street photography

well seen, well said

By | photography, street photography

Two more of Garry Winogrand’s quick (and often funny) remarks. I had not heard these before, and think they are too good to miss.

When he was photographing on the streets with a photographer friend (as he sometimes seems to  have done), a lady suddenly notices them and says loudly and  with clear irritation, “O, look, shutterbugs!” Garry looks at her, answering “Yeah, and what are you, DDT?….”

Garry Winogrand had his own “subtle” way of showing his disinterest in questions about rules in photography or how-to kind of questions. He once said: there is actually ONE rule in photography, now I come to think of it …. NEVER  DROP YOUR CAMERA ….

always take a backup camera

By | photography, street photography

In the middle of photographing a Spanish support demonstration in Amsterdam my film jammed in the high speed mode. I will avoid technicalities, but I wished I had one of the less sophisticated types with me at that moment. Not knowing what to do for an instant since I only had the one camera, I decided to open the back and – to the amusement of an onlooker who hadn’t a clue, but saw my irritation – radically removed the almost completely exposed film… All for nothing so far! Okay, have to go on, and checking the emptied camera at a quiet spot away from the action showed no obvious problems other than a torn film, so I started anew. Taking pictures of the demonstration again with a camera that worked again without a problem soon brought back my inspiration and I shot 4 films before it started to rain lightly. I had an appointment elsewhere around this time and I walked away from the demonstration. In the hectic Amsterdam crowd while crossing a few streets I took some more people shots in passing, protecting the electronically driven camera with my jacket from time to time. The rain then became more persistent, and soon I was more busy wiping the camera than taking photographs. Nevertheless I managed to finish another roll, and decided to take a mechanical camera as well next time (especially when there’s a rainy weather forecast!) so I would have a spare that can take a shower or two as well.

the unhipshot

By | photography, street photography

It had to happen. We had already seen the mirror, disguised as a long lens, to put in front of your normal lens. I had tried it on one of my Nikons, back in the 80’s. It was a metal tube that looked like a tele, but it had a big round hole in the side, through which the lens could look at an angle by means of a mirror. Awkward construction. It took ages to point right and you had to use a long lens to avoid vignetting! No good for me, it was not quick and made me feel sneaky and frankly, like an idiot. This disguise was for scared people (as is the hipshot, so popular with certain so-called “street photographers”) and far from being invisible, it attracted the attention.

Now we have the same kind of construction for the camera in your cell phone etc. A snap-on with a tiny mirror which enables you to take photographs without “pointing” (i.e. holding it up in the usual vertical position) which is signalling “you are being photographed”. Now you can pretend to use your phone for anything but taking pictures, while you are doing exactly that, because you can hold it horizontally, the lens looking forward by means of the tiny mirror underneath. Sneaky indeed. I can tell you I don’t like it. I’d rather just point, put the camera to my eye as I have always practised, be able to compose the image, give people a fair chance to indicate they object, if they feel that way. It’s o.k., gives me a more honest and self-confident feeling about street photography.

how to find a subject

By | photography, street photography

How do you find your subjects? The question arises when people are really interested in photography, but cannot put themselves in the role of a photographer, especially not a street photographer. When I think about it, I don’t often go look for subjects myself. I go out and come across them sooner or later, if not today maybe another time. Other photographers may do so too. Obviously my all-time favorite Garry Winogrand made good use of what he called the omnivorous nature of the camera, pointing it at every interesting situation involving people, on a daily basis. He started with sports photography, stage photography, he photographed both the politicians of the day and his own family (it is said that he took a picture of his children every day he put them on the school bus, almost a ritual); he photographed festivities, parades, the zoo that he took his children to, and above all, street life: happy, lonely, indifferent passers-by, women, other women and more women, a life-long fascination. Walking the endless pavements downtown, as well as countless suburban streets, carparks, malls, airports, boardwalks, you name it… People blown like bits of paper in the wind through the inhospitable streets of life. People lost in thoughts, in love or phantasies, in pain, looking for meaning. He one of them… You ask me how to find a subject ? If you go out, it stares you right in the eye.

thoughts while editing the contact prints

By | photography, street photography

I have been editing old contact prints, and quite a few at that. You can only do so much in one run, it’s tiring. After a few hundred you have to pause or you don’t really LOOK anymore – and you have to be aware of minute details sometimes!  It’s your second chance of making the right choice – educated and instinctive – from the material that you have brought together in the past. You lookthink and themes emerge; even though I never work in projects, there is a clear preference for certain subjects. The individual in the crowd, possibilities and difficulties of communication, the human condition. Those moments that some higher meaning shines through like a ray of sun on a cloudy day…

How to get content in an otherwise interesting picture. I have already decided that while taking the photograph (this is analog photography, what you see is what you get). It is the art of instantaneously choosing the elements that can do the magic within the frame, the personal symbolism. The old metaphors won’t do anymore, moreover it’s rare you encounter the white horse of freedom with its waving manes on mainstreet, so you find your own images to carry your thoughts. You may look for one thing, find another, and still be happy. Improvising, being open to the world around you is what street photography is about. Analog photography with a small camera is perfect, I’m sure it has a future. There’s so much freedom in showing your reality, no matter what others call it: humanistic, political, individualistic, poetic, religious, they are all only aspects of our appreciation of  “the world”, but meaning and a growing understanding of it should be the criterium, not the fashion of the moment.

street photography: hunters and collectors

By | photography, street photography

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.

love and desire

By | photography, street photography

When William A. Ewing, the author of the the photobook “Love and Desire” (Chronicle Books / Thames and Hudson 1999, and a number of editions in various languages) asked me if he could use one of my house parties pictures, he wanted to know, did I perhaps have more photographs that could be grouped under this heading. O, sure, was my instantaneous reaction. Come to think of it, in fact most of my photography is about love and desire; especially when you think of it in the widest sense, apart from the purely physical or erotic connotations. Photography may well be seen as an act of love and desire; the love of life itself in all of its manifestations and sudden beauty, the desire to experience and partake, to observe and understand, to capture and share and maybe even own some of it.

This is what I also realized when I recently looked once again at some books by Garry Winogrand. To me he remains the greatest observer of life’s miracles at street level, but who elevated photography far above the business of making a buck or making an impression. His maniacal search for images of life going on all around him (he left a third of a million pictures at the time of his death) could only be stopped by his untimely passing away, and even his closest friends could only guess what he was striving for in the images that he had taken during his latest years, once they looked in bewilderment at the proofed and printed results from the bagloads of undeveloped films they found at his house. If you could call him an addict, he wasn’t addicted to photography, but to experiencing and getting to grips with life where he discovered it: on the very streets of his own life.

collecting: photobooks or real prints after all?

By | photography, street photography

Original prints by well-known photographers have become very expensive. Many collectors have moved to collecting photography books instead, rather than looking for less famous names and photographers whose work is still available and sometimes just as interesting. Martin Parr’s publication The Photobook about what he considers to be the most important  photobooks did the rest. Personally I don’t care which photobooks are hot or not, I know what I like and I will buy the occasional book that I love (and if you read my blog or visit my website www.tomstappers.com  you won’t be surprised that it’s mostly black and white photography, of which a big part is street photography, and no digital). I prefer the original print, there’s nothing to beat it, and one of my own signed 30/40 silvergelatin prints for instance, is still cheaper than some of these collectable photobooks, so ….

real greatness is in honesty

By | photography

When Winogrand seems a little blunt in his verbal statements and his answers during interviews it appears to me that this is a way of not showing his very sensitive nature. This sensitivity is clear from countless subtle hints in the visual content of his imagery and its psychological depth and implications. The clarity with which he shows us certain painful scenes isn’t cruelty, but respectful compassion, not inhibited by false shame and never shunning confrontation with what might shock us. Such is honesty – never mind the repercussions of the would-be preachers of morality who don’t even dare look at real life. Garry was a brave and passionate observer who doesn’t only show the triumphs of man, but also gives us a glimpse of human despair, failure and seediness. His endless quest for the facts (in his words “what things look like”) of his and our lives is as heroic as that of all the great artists of all times and places. It’s time people learned to see….