Discouraged? Don’t be. Street photography can be a lot of fun and there are still unique and distinctive photographs to be made. However, you’ll want to steer clear of the clichéd aesthetic, costly workshops, and constricting rules. In order to make good street photography in the visual age you will have to both learn the history of photography and then develop your own style within that conversation. It’s not as hard as it sounds, I promise. Here’s my story and how I eventually developed an instantly recognizable style.
In the beginning I was like every other newbie street photographer. I idolized Bruce Gilden, took side shots of people doing ordinary things, and truly believed that I needed a Leica to do it. I soon learned that Gilden was interesting, but not God, that the photos I was making were anything but unique (let alone interesting), and that a Leica M was too heavy to be practical, at least for me. Oh, I even read Eric Kim.
Soon after I began to dig through classic photo books. I was immediately and instinctively drawn to the work of Mark Cohen and Daido Moriyama. So I went through a period where I copied their work. I bought a Ricoh GR 1V 35mm and tried to be Moriyama. I made some interesting work, but it was very much a copy of much greater work. The images were also aesthetically familiar.
Next, I got a Ricoh GR Digital IV camera. Very small, light, and so fast it was without rival. This allowed me to capture images without really being seen or detected. I also decided that I would diversify my location and I began to shoot on the beach, as well as the sidewalks. I didn’t have a viewfinder and I had the LCD turned off. With a 28mm, you come to learn to see how the camera sees. I could simply aim the camera body and know pretty much what I was getting in the frame. I combined all of this with Cohen’s influence of cutting off heads and Daido’s gritty, grainy aesthetic and came up with something that began to resemble my own style. It wasn’t easy and it was a long process over multiple years. When I first returned to photography in 2010 after more than ten years away from the camera, I was shooting color images of doorknobs – a far cry from my apocalyptic images of sunbathers at Coney Island. Be patient and persistent, your style will emerge when you least expect it.
Since this early work, I have also produced other bodies of work that stands apart aesthetically from much of the most common street photography. I bought a Japanese Harinezumi camera and produced a monograph of low-fi color beach photography at Coney Island. Love it or hate it (there are many people in each camp) the work is different, uniquely my own. Currently, I am working on a body of street photography that is largely devoid of people and is exclusively captured on disposable cameras. Again, not for everyone, but it is novel in it’s vision and approach. The message here: following rules, copying the masters, and spending all my time buying gear never produced any good photographs. When I broke free of those things and focused inward I came into myself as a photographer.
What about the camera? I hear all you GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) sufferers, “he didn’t talk about gear!” Okay, my advice, keep it simple. Spend a lot less time worrying about gear and a lot more time worrying about what your photographs have to say to the world. Worry about your vision and your style. These are all more critical questions than which camera you should use. Any camera can be made to be submissive to the artist and render work that has vision. I published a whole collection of work made with a $150 Harinezumi with 3 mega pixels. Regardless, choose something small, compact, versatile and light. Something you can take everywhere, but still produces a quality photograph. If I had to name one camera currently on the market it would be the Sony RX-100 Mark IV. This camera is versatile, small, affordable, and can produce images that rival cameras twice the price and three times the size. It’s a great camera and I say that because I believe it, not because I have any affiliation with Sony. I don’t.
If you want to try your hand at 35mm, I’d recommend getting a fast compact. This will allow you an affordable entry into analog. Once you get your feet wet, if you like analog (and you can stomach the increasing costs of film and processing) you can upgrade to something more substantial. Whatever you do, don’t buy a two thousand dollar 35mm camera if you don’t know what you’re getting into, or because some workshop leader encouraged it. Find an Olympus MJU II (often still available new on eBay and elsewhere). This is a fast, light, compact camera with an incredibly sharp 35mm f2.8 lens. It even focuses in the dark, thanks to its very accurate inferred focusing.
In the end, you will have to develop your own style and you will have to do it largely on your own. I only tell you about my journey in street photography as a way of illustrating that simply grabbing a camera and clicking your way down the street is, at best, only going to produce digital noise for social media. To truly contribute to the larger conversation in street photography you will need to push the boundaries, avoid the rules, and experiment constantly. Never get comfortable. Go out and make mistakes, take bad photographs, but do your own “thing”. Read books, and not only about photography – about the world. Watch cinema and become fluent in visual language. Learn to see in ways others don’t or can’t. Learn to be an artist, not merely another bloke with a camera. Street photography is not dead, but it is hurting. A sort of renaissance is needed and is hopefully on its way.