Concerns Of Street Photography: Reading the Image Monday March 2, 2009

I got an enquiry recently from a GCSE student, who was researching a photographer. She wanted to ask about my equipment, technique, intentions and inspiration for street photography; she was taking shots, as she called it, of people “hanging out” on the streets of Belfast. I’m not teaching her, and don’t know exactly what her brief was or its GCSE context, so my answer was more general and simplified than it would be to a student. Here’s what I said:

Yes I can answer a few questions. My first inspiration for street or candid photography was the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is still one of my favourite photographers.

Cartier-Bresson developed the idea of the “decisive moment” which summarises much of his work; its basically anticipating or waiting for an instant when the content, composition, theme, action and implicit meaning of a situation is best captured – which generally happens in a second or two.

Cartier-Bresson was interested in showing different aspects of humanity and that’s what interests me. A conversation, a gesture, a facial expression, body language and action can reveal significant moments and photography captures them for later reflection. Also, my approach is very “aesthetic” which means I like photographing people when they look attractive.

I like to be as unobtrusive as possible which ideally means a small camera, but I don’t like compact cameras or 35 mm rangefinders (Cartier-Bresson famously used a Leica). I use a Canon 5D and either a 17-40 zoom lens or 70-210 which is usually what I need; it is quite a big camera but I sling it across my body so its half hidden down my side when I’m not using it, or might keep it in a case if there’s nothing of immediate interest going on. Some people like ‘showing off’ their cameras; I don’t. For example, I have a new strap with ‘Canon Digital’ written in bright red, but I use an old strap that’s black, dull white, and slightly ragged.

I work solely in digital, which I find far more convenient than film and of equal or possibly better quality. I have used darkrooms before for black and white film, and enjoy the power of Photoshop which is like a ‘digital darkroom’.

Although its easy to convert colour to black and white in digital work, and some images are definitely better in black and white, I find that most of the time I work in colour: but I am constantly thinking about whether to convert to black and white or not, and occasionally take photographs I know I definitely want to see in black and white

My favourite street photography location is London, and I find even a big and obtrusive lens in a busy city (my 70-210 zoom) doesn’t usually cause any problems with people noticing me.

Hope that helps!

I thought that was a reasonable summary for my thinking and working process. She’d found some of the writing at my site on the subject of street photography, which gets high Google ranking: if you search “street photography decline” I am the number one listing and the same applies with other articles (another one is “mountain photography advice”).

Street photography is currently a problematic subject, but one that is still educationally and thematically useful. Just recently, there’s been new UK legislation that increases the trend of recent years even further: it’s getting increasingly harder to practise the venerable art of street photography, in both legal/bureaucratic and social terms. The police are constantly stopping and confronting people and the public are increasingly suspicious. It’s now ‘political’, whereby the rights of the innocent photographer are getting obstructed by people who actually don’t understand the culture and practise of photography, nor care about it.

Consider the following images by Cartier-Bresson, to illustrate some of these concerns. The boy carrying wine bottles is a famous image in photographic culture, and it’s a great shot:

What we’re seeing here is the fun children find in daily life, where the simplest activity is carried out with exuberant enjoyment. I’ve always assumed he’s been sent to the local shop by his parents, an errand for which he feels proud, and the girls in the background are similarly impressed. I don’t know if Cartier-Bresson ever provided an explanation for this shot; though even if he did the process of narrative reading I’m describing here is still pertinent.

In addition to this process, there’s an innocence in this photograph built on several factors. Firstly it has an aura of antiquity from being black and white and dated, which we know from the children’s clothing. Secondly, if we are familiar with Cartier-Bresson the image immediately has connotations in relation to his wider body of work and famous reputation. Thirdly, the door frame and street tells us this is a working class area, slightly impoverished and a place where working class children play like this on the street.

In relation to contemporary street photography, how would we feel if it were a shot of a child wearing the more likely track-suit, trainers, and tee shirt taken in a modern city? My immediate thought would be about the alcohol he is carrying (though its possibly bottled water), and concern about him drinking it. Or perhaps, concern about his parents and their drinking habit, and what kind of home life he has. Finally, there are obvious issues around a shot of a child in a street and how we are to understand that: and this is where it gets very problematic. The child has his viewpoint, his parents will have theirs and the photographer, in this case Cartier-Bresson, has his. It would have been an interesting exercise to put some of these concerns to Cartier-Bresson, and see how he felt about the matter.

Compare the French scene of Cartier-Bresson with this London scene on the sandy banks of part of the Thames:

I enjoy this image, and it’s had a favourable response in my exhibitions. On one occasion the gallery owner said it attracted most interest, and on another occasion I sold a framed print. In terms of photographic semantics, it’s in the same category as the Cartier-Bresson shot: humanistic street photography, depicting a moment of exuberant but quiet delight in a haiku-like second. The shot has a particular poetry for me because it is silent, although it was taken in the rushing heart of London: its silence is part of its effect, an effect I knew it would have as I walked along the Embankment. If it were black and white and slightly faded, taken fifty years ago, that would be the end of it. But it’s a contemporary image, and when I was considering a small exhibition of work in a shop owned by my brother, he expressed he was not happy with this one. As a father himself, he said he would “go mad” if he saw a shot of one of his children, for the simple reason that someone else had taken it. I would quite possibly do the same; my instinctive response, overriding all others, would be protectiveness: and to hell with anything else including artistry. So the dilemma is, photography is now a contested space, an arguable medium, in which we are all implicated: it’s political. This has particular resonance when any image can be visible on the internet within seconds, raising further issues about misuse that canot be controlled. This is a specifically technological concern I will return to in my final image here.

The second Cartier-Bresson shot poses a slightly different set of problems, though represents a further example of the same process of narrative reading. We immediately think, what is the relationship here and how are they feeling? The man looks pensive and slightly worried, and the woman looks sad and disappointed. Has he behaved badly, and is their relationship now problematic? Do they have a relationship, or is this a first or second date and they both realise it’s going no further?

Compare the shot to one of my own, which to me suggests a similar narrative reading:

Cartier-Bresson’s image is of an author called Jean Marie Le Clezio and his wife, and mine is of two stall workers in a Christmas market. I have no idea if the man and woman in my shot are actually related; the photograph creates a potentially artificial meaning whereby the act of framing people thus becomes a powerful narrative device almost as malleable as literary description. Then as with the first image of the boy, there is a secondary level of interpretation here concerning social relations and potential conflicts. Cartier-Bresson’s image arguably fails to depict their relationship in a favourable manner; it’s the kind of shot a contemporary picture editor would use to show the marriage breakdown of a celebrity couple. In reality it may have been just a fleeting moment not at all representative of their happiness, that this “decisive moment” is actually inaccurate. Cartier-Bresson is deservedly famous for his useful “decisive moment” philosophy, though it suggested a pursuit of truth or revelation of veracity and this is not correct for all of his work: some of his images deliberately misrepresent. When I’ve presented my image to students, I’ve emphasised that the woman might conceivably object to it if she saw this narrative possibility and that it was either untrue, or perhaps that it was true and she didn’t want people to know: maybe it’s a secret relationship while her husband is at home.

Finally, another famous Cartier-Bresson image summarises a further dimension of photographic meaning and narrative interpretation. This photograph echoes some of the concerns referred to above because the women are paused like they are about to object to being photographed. This may be true, or it may not; again, it’s possibly an unrepresentative decisive moment and the next second they are laughing.

This image is arguably the result of photograpic intervention. That is, the moment it depicts and the semantics it has would not exist if a camera were not pointed at them. Alternately, we could say the camera reveals something that does exist, without which that ‘something’ is invisible. Either way though, the pointing camera is an intrinsic part of this shot.

With the power of digital workflow combined with the internet, photography is in some respects no longer photography. Not, certainly, the art of Cartier-Bresson’s era when film processing and book production was a slow process which as a medium inclined it towards artistic interests. Anyone with a digital camera and internet connection is now, potentially, a public broadcaster with access to a worldwide audience. This means the “decisive moments” we find on the streets are potentially enormously powerful, for good or bad. For that reason people are understandably suspicious, as we see in the faces of these women: why are you pointing that camera at me is a question we have to consider more than ever before.