Over the past 12 months or so I have been taking more and more of the type of images that one might class as “street photography”. I have found the experience to be a real challenge; both technically and morally (morally in terms of deciding what to/not to shoot, which I’ll get to later in this article).
I don’t remember making a conscious decision to take my work in this direction – it just seemed to be the next challenge for me to face in my photography career. The image making process with “street photography” is the polar opposite to that which I have grown accustomed to in previous work (in terms of control of my subject, lighting and to a large extent the image’s composition). For years I have been photographing beautiful homes and portraits for clients in Cornwall & Devon. On those types of assignments I have pretty much total control over everything (certainly for the property work anyhow) – so for me to hit the street of Cornwall with just a small camera in my pocket and no preconceived notion of what to expect is a really liberating feeling – it’s highly likely that it’s this freer type of shooting makes street photography so appealing to me. Freer, yes; easier, no – well at least not for me anyhow! It’s certainly not a simple case of heading out and pounding the pavement, hunting for interesting stuff to shoot. Street photography presents the photographer with it’s own unique set of challenges; challenges that have very little to do with the picture taking process, f-stops and shutter speeds at all (although those are considerations that need addressing!), but more to do with the subject’s response to having their photograph taken (possibly without their consent and without prior warning). Reverse roles for a moment – I’ll be the person in the street, here’s the scenario: I’m out in a public place and I notice someone point a camera at me: I’d probably wonder “Why?”. I doubt I would bother asking the question though – I’d probably just carrying on with whatever it was I was doing. I’ve recently asked a few friends how they might feel and they’ve given a similar response, they wouldn’t mind – just so long as it didn’t hold them up or inconvenience them in any way they wouldn’t be give it much thought. Having said all that, it’s worth mentioning that “street photography” is not just about photographs of people or even photos taken in the street. The “heart of the culture” is what I’m interested in recording. Here’s a wonderful quote by magnum photographer Alex Webb that explains this point far better than I’ll ever be able to:
… street photography does not necessarily mean photographing in the street. For one thing, the street isn’t always where the heart of a culture lies. More than anything else, I think street photography suggests a photographer’s particular stance or attitude towards the world: a kind of open-ended exploration with an emphasis on discovery, a sense of wandering that’s driven by curiosity rather than by an initial idea or goal.
It’s pretty easy for me to understand why I want to pursue this type of work; take a look at the work of a few of my phototgraphic heroes; André Kertész, August Sander, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Robert Capa. The images are stacked full of information about their subject, the time, the place. They are a social document. No other form of photography comes close to recording this amount of information. Commercial work is made with the intention of selling a product or an idea to a particular market, the work of the aforementioned photographers does the opposite – those photos show what was occurring; regardless of the presence of the photographer those events would have still happened – we’re just fortunate that those skilled, masters of the art of photography were there, in the moment with their cameras willing to make a record so that future generations may have a glimpse back into a past era and to a foreign place.
So I’ll continue on my personal quest to make a record of the Cornish towns, villages and places I visit or pass though in the coming months and years. Fast forward 30 or 40 years and I’ll bet there will be some interesting stuff to look back and reflect on: the technology we use, our vehicles, architecture and the Cornish landscape.