series of HDR photos of streets in Chester, England, which can be seen on Flickr. Do you accept what he does as street photography or would you prefer to call it something else such as, say, “urban landscape”?

    Mark Carline’s street photos can be seen here:

    • Morton – Mark Carline’s HDR work is beautiful. What is at the top of his flickr stream (http://www.flickr.com/photos/markcarline/) feels more like architecture than street photography. In fact, he even has an “archtiecture” portfolio on his website. http://www.markcarline.co.uk/portfolio/architecture He also has some very traditional street stuff on his website at http://www.markcarline.co.uk/portfolio/street-photography

      I don’t think of “street photography” in a subject sense, though typically there is a sense of candid frozen moments. It is so difficult to classify different genres and ultimately it is not important. Some imagery, however, is harder to evaluate for its “goodness” than others. That ultimately is the point of this article. If you are doing candid’s in a public setting, make sure that there is some interest behind the story. Don’t just give me a surprised face.

  2. I was thinking of his Chester Then and Now set. Somehow the URL got dropped from my comment. It is:

    The Cross 2012

    Do you consider those images to qualify as street photography? I agree it’s not important whether you say yes or no. But I’m curious as to where you draw your boundaries.

    • I would still call these architecture. For me the intent is to capture the buildings and architecture concentrating on square lines and full detail.

  3. lol thanks for your comments guys 😉 – I happened to stumble across these comments when I was googling my name!

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