I am attracted to the improvisational aspects of street photography. I find different aspects rewarding, not because of some false notion of preservation or accuracy, but because it makes so clear the subjectivity of the photographer toward her subject, the relationship between seeing and being seen, and the prominence of storytelling. This is true of found urban still life as well. If a camera is operated by a human being, then the camera (and the images it produces) are not, can not, be objective. As I’ve said before, the documentary photographer isn’t necessarily preserving her subjects; she’s preserving her perspective. She’s preserving herself.
In my writing life, I compose poems and personal essays. This is also how I experience my photographic life: to collect stimuli in observation and compose some meaning to what assembles within the frame. I like to work with few instruments (such as light, props, etc), and more with what I find (light, circumstances, weather, challenges).
At its simpliest, street photography is about collecting observed, candid information (as detail) in public settings and composing them in a frame to communicate with others. Street photography is improvisational photography and reminds me a lot of jazz, particularly bebop. It’s finding a photo amongst the mundane moments and details of public life and making it come alive via composition and framing, and less, if any, post-editing and processing.
My aim in exploring this genre is to practice relinquishing control. I have few elements other than myself and my camera. Light, space, even subjects: these are uncontrollable. Street photography is about problem solving, about figuring out what I’m going to do with what I find. It is also about human judgement and decision-making.
At its core, street photography is about deciding when to take a photograph and when not to. It is about the spaces we find between who we are when we know others are looking, and who we are when we think no one is. It is about the pauses between action. It’s about the shadow the light casts as much as the light itself. It’s about mistakes that reveal insights. It’s about the beats of human life lived in public and the degree with which we are and are not in synch with one another. It is also about the backbeat, the off beat. If “all life is but a stage,” then perhaps street photography is about trying to find those moments when stage lights are dim.
I do not necessarily think that fidelity of the image is the only or most important element in a fantastic street photograph. I am for expressionism, vision, mood, and emergence of energy between seer and seen that is mutually respectful, and hopefully, insightful. I am equally drawn to aesthetic value in the image. For me, the value and philosophy of what constitutes “beautiful” is both wide and deep, rather than narrow and prescriptive.
No one is made more noble because of any candid photo I take of them; however, I can certainly make them less so with my decisions, which are moral and ethical, as well as mechanical or aesthetic ones. Everything is not meant to be photographed. Some things must be left out of the frame for what is in the frame to make any impact at all. Details without a frame and composition? That’s life. And a photograph is not life.
It’s for these reasons that I subscribe to the position that “truth” is subjective, multi-facited, complex, and unstable. A photograph’s meaning is dependent upon its context and its viewer (and his/her context). A multiplicity of subjectivity is likely to get me to closer to some sense of “truth” rather than a flawed certainty of “objectivity.” One’s use of “truth” can be a short-hand for other elements or values: accuracy, authenticity, meaningfulness. When, as a viewer, I say a photograph rings “true” to me, what do I mean? Do I recognize it is an accurate depiction? Do I mean the photographer has presented the scene with a degree of authenticity? Do I mean that I with the photograph established some degree of meaningfulness? I’m not trying to present a truth. I’m taking a photograph. Other judgements? Those are left to viewers.
I love the poetry of street photography.
Photo: "The Man with the Black Balloons," Seattle 2013, iPhone 5