Happy Street Photography Day, which is celebrated on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s birthday, August 22nd, which is today. Cheers, Henri! So, let’s talk about street photography and creating good street photos—documentary photos of people living their lives, photographed in public, candid pictures of interesting moments of life for the most part.
Interesting is the key word here.
Good street photography is just that–getting someone’s attention, tapping them on the shoulder, saying, “Hey, look at this over here. You have to see this.” That’s what street photography is all about, you showing me something that you found that’s remarkable, interesting in some way that’s worth my time stopping to take a look at.
Plus you photographed it well, that too, in a way that best shows me where to look, what you’re showing me. Good story well photographed.
If you see a $50 bill on the sidewalk and tap me on the shoulder to point it out, I’m interested. If you see someone with their car on fire, and I’m not paying attention, tap me on the shoulder, I kinda want to see that.
But if you get my attention, you better have something worth looking at.
I realize this is what I don’t like about much of the street photography I see both online and in gallery exhibitions: It asks for my attention, and then it doesn’t give me anything worthy of my time, and I end up thinking, “Where’s the story, what? Why are you wasting my time?”
I’ve seen the above photo a million times in street photography posts. Who cares, why are you drawing my attention to something you wouldn’t bother me with if we were walking together. Who goes, (Tap tap) “Hey, look at the angles and there’s a guy’s face on an ad and a person walking at the top of the subway stairs.” Who cares? It’s nothing. It has no point. It’s boring. Which is why it’s an out, even though I made a nice composition and got it in focus. So what? That’s not exceptional, focus and composition are the expected bare minimum.
(Tap tap) “Look there’s a guy with a Mets shirt, carrying a camera, a Leica even, and a coffee cart in New York City.” Still boring. Who cares? If I tapped you on the shoulder for this, you’d look at me with a puzzled look, understandably. Which is why this photograph, though in focus and with a few NYC elements, is not in my ColoradoFaces street photography gallery. It’s an out. Not worth your time, so I ain’t showing it.
(Tap tap) “Hey look a woman in a blue dress and a row of blue bikes.” SO? WHO CARES? There’s nothing interesting about this photo. Trash it.
(Tap tap) “Hey look, a guy doing chin-up exercises.” Ok, but it’s kind of blurry–I missed focus–and it’s not that interesting, I’m not close enough. Out!
(Tap tap) “Over here a lady walking past a fountain in Washington Square Park?” So, what about it?
(Tap tap) “Look, a guy at a bus stop in silhouette with a piece of bread.” What are you doing? There’s nothing here, just no!
“Stop tapping me on the shoulder, you’re annoying me now.”
Now multiply these bad boring photos by hundreds and that’s what we see in most online street photography galleries, forums and groups. You quickly see why people who visit say they don’t get street photography, that it’s all lame.
And these bad meaningless photos end up being praised by all the other bad street photographers making meaningless photos who encourage more of the same.
Not to say there is never anything good, of course there is, but to wade through all the ones that don’t deliver, it’s tough to find the good street photographers. It seems the ones making pictures without a point—those photographers are the most prolific, posting constantly but disappointing us with nothing to see, and souring the experience of street photography to viewers looking to discover some interesting documentary pictures. And it probably discourages the good photographers from posting to be seen among such a group.
It’s why curated galleries tend to be a better, because the curator is taking on the role of editor. Good editors make the best photographers.
Give me something to look at. Something worth my attention, as if you just tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention to see something remarkable.
“Hey, (tap tap) look at this guy all dressed up for Kentucky Derby Day. Check him out–ohmigod, and look how this woman is checking him out!” That’s a good look she has. There’s connection, a moment shared. I like it!
Give me a story, a reason to look. You’ve said to your friends many times, “Hey, look behind you, there’s a XYZ you’ve got to see.” Or, “Hey approaching, at 2 o’clock, don’t look yet, you’ve got to see this.” But it was never, “Hey look, there’s a guy on a cell phone,” or “Look, there’re two people walking mid-stride in a shaft of light.” Who cares? I want story. What’s the point of your photo? Without one, it’s an out.
(Tap tap) “Hey, look at this, I think the dog dug up the flowers and everyone is having a laugh, even the dog, while the owner is cleaning it up.” It’s a little story. Something worth your time—all subject, nothing wasted in the frame.
(Tap tap) Hey, check out this kid, he found a good way to cool off.” It’s worth looking at, it’s funny. And a nice clean composition.
Tell me a story. A worthwhile one. Not a photo of people doing nothing that if you look, you’ll be bored, scratching your head saying, “Why did they want me to look at that, what am I supposed to be seeing?”
(Tap tap) “Hey, look at all the hands digging through the Playboy magazines at the flea market.” Yes, it’s a story and an interesting composition while keeping the shoppers anonymous!
(Tap tap) “Look, the sign says ‘shoulder work ahead’ and there are people holding things on their shoulders, ha ha!” See over there? I photographed something humorous.
Good street photographers are strong editors only showing their best work, not all their work. Not everything just because it’s in public and in focus. Focus is easy these days. Story is hard. Find me a good story and photograph it well and then, if you truly believe it’s something I need to see, tap me on the shoulder.
That’s what Robert Frank and Vivian Maier and Helen Levitt and Joel Meyerowitz and Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott and Eugene Atget and Bruce Davidson and Mary Ellen Mark and Garry Winogrand and scores of other street photographers who we consider masters have done, given us taps on the shoulder and presented photographs that were consistently worthy of our turning around to see what they have to show us.
That I want to see. What everyone wants to see. And how we make street photography better and stronger, by not tapping on our viewers’ shoulders until we genuinely have something for them to look at that delights them with a good strong story.
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Excellent insights Kenneth.
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Thank you. I was literally walking along and this notion came to me.
This is brilliant, and should be required reading in every introductory art photography class.
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…or did someone tap you on the shoulder and say…
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You know, this is quite a good litmus test. I do think there are occasions where it’s NOT about a simple “look at that!” such as when the photographer captures something more subtle. But, I could take your concept and make it a little more complicated, such as “give me a moment to explain what I saw in this scene” instead of “look at that!” and, as long as the end result would be the same amount of interest either way in the beholder, then your idea still stands.
I guess the distinction I’m making is that not everything can be taken in at a moment, some things we are primed to overlook, but if we’re teaching our audience to “see” more like we see, there’s still value in what we show them.
Which leads to a further question: is there such a thing as having a charismatic “way of seeing?” One that draws others in to participating with us? That would seem a valuable trait to possess, if it exists.
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And when I say tap them on the shoulder to say look at that, I don’t mean literally while you’re walking, I mean figuratively when you show them the picture, you are basically saying look what I found.