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Street photographers do it in public

Phil Coomes | 10:27 UK time, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Photo by Nick Turpin

Mention the term street photography to a group of photographers and inevitably the talk switches to the current debate around the right to take pictures in public, and the continuing friction between the police and photographers which I wrote about last week.

But stepping back a minute, let's consider who takes pictures in public places, the press and tourists are the obvious ones, yet there's a growing band of photographers who roam the streets with their camera making pictures, the street photographer.

For many it's a natural extension of something we all do, people watching, yet for the street photographer it's an activity that's carried out through the viewfinder of the camera.

The aim is to order the chaos of everyday situations in the frame, to create juxtapositions of objects that delight the eye, make us laugh, stop us in our tracks and make us ask is that for real?

One of the great street photographers, American Joel Meyerowitz, described the feeling of being on the street as a photographer in the book Bystander: A History of Street Photography that he co-authored with Colin Westerbeck:

"There is something exciting about being in the crowd, in all that chance and change - it's tough out there - but if you keep paying attention something will reveal itself - just a split second - and then there's a crazy cockeyed picture."

The great thing about street photography is that all you have to do is step out of your front door with camera in hand and you are up and running. Who knows what you might find around the next corner.

Photo by Nick TurpinDespite potential pictures being all around us those moments described by Joel don't come along that often, maybe only a few times a year, and it takes a better photographer than me to do them justice.

One of the best is Nick Turpin, who, having worked as a staff photographer at The Independent newspaper in London for seven years left in 1997 to pursue his first love, street photography.

A crazy dream some would say, and even Nick will readily admit that it's probably the least commercial of all photographic genres and is financed by his work as a design and advertising photographer.

Recently he launched a new magazine, Publication, for street photographers by street photographers, bucking the trend as many magazines slip from the printed page to the world of online, but as he explains there are reasons why he feels the time is right.

Nick told me:

"It is called Publication as everything street photographers do is in a public place. Ten years ago you had to be in to the genre to even have heard of it, today technology has made a huge difference; and everyone has a camera in their mobile phone, and that's partly why the time for this magazine is now. There is a large community of people interested in this form of photography."

Publication magazineIntrigued, I ordered a copy and it arrived neatly packaged in a white box. Publication is in the form of a booklet that contains a series of essays by street photographers talking about their work and for the first issue, where they get their inspiration.

It also contains 22 prints, each one by a different photographer with details of the picture and their biographies on the reverse.

There's work from well known street photographers such as Matt Stuart, David Solomons and Stephen McLaren alongside relative newcomers, like Jack Simon and Luca De Marchi.

That's the beauty of the genre, there's no hierarchy, only a handful of photographers make a living from this type of work, in some ways it's the perfect photographic genre offering a level playing field.

You just need to open your eyes and really see, peel away the layers to reveal the absurdities of the everyday.

The prints in Publication are an ideal way to mix photographic styles, as although all the featured photographers work on the street their approach varies. Nick explained:

"It's about giving people photos they can hold in their hands, an exhibition they can curate themselves. They can keep the shots they like and put the others back in the box. One person described it as a gallery exhibition delivered, and I wish I'd thought of that first."

The magazine is self produced and self financed, and initially targeted at the street photography community on the internet, but the aim is to open up the genre to a wider audience.

Each issue is a limited edition of 2000, each numbered individually, and mine turns out to be number 828. Just over the magic number apparently, as Nick needed to sell at least 800 to make the next issue a possibility.

Photo by Nick TurpinSo what about the future, will it require revenue from advertising to pay the way? Nick says no:

"I want Publication to be something timeless that you can collect and keep, I think advertising would distract from the words and pictures and make it look dated in years to come. This of course puts the pressure on us because it means we have to completely fund each edition from sales of the last one but the magazine would be better for it."

As I mentioned at the start of this post photography in the public arena is also in the news at present, with a series of stories about photographers being stopped by police in the UK

Nick told me he was:

"A bit nervous about the press coverage of people being stopped, I felt that while it wasn't being discussed then the government wouldn't make any change to the law. I feared when it was in public eye they may look at it and maybe make the wrong decision, perhaps bringing in a privacy law like the one in France."

Nick spends much of his time living in France, near Lyon where he occasionally takes to the streets with his camera.

In France Nick tells me "there is a real belief by the public that you are not allowed to take pictures of them and in the UK there is a similar feeling, it a misunderstanding and a big challenge".

It's certainly true to say people are far more aware of the camera and their image now than they ever have been.

A recent report by the Manifesto club which describes itself as campaigning "against the hyper regulation of everyday life" talks about a growing a suspicion of photographers and puts it down to the drip drip effect of negative stories, not just those in recent weeks involving the police.

Indeed if you have a view you might like to take part in a poll on Nick's website.

But let's not dwell on these issues, as Nick mentions:

"While there is some moral and political debate to be had around street photography on the whole I think it's a force for good, one of the few uncensored ways we have of seeing our own society and the decisions we have made within that society."

Indeed photographers are as likely to appear in someone else's pictures as anyone and they're also well aware of the issues.

And there you have it. Flicking through the 22 prints in Publication I'm left with the urge to go out and take pictures to add to my own street photos, to improve, to see those moments, and indeed capture them forever through that little hole in the front of my camera.

It's one of the most accessible forms of photography, at times frustrating, but all you need is a camera and the desire.

If you need further inspiration then take a look at In-public, a site for street photographers founded by Nick nearly 10 years ago.

You can see more of Nick Turpin's work on his website and blog sevensevennine.

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