One of the many fascinating truths about all photography, not just street photography, is that it is often possible to assert with absolute truth and confidence two statements which are at first sight mutually incompatible. Here’s a pair to be going on with. First, ignore what people (especially pundits) say: just look at the pictures. Second, read all you can about the background to the pictures you admire. Study the photographers’ experience, education and interests; the equipment they use; their techniques; their stated philosophy (if any); the analyses others make of their work… You can never learn too much.
Of course, the two aren’t incompatible. Unless you like (or at least admire) a picture, why should you care about who made it, and how? Though in all fairness, if you really dislike it, you may want to investigate its background to try to work out why. From the other direction, no matter how popular a photographer may be; no matter how impeccable their credentials; no matter how laudable their objectives; if the pictures don’t move you, what does any of it matter? Unless, perhaps, you want to try to understand why everyone else seems to “get” them and you don’t. In the realms of street photography, for example, I see little to praise in either Daido Moriyama or Bruce Gilden; but I love Willy Ronis and Gordon Parks. Here’s the important lesson: make up your own mind, and do not be overawed.
Remember too that there can be a big difference between the sort of pictures you admire, and the sort of pictures you want to take; let alone the way you take them. To choose an example from way outside street photography, I used to love Ansel Adams’s landscapes. I chewed my way through the almost unreadable Holy Trinity of The Camera, The Negative and The Print, all of which manage to combine needless over-complication in some areas with dire oversimplification in others. I started learning how to use large format properly. When I moved to California, I went to Yosemite. I soon came to the conclusion that not only was I probably incapable of taking pictures like Ansel Adams’s: I didn’t even want to.
Then I saw some original prints. I found them sterile and grotesquely over-enlarged; but that’s another story. I also realized that the work of most Ansel Adams wannabes screams that they are Ansel Adams wannabes: there is little or nothing original in it. Suffice it to say that my most successful landscapes since have been shot on 35mm and medium format and (to a lesser extent) on digital. By contrast, I learned a lot from Derriere L’Objectif de Willy Ronis (Behind Willy Ronis’s Lens, unfortunately available only in French): lessons I could not only use, but enjoyed using.
Frances Schultz shot this at a re-enactors’ gathering in Kent. All kinds of re-enactors were there, from Roman legionaries to the Hitler Jugend. This one is from the American Civil War. The thing is, people at such events expect to be photographed, so that’s one less thing to have to think about. You don’t have to worry about their reactions. Instead, you can just concentrate on shooting: on composition and exposure and all the technical/arty side, rather than on dealing with potentially refractory people.
Even so, you want to be reasonably quick off the mark. You always do in street photography. A good rule is to shoot as soon as you see the picture, and then, if you have the option, to try to improve on your initial shot. Surprisingly often, you can’t. There is a freshness and immediacy to the first shot that is often lost in subsequent images, even if the subject doesn’t move and ruin the composition that caught your eye in the first place. Of course this is far from always true: quite often, you can “shoot around” a subject, getting better and better pictures as you get into it. At that, though, you have to shoot the first picture sometime, and it’s generally better to shoot it earlier rather than later.
This is about one-third of a 35mm frame. The camera was a Voigtländer Bessa-R with a 50/1.5 Nokton, and the film was Ilford XP2, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, selenium-toned. But I’ll talk more about cameras and cropping next time.
You can see more from Roger on his website – Roger Hicks