I know by now what kind of images I want to make. Your eyes should dance with excitement exploring all the visual elements and points of interest that make up the image: light and dark, suggestions of closeness and distance, movements frozen into beauty of shape, possible symbols. Those are facts, is there a meaning? Discovering what’s inside the frame should be an adventure, not a checklist. There’s so little to go by, o.k., there’s the definition and the details – we feel assured by that – there’s the placement, the suggestions and hints. But there are no sounds, smells, colors or movement for me to include, yet I must create a little cosmos of interconnections, of possibilities and realities within or (suggested) without the frame! This is all done improvising like a jazz musician, instantly and “onstage”, no second thoughts or withdrawals. This is it and this is exactly what you get. Don’t expect me to connect the dots for you (I may even throw in some extra dots); I can only do so much for making the picture alive, and relevant to your experience.
In earlier posts I have argued that hipshooting is simply bad street photography. Now you probably know that your horizon is always at eye level, no matter how high or low you’re standing. This means that unless you’re a dwarf or a giant, and given the fact that you should look through the finder at the moment of exposure to do your framing, the horizon will just about go “through” the eyes of the people coming at you on a crowded pavement. This will give away many of the hipshot-type photographs, that is, if you had not already noticed the clunky or haphazardous framing!
I know that Garry Winogrand said on several occasions that he did not advocate shooting from the hip. He was very much in control of his framing, in spite of what some (obviously bad) observers of his work conclude. Nevertheless I used to be puzzled by a number of his better-known photographs that have very low horizons, shot from the hip? He certainly would not have been sitting on the curb! And he was a tall guy… A friend of mine, who is a remarkable street photographer himself, has one such original Winogrand print on his wall, which I was studying. It was certainly taken from a low vantage point! Did Garry not practice what he preached… Then I noticed a vague dark line at the bottom. Problem solved: no hipshot, but one of his occasional “drive-by shootings”. This one was taken from a car window at a street corner. Perfect image, what incredible timing.
When talking about my photographic work to a group of photographers I mentioned that in my view a “good” photograph should be more than ” just an image”, more than just a rendering of “what was there”. After all, why call any photograph art, if a machine could do the job… I came up with the term a “layered” photograph, that I had come across. But of course, this led to the question, what were these layers, could I identify some of them. At that moment I discussed some of these aspects that constitute a good photograph starting from the pictures that I had. The challenge, however, was to make a total scheme, encompassing all the “layers” that I discern in a picture. The scheme, which will follows here has been used by me to explain the idea of the layering of photographs. Hopefully, it may serve to deepen your insight when applied to your own photography (or in judging the work of others)
1. cognitive aspects
2. psychological impact
3. symbols and associations
4. combination of pictorial elements
5. graphic aspects, framing, textures etc.
6. light and dark (I am discussing b&w photography)
The order of these layers is from sophisticated to “primitive”, or from intellectual to instinctive if you like. See if this is of any help to you; if not just keep taking those photographs, good luck!
When I started taking photographs of house parties I had to choose the right camera for the job. I had a long time experience with several Nikon models, so that’s what I took along. They were strong, easy to operate (I had practised changing films in complete darkness, which came in handy!). I used 2 identical FE’s with 28mm’s (the old type, which has a wider spaced and therefore more precise indication of close range on the distance ring). For use in the dark I later even added white paint markers on some close range distances that I used a lot. The 2 identical flashlights were preset for the same expected range. I also took care not to use the blinding full blast to spare my subjects. Not that many of them noticed the flash at all amongst the room lights and the occasional strobe…
I tried to use the viewfinder as much as I could for composing, but sometimes it was so dark that I saw nothing. In that case I put my eye as close to the finder as possible, and looked alongside it, using my experience in aiming to get the “framing” as precise as possible. Surprisingly, this worked most of the time. What I liked a lot was the extra grip provided by the motordrives, making up for their – considerable – added weight.
One time when the 2 cameras+speedlights+motordrives around my neck worked against me was the unlucky night when I slipped on the steep perforated steel stairs that lead up to the dj, causing their combined weight to make me loose my balance. In falling the stairs made a long cut in my forehead, causing a lot of bleeding. Fortunately that was all, but nevertheless I was rushed to a hospital, leaving my cameras at the club. When I collected them later, there was blood all over and I had to take them to the official Nikon repair department. They looked at me and then at the cameras, inquiring what war zone I came from… By the way, both Nikons were o.k. after cleaning, just a small scratch. Good camera for a war zone.