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Street photography now

Phil Coomes | 12:01 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010

Bristol, 2007. Photo by Paul Russell

Photographing strangers in a public space is regarded by some as a little odd. Yet pictures of our daily life are what come to define an era and many of the great pictures of the past decade would fall into this category.

Street photography though is far more than that. It can be hard to define and many practitioners have their own ways of shooting. But what's fascinating about the street photographic scene is that it's open to anyone with a camera. You do not need special access; even the most basic disposable camera can be used. All you need is time, patience, shoe leather and a good eye.

As one of the great humourist photographers Elliot Erwitt said: "Photography has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them".

A new book, Street Photography Now, edited by photographer Stephen McLaren and Director of the School of Life, Sophie Howarth examines the role of the street photographer in society, through the work of 46 contemporary photographers.

Though the book has one theme, the photographers are from many different parts of the globe and have different approaches, from the subtle unseen observer, to those who like to go in close and record the reaction of their subject. Others look to use visual puns within the frame or include found text or objects to give meaning. Some pictures may make us pause and marvel at the ingenuity of the photographer, but all of them reflect a little bit of the society that created them.

These observations offer many interpretations, and as I've said before, a large percentage of that will be dictated by the viewer's own experiences as well as the context.

I asked Sophie Howarth to explain this and explain a little of how they came to select the pictures for the book:

"I'm not looking for street photography to teach any lessons.In fact obviously didactic stuff doesn't really appeal to me. I think the good street photographers are masters of observation without interpretation - holding a mirror up to our public behaviour - but not in judging. There are some quotes from photographers in the book - Raghu Rai, Nils Jorgensen particularly come to mind - which capture this idea succinctly.
 
"That said, interpretation is fine - indeed fun - when we come look at the pictures. Stephen and I had lots of fun with interpretation in the essays - the still life essay in particularly is full of narrative speculation. But what is wonderful about the photos is that they allow for any number of questions. What's the man dressed in a nightie doing? Why did the woman fall over? What's the boy running away from? And subjective interpretations - isn't it awful how she just turns her back on him, how laid-back people look in such and such a place, how depressing those drunken people are - precisely because they don't carry a fixed message."

But street photographs and indeed the photographers themselves don't live in a vacuum, they are all shaped by their own personal experience and one of the strengths of this collection is its diversity.

Mexico City. Photo by Mark Powell

To explain further I asked photographer Stephen McLaren what it is that drives him to devote so much time to taking pictures that in the main won't earn him a living.

"For me, with my photographer's hat on, what keeps me doing this is a belief that one of photography's core purposes is to discover poetic moments in everyday life. From the invention of the medium, nosey parkers, journalists, voyeurs, and poets have used cameras to show us that this world is an intrinsically fascinating place to live in.
 
"Whenever I am feeling a bit jaded or un-inspired I do one of two things, I either take out my camera and use it to get lost in the city, or I pick-up a book by one of the great street photographers; Elliot Erwitt, Tony Ray Jones, Saul Leiter, Jeff Mermelstein, or Raghu Rai and their pictures remind me how open-ended and multifarious life is.
 
"I think street photography is more of a tradition than a genre and this is why it resists becoming merely a fashionable art form. This way of working, using only what you have in front of you, survives because photographers and the many people who appreciate this work, feel that these constraints keep photography honest.
 
"Yes, digital tools can create fantastical confections and troupes of models, stylists and lights can be enlisted for visionary ends but, in my view, the photographer who confronts life on a second-by-second basis with no props or specific sense of what they want to say is the richer for this simple approach.
 
"That's not to say the results are lacking in intelligence or insight. Who can look at Trent Parke's black and white pictures from Sydney and not see a rich and well-observed narrative from a singular photographic talent?
 
"The online tools we now have to disseminate our pictures and start conversations with like-minded photographers has certainly given street photography a boost. One of the biggest online communities, Hardcore Street Photography on Flickr has over 38,000 members and they are as passionate and knowledgeable a crowd as you can imagine. One of the great things about the web is that much of the history of street photography is now there to look at online without having to buy expensive books.
 
"All of a sudden I am hearing 20-year-olds discussing the genius of Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand, master photographers from the 50s and 60s who had almost become forgotten in our faddish, fashion-led image world. And when young photographers with their first DSLR see the poetry, mystery and artistic imagination that can be conjured out of great photographer with a small hand-held camera it inspires them to see and interpret their own life in a similar way."

Often it's this interpretation of our own lives that collectively form a social document, though context is all important. A single frame taken by photojournalist Maciej Dakowicz on the streets of Cardiff can be seen as a typical street moment of absurdity. Yet when you realise that he has been documenting the night-time streets of Cardiff since 2004 you become aware that these pictures of party-goers and clubbers are far more than a sensationalist and stereotypical view of society. Instead they are in the tradition of photographer Martin Parr's The Last Resort, or Tom Wood's Looking for Love series.

Pose. Photo by Maciej Dakowicz

As McLaren and Howarth say "Dakowicz's images capture the uneasy mix of bravado and vulnerability that characterizes the young clubbers of Cardiff... inviting the viewer to consider what drives this strange and sad compulsion to seek obliteration in the company of friends and strangers."

I asked Maciej to explain how he operates in an environment where the potential for clashes and confrontation can be high. Maciej said:

"For me this is the most interesting thing going on in Cardiff. I have been shooting on the same street for about five years now, not every weekend as there have often been long breaks between my nights out there.
 
"I was shooting many things in Cardiff when I moved here but after a couple of years I did not feel like shooting streets of the city during the day as I did not find them inspiring and did not feel comfortable, as people often look very suspiciously at a guy with a large camera.
 
"It changes at night, where people do not pay too much attention to me and there is a lot going on all the time, I can get close to people, often without being noticed as they are busy doing their things.
 
"I am rather discreet, so somehow I manage to capture interesting situations without getting into trouble. I am more an observer, I walk around with my camera on the shoulder, look what is going on and, if something captures my attention, I shoot.
 
"When people notice me they react in a number of ways: start posing, gather for group pictures, ignore me, ask what I am doing or tell me off. I can usually tell what kind of a reaction I might get and if I do not feel comfortable at taking a picture of someone or I think it will cause trouble I simply do not take the photo.
 
"You need to look like someone knowing what you are doing and not act in a suspicious way. If you are too sneaky they will approach you asking what you are doing or tell the police that there is a strangely behaving guy with a camera. So it is quite tricky to shoot at night, but I still like it."

The perception of photographers has been an issue in the news for sometime now. Some feel that they have a right to point a camera at anything they wish, others are opposed to this and believe that the publication of a picture, or for some, the very act of taking a picture without the subjects permission, is something that should be controlled.

Photographer Andrew Glickman photographed strangers on the underground system in Washington DC and noted that, although you would expect to be noticed in the act of taking the picture, he found that most would simply return to what they were doing rather than react to the photographer.

Glickman thoughts back up Dakowicz's point that you have to believe in yourself as a photographer and act accordingly. He said:

"When I began to think of myself as a street photographer, I began taking more risks and chances. Photographing people, particularly people you don't know, is inherently an aggressive act. I had to break through my comfort zone to make some of the pictures I've made. You can't worry about whether you have permission or whether you may be inside your subject's comfort zone. Believing completely in what you are doing is critical."
Standing Man, Seated Woman, Washington. Photo by Andrew Z Glickman

Another of the photographers featured in the collection is Nick Turpin, on whom I have written before. Currently he is working on a project in France where privacy laws prohibit the publication of a picture of a person in public without their permission.

I asked Nick about the work:

"I see France as a nation that is culturally under siege from the globally pervasive influence of Anglo-American culture, as a minority language country with a strong and distinct cultural history, it is a good place to observe the homogenisation of nations and their cities around the world.
 
"Since 1996 French radio stations have had to play French songs 40% of the time but French cinemas are full of dubbed Hollywood films, there is a McDonalds on every out of town roundabout and line dancing is popular at rural French country fetes. Like for so many nations, modernisation is costing France its cultural identity. As a street photographer I believe I can see the results of these changes on the pavements and in the public places of great French cities.
 
"The problem I have is that it is illegal in France to publish a photograph of someone made in a public place without their permission, which means that in the very birthplace of street photography it is now very difficult to make street photographs. I have decided to try and reveal the un-enforceability of this legislation by publishing the book of my project everywhere except in France. This means that it will be available to purchase in Dover but not just across the channel in Calais. There is an important point here, as for any democracy; everything that occurs in a French public place should be a matter of public record."

At present this is not an issue that will affect most of us and, as the authors point out, the most prolific street photographer today is the Google Street View system, or indeed the CCTV camera on our street corner. It's also a time when we are sharing more and more of our lives online so perhaps these mysterious moments caught by the street photographer should be seen as something to celebrate, rather than something to fear.

Let's end with a word from photographer Matt Stuart who offers any prospective street photographers some good advice:

"Buy a good pair of comfortable shoes, have a camera around your neck at all times, keep your elbows in, be patient, optimistic and don't forget to smile."

If you fancy yourself as a street photographer then why not join a year-long collaboration between The Photographers' Gallery and Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, authors of Street Photography Now. Each week, one of the photographers featured in the book will issue a weekly instruction and you will be able to upload photographs on that theme to a Flickr group.

To find out more see the Street Photography Now Project website. I'm going to give it a go. Hope to see you there.

Street Photography Now can be seen at the Third Floor gallery in Cardiff from 10 October to 14 November, 2010.

Here are a few more frames from the book, Street Photography Now, which is published by Thames and Hudson.

Night walk, China. Photo by Polly Braden

Chisinau, Moldova. Photo by Carolyn Drake

London. Photo by David Gibson

Notting Hill. Photo by Nils Jorgensen

Bond Street. Photo by Matt Stuart

Blood Red Shed, Sydney. Photo by Narelle Autio

Life below New York. Photo by Christophe Agou

Street photography is currently very much in the frame and this continues into 2011 with London Street Photography, a new exhibition showcasing the Museum of London's collection of street photographs from 1850 to 2010 opens in February.

Then in March the Format photo biennale in Derby opens, concentrating on street photography, Right Here, Right Now: Exposures from the public realm.

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