Consistency is good in photography. When I see poor photography, one of the elements that always seems to be missing is consistency. Your work should look like your work and no one else’s. One of the ways to achieve consistency of style is to stick to your guns when it comes to your “vision”. Even if people don’t respond well to your photos, initially, you should keep doing you. Chances are greater that it will pay off than not over the long haul. Another important aspect of achieving consistency in photography is to understand the history of photography. Again, this seems to be lacking in the work of many contemporary photographers. It is clear that many amateur photographers have “seen” the work of others, including the masters, but seeing is not understanding. In this article, I simply want to begin by dividing street photography into two main categories or “schools”. Approaching this from an art history perspective, let’s name the two schools as the “Winogrand” and the “Henri Cartier-Bresson or HCB” school. One might also think of it as the “go fast” and “go slow” schools of street photography.
Not long ago one of my friends referred to Gary Winogrand as the one who started it all in street photography. That comment got me thinking. From a technical, art history perspective the comment is, of course, simply incorrect. Winogrand came along well after what we might refer to as street photography. Many others might say, yes, of course, HCB was the first street photographer. Again, technically, wrong. From a purely historical perspective, Eugene Atget is likely “the” founder of the genre. Some might argue for Daguerre – he indeed “operated” a camera in the “street” prior to Atget. This whole debate is for another article. The question here is: Why do we strongly associate HCB and Winogrand with the “beginnings” of street photography? Why do so many believe one or the other is the founder of the genre? It’s not a matter of simple ignorance or misinformation. No, these two gentlemen get associated with founding the genre because each indeed founded a “school” or approach and, when taken together, comprise much of what we know, visually, as street photography today. HCB brought forth the “wait and see” or “go slow” approach to street photography. He favored well-composed and thoughtful captures that often required great patience and perseverance. Winogrand, on the other hand, shot first and thought later. He founded the “go fast” approach to street photography – another method we see commonly employed by street photographers. Together, these two approaches might be understood as the two “schools” of street photography active today. Sure, one might further subdivide, but these two broad top-level categories are a good beginning place. By the way, we wouldn’t include someone like Atget, for example, as his early street photography was what we would really class as documentary today.
Why does all this matter when it comes to achieving consistency in your photography? Well, simply put, you need to know to which of the two major schools you belong. The initial step toward consistency in your work is to operate within in of the major two schools or approaches to street photography. Taken another way, suppose you’re a psychotherapist and you operate in both the Jungian and Freudian schools of thought or approaches to therapy. Indeed, your interpretations would be inconsistent and, perhaps, even contradictory. Simplifying again, imagine trying to practice as a Catholic and a Jew simultaneously. Now, some of you might say that I am getting carried away here and that making a street photograph like Winogrand and then turning around and making one like HCB is no big deal – they are not, in fact, incompatible. To each her own. However, I believe it is a big deal. You need to subscribe to one approach and then stick to it, striving to find your own signature within that approach. By alternating back and forth between these two top-level approaches you are defining yourself and your work too broadly to ever achieve a lasting legacy for your photography. Think of it this way, are you a photographer or a painter – both you say. Good luck finding fame in either. But I can be a singer and an actor too! Talk to Cher. Believe me, you need to settle your approach into one of the two schools of street photography as an initial step toward achieving recognition and success as a street photographer. Note my use of the term “initial”, as there is much more to do, of course.
Winogrand’s rapid-fire approach to street produces a unique mood, a certain feel in the images. Anyone working in this style, successfully, captures this energy in their work. It is a visual unease – a tens mood within the frame. HCB, on the other hand, patiently and quietly approached his subject matter and captured his images in a way that conveys that sense of ease and calm. The compositions are fluid and composed (technically) – they speak to classicism and flow with that kind of grace. Winogrand is the rock star, Henri Cartier-Bresson the classical pianist. Winogrand shot with a machine gun, HCB with a pearl-handled pistol.
Getting back to consistency. Once you settle into a major school of street photography, the next step is to sort out your unique approach within that method. What about your work makes it unique within a greater, wider movement? When you find this then you stick to it. You make you and you don’t give up. If you are consistent and persistent your moment will come. Some readers are still not convinced. Right? Go forth, prove me wrong. Allow your photography to be all over the place and then call me when MoMA has it on the wall.
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