Here, Knut Skjærven takes a deeper look into street photography. Read part one here.
A Practical Process
My ambition was never to do yet another study on perception or to embark on an academic path to street photography. What interested me, was to see how I could use the tools as a photographer. Pictures, not words, have the highest priority.
New Street Agenda, evolves in a tandem of shooting and analyzing. I often find an interesting challenge after I have taken a picture. I can go back to the literature and see why a particular image works.
Yes, I know that this for many could sound terribly boring, but remember that this is all still a training ground. The idea is to open a multitude of different venues and put them silently to work. So basically I am just trying out things – the first student.
To my surprise, I found that many of the celebrated photographs Henri Cartier-Bresson made, for instance, had an affinity to gestalt thinking without him knowing anything about it. This goes for many of the other masters too. I recently found that Robert Capa (1913-1954) is a master of executing common fate, which is another gestalt factor in create Itching Images.
I have found no evidence that Henri Cartier-Bresson, or any other of the grand masters, knew anything about gestalt thinking, but nevertheless shot as if they did. By a well-developed instinct they knew what would work in their photography. Call it talent. I take this as a suggestion that there, after all, are some visual basics in street photography that are universally valid and that I need to know about, that I need to write about and to train too.
As I said, I know that this probably sounds terribly boring, but please notice that theory is here to help you along the way and not to hamper your seeing. That is definitely how it worked for me. Basically it comes down to taking a passionate interest and to pick the best creative brains that are available. So that is what New Street Agenda is all about.
Making Itching Images
I find a clear distinction between mere street documentation and what I call “Itching Images“.
Itching Images have an extra layer on top of mere documentation. They have an X factor, that on the surface is something that is just there in the best photographs. It is based on visual instinct, having the ability to take shots like that. The old masters know how this is done. It could be one or more details that the photographer have included, could be the capture as such, the composition or the content or combinations of all these.
When I look at photographs taken by Cartier-Bresson, Frank, Evans and others, the itching elements are what I see. Many are works of art and you don’t leave them after the first glance. I cannot stop looking at good street photographs and I come back to the same pictures time and time again, to learn and to listen.
When I look at newer street photography, I often miss that quality. For one reason or other, many seem to think that as long as you own a camera, are able to lift it into shooting position, press your finger on the release button, and are in an urban area, then you end up with street photography – nothing of the sort, I am afraid. Good street photographs are not made by using your finger, they are made by using your eyes and what you might have to support them.
There is plenty that can be learned very quickly and improvement is right around the corner for those who want to work on it. The challenge is that there is no tradition for learning in this field. Hopefully, New Street Agenda can contribute to a learning approach to street photography. It is a tall agenda, I know, but it is worth trying.
What hampers people, and you can see this in their pictures, is that many seem to think that doing street photography is a pastime activity and that efforts will never amount to anything anyway because it is only photography, not what we consider high art in any way. That attitude, to me, is wholly wrong. If ever there was a photographic discipline that in the words of John Szarkowski, “requires intelligence both acute and supply” it is street photography.
Small Coin Photography
When you look at the pictures accompanying this article, you will see that it is not big drama photography. It is more like low drama or no drama photography.
I love the advice that the philosopher Edmund Husserl once gave to his enthusiastic students attending one of his philosophy classes: “Not the big bills, gentlemen, rather the small coins”.
There is a tendency nowadays, not only in street photography though, that good photography necessarily has to be big bill photography, or high drama photography. Look at the international prizes that are given all over the place: disaster, disaster, disaster is what is honoured. If it wasn’t for human disaster, the Pulitzer Prize in photography would never have had to be invented.
It takes much less of a talent to shoot someone falling from a building in an act of suicide, than it takes to be in control of all the fine tunes in a less dramatic photograph.
There was a recent photo celebration in Copenhagen. The winning picture was of a dead five year old girl laying in her bed having one of her eyelids lifted by a curious young friend. That was the winning image, followed by a couple of disasters runner ups. If that is good photography, I think subtlety in photography have to look elsewhere.
It seems to me, that many have forgotten, that the world around us, and quite close too, is full of potential for great photography – street or no street. Yes, this is basically what I try to do: small coin photography, quite deliberately, too.
I like to compare a photograph to a piece of music. In some respects our ears are better than our eyes to get things right. Listening to a song by Bob Dylan (1941) or an aria by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), you immediately hear when there is something wrong. In a street photograph it is more difficult to detect faults, since the amount of visual information in a single picture is often overwhelming. Besides, most people are not critical, which they should be.
When I look at photographs that I have taken, I ask if they are tunes played well. If not, I have to go back and possibly re-crop, adjust slightly and try again. Luckily modern software editors are fantastic tools for just this work. Often it is a question of doing smaller adjustments.
Try humming your photographs, and you will find what is out of tune. If there is too much noise, that challenges the photographic idea of a picture, you have to work on it more.
Know The Craft
I am utterly convinced that nothing comes from nothing. Before you would want to do smart improvisations on a piano in public, you better learn what a piano looks like and what bus you need to take to get to the concert hall.
Photography did not come easy to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, you name them. There were long years of learning and trying out things. For example, Robert Frank took 28.000 pictures over two years to settle on the 78 to go into his book “The Americans”. That is the ratio you are up against, and the workload you need to take on. If you want to lift your brows even further, be my guest: that is also how Picasso did it, learning by doing and learning by doing more. Remember him?
Spending a couple of hours at the Berggruen Museum at the outskirts of Berlin should convince you. That is part of my default visits when in Berlin. It is a pleasure every time I go there.
Today, taking pictures in the streets is much too easy. Good cameras come at reasonable prices, and many carry smartphones with cameras ready to carpet bomb the world with images. There are plenty of apps that make publishing no effort: Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. You name them. And there are streets all over.
The humanistic approach that stems from classic European street photography, and the respect for people and milieus that came with it, has largely been lost around the modern bend, to the indifference of the many and the regrets of the few. I am definitely not the first to see or say this, but proper street photography seems to be in trouble. The clear signals are blurred and the global noise is hefty.
Can New Street Agenda do anything with this? Probably not, other than remind us that street photography should add to the world of opportunities, and not, by ignorance or other means, contribute to the reduction of them. Basically, it is up to you as a photographer to help prevent this.
So, have a good day and a good life. Good luck with your doings. Even if it is only street photography you are looking at.
– Knut Skjærven
Knut Skjærven, is a Norwegian photographer, reporter and researcher working out of Copenhagen, Denmark. He runs a number of sites on street photography and visual communication. He does workshops and private coaching in street photography and visual communication.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his emerging website New Street Agenda.