Sunday, November 01, 2020

A little street music

Walk on by, Madrid

When I sat down to write my November- December article for Shadow and Light my heart was set on an examination of Street Photography. In fact, I had written a couple of hundred words when I realized that a full throated exploration of that broad topic would fill the entire magazine. Further, illustrating the piece with my own street photographs lunges toward hubris. But I do love capturing a slice of life, memorializing a moment worth remembering and recording a thread of history.

Trabajadores, Antigua, Guatemala

Choreography, Los Angeles

From the Hotel Medio Dia, Madrid

I was pivoting toward the monumental landscape and the epic sky as I typed the last sentence. Then it dawned that a big part of my heart belongs to street photography and I’m sticking to my guns. Street Photography it shall be.

Out of the shadows, Las Vegas, NM

The tin man, Antigua, Guatemala

First Communion, Antigua, Guatemala

The first photograph, apropos to the subject, was a street photograph in 1816 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It was a Paris street scene without a human subject. I say “made” because the cameras of the day were clumsy and slow, and the processes were wet, sloppy, unforgiving. Those folks could time the exposure with a calendar. I exaggerate just slightly. So, while street photography and “Candid” Photography have been used somewhat interchangeably those early efforts were far from candid. Photographs of actual breathing humans were posed, static and still. Stopping motion would have been quite impossible. Though in 1838 Louis Daguerre captured a standing man at a doorway at the distance. The first mechanism definable as a “shutter” appeared in 1845. It was invented by two French, you are shocked, physicists Messrs. Fizeau and Foucault. The shutter was based on yet another laudable French invention, the guillotine. The device was a board with a hole in the center. When the shot was made, the board dropped into a slot in front of the lens. We know that Matthew Brady used a Guillotine shutter starting in 1850 and through the Civil War. And by 1870 a shutter was developed that would allow a 1/50th of a second shutter speed which with enough ambient light would produce an image with only half the humans blurred.

Slumber, Madrid

Ticket please, Avignon

We have made a mighty leap since those tedious days. We’ve leapt to high resolution digital cameras which deliver nighttime photographs shot at an ISO of 12,800 with little apparent noise. We have no excuses.

Street Photography takes in a lot of territory and, certainly if it infers spontaneity and the capture of discrete moment in time, photojournalism must be included within it. And it’s from photojournalism that come the most important photographs in history. Some of them rise to the level of high art and are far more than a record.

Memorable street photographs have important content and strong composition. Most photographs have content important or worth memorializing to the photographer. Good design is harder to come be. Cartier-Bresson suggested that the composition of a photograph should be subject to the same rigors of a painting. This from a man who began as a painter only to discover he was a better photographer. Juxtapositions within an image create tension between the elements in the frame. There can be two elements competing for the viewer’s attention or several.

Since the mid-19th century, we’ve had a fascination with verité in photography. Grit and pathos undergird the pantheon of street photography and of photojournalism. Street Photography documents the arch of social change like nothing else. The transitional moments in our history for 200 years have been saved for posterity by street photographers and photojournalists who are there when the event occurs. You have to be there to get the shot.

Legendary photographer Joel Meyerowitz has said. “I think that as long as there’s photography, there’ll always be people trying to make street pictures….” Meyerowitz called the good ones “tough” pictures. “Tough” was a term we used a lot. Stark.” he added. Tough meant it was unflinching, hard to see and yet unforgettable. Tough meant hard to do. If it were easy everybody would do it. Make a photograph so profound that the viewer feels what your subject was feeling. Make a photograph that tells a story or that demands that one to be written by the viewer for the image before them.

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

Election Day in the United States and I am looking at your blog, pondering each of the slices of life you captured. They are happening today all over the world as politics is the order of the day, but life is also the order of the day. And the images you posted in your blog demonstrate so many feelings and situations. Your man walking in Madrid has been one of my favorites since you shot it those years ago. But there were a couple I do not remember, including The Tin Man, which is also a fine image. And I thank you for the history of photography, including street photography, wondering how it is being framed today. Thank you for your post. Shadow and Light is lucky to have you among its contributors!