in Honor of
Ernst Leitz & Oskar Barnack
Over at the Rangefinder Forum they were discussing the topic of how important it is to be a technical photographer. The Rangefinder Forum banned me a few years ago, so I will discuss this topic here.
Within photography as well as many of the arts, there is the creative end and a technical end. You can be a great technician with little artistic creativity or you can have great creativity in vision, but your technique or technical skills may be poor. Now, there are some photogs that have been great technicians as well as possessing a super creative mind. They are the ones that have it all!
I find when it comes to street / doc photography, too much technical concentration can hurt your ability to get the shot. We should also not compare technical aspects of studio work to technical aspects of street or doc photography. If you want your candid street work to look polished like studio work it generally wont happen unless you stage it.
Let me give you an idea how I work the NYC Subway. When I’m shooting the subway I hop in the first or the last car and at every stop I change to the next car – the same way a homeless beggar does it when asking for handouts in a fresh car at each stop.
During rides between stations I would shoot candid. Having only a few minutes to find subjects and shoot them candid is not a lot of time to be a perfectionist. You just do the best you can and hope something develops worthwhile. You have a basic exposure pre-set, but it is not 100% for all areas of the car. You can’t fondle your cam and fool with test shots and adjustments if you want to stay undercover. People are real leery nowadays about a person waving a camera around.
Within street and doc work, there is a different set of technical skills than the studio photog uses to get their staged, studio shot. The technical end of street work involves not only the technique of correct capture in variable lighting conditions, but also the technique of candid and fast capture.
My goal is to produce decent quality candid photography and I am pretty happy with what I do produce. I was never into the technical end of photography to an anal degree except when I tried ‘being anal’ for a year as a young photog. I eventually grew out of the anal stranglehold and decided to put the photo first instead of a bloated ego.
When you look at the homeless tent photo above you probably thought that anyone could have shot that, it is no big deal. Well, I shot it through the front windshield of my rental car while driving to the airport. When I got to Paris, Texas to shoot the little Eiffel tower I only had a few minutes of daylight left. I jumped out of my vehicle and had to get the shot fast. The composition for shot of the dog eating the deer was gone in a proverbial blink of an eye…the dog just tore it up. So, being trained to shoot fast pays off in all sort of circumstances.
Some people, especially the large format devotees, have a very anal personality. These type of people generally make the best technicians. But their anal personality seems to preclude them from being great at street work which is what I specialize in. When you suffer from analysis paralysis You will miss out of lots of fast shots.
I mean, could you see some anal studio photog signing their name to Cartier-Bresson’s Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954? C’mon, crooked, cut off feet, fuzzy…they would shit their pants! Of course, street photogs look past all that.
When I was a kid just starting out I had an early mentor in photography. He was an Art Center College of Design grad that could not get a job in commercial photography. So he ended up managing the camera department at Montgomery Ward. He showed me his photos of some rocks at the beach. He mentioned how sharp they were and you could count the grains of sand in the photo.
Now knowing much about photography, that impressed me. I figured if I could make my photos razor sharp, sharper than everyone else, then I would stand out as a great photog. So, I took up 4 x 5 view camera work.
My ‘Edward Weston’ phase lasted about a year. I put all my pride in making super sharp, boring photos of nothing.
Well, this was one of the better view cam shots…
Like an idiot I lugged all that gear around the alleys and streets of downtown L.A. That is what happens when the ego is in control. I guess if my mentor was an old press photog they would have clued me into getting a Speed Graphic for a 4 x 5 instead of a view cam. At least that would have been more conducive to shooting social doc work. But my mentor had a degree in studio photography, so view cams were all he knew.
Now, in the big picture there is nothing wrong with being a good technician. But if great tech is getting in the way of you bringing home iconic photos you will have to decide where you put your pride. Do you want to be a perfectionist or do you want to bring home iconic street photography?
Look at this gem by Mary Ellen Mark. While it is terrible for technical quality, it still turned out to be a winner.
In the Rangefinder thread one camera fondler brought up how just putting in footwork will do it for you. While he is partly right, there is another aspect of this he left out. To be successful at street work sometimes involves the photog to be an asshole. If you are not a good asshole, you will just look at the photo op and wish you had the balls to follow through.
I discuss this concept in my artists’ book The Street Photographer’s Manifesto
Here is my previous discussion of this topic.
There is a good chance the successful, hardcore street photog is going to have a different attitude, personality and ego than an anal landscaper or star trail photog. The street photog may not be as anal as the tripod photog when it comes to technical aspects, but their nature shows a different anal aspect when it comes to their personality.
The street photog may have to work outside of normally accepted societal conventions if they want to get the shot. As such, that special ‘anal aspect’ the street photog must posses can be summed up in the vernacular thusly…success on the street sometimes involves being an asshole.
Now, just being an asshole isn’t going to cut it. The formula for great street photography is:
- The ability to be a good asshole.
- Having a great eye.
- The skill and ability to record what you see in an instant with candid photography.
You can see if you are missing any one of these components, you wont cut it in the world of museum quality street photography. You can be the greatest asshole in the world, but if you lack an eye, the vision and technical skill to record what you see in any lighting condition, that very instant…then you are just a untalented asshole.
“I think that when someone is willing to live and die for something…that means it is in the genes.”
Interview: Inside New York’s Art World 1979