Some days ago I was seeking cover from the spring rain that came pouring down in the busy Amsterdam streets where I was photographing. Shoppers and tourists alike were huddling together in a covered passage between two streets, suddenly standing shoulder to shoulder looking at each other. I was holding my camera in my coat pocket, finger on the trigger as it were, ready for whatever was coming. As the small crowd was accumulating I spotted another photographer with his camera around his neck; I knew him because he has also been photographing people in the streets of Amsterdam for a long time. From time to time I almost bump into him because I like to move around in the crowd while he often stands at a strategic spot like a rock in the sea, watching the passers-by. We don’t speak though, as I get the impression that he doesn’t like to as he avoids eye contact. I’ve seen some of his work on the internet, and have read that he wanted to photograph people’s activities in the streets and group these pictures into categories, which would eventually lead to some kind of encyclopaedia. He actually has a small book out with such pictures and categories. I looked it through and concluded that his approach is that of a collector. He adds pictures of eating people to more pictures of eaters in the streets, etc. He uses a digital camera, shoots a lot from the hip (therefore does not compose in the finder/on the screen), crops his photographs. A very different approach from mine, so it’s interesting for me to see if the results are very different and what these differences are. After all my approach is more like hunting, I don’t stand and wait, but I move continually, trying to find the hotspots looking for action or turmoil in the crowd, a technique I developed in the years I did my photography amongst the night-long dance parties of the house era. What I look for is that special moment that the banal suddenly shows something of a higher order which lifts the scene above the everyday moment. That’s what I am hunting for.
Street photography seems to be quite fashionable in some circles, judging from the heated debates about hipshooting, getting permission and using long lenses, that I occasionally find on the net. And when I look at some results of all these photographers who have overcome their fears, and proudly present their pictures, I see very little that was worth the trouble in the first place… I guess, with an urban mindset (whatever that is exactly) you can even do landscapes in street style (as the great Lee Friedlander proves), but otherwise the country boy/girl spirit will always show through in you images, most likely making them look like the day out in the big town that they probably are depicting. So the thing to ask yourself is: do I really want to confront all these people, what do I want to show… Not the pitiful homeless beggar again please. Or the living statue in front of that poster.
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.
What is it that makes some street photographers (and wannabees) want to be invisible ? The thought would never have struck me, had I not come across this subject so regularly in articles and blogs lately. I don’t want to be invisible and it wouldn’t improve my photographs either, I think. If it is the fear of people reacting, well, that depends for the greater part on how you behave yourself. Even if you know you’re not doing anything wrong, does your body language show that your intentions are o.k.? Make sure you are self confident. Using long lenses and shooting from the hip is sneaky and makes you feel uneasy. In my book it’s a big nono.
Sorry, but you will run into the occasional paranoid nut every now and then. Be prepared. Invisibility is no part of that, I’m afraid.