Street Shooting. Part One. Why the hell would you want to do that?

    Just hanging out at the Vatican soaking up the ambiance.

For a  generation of old codgers, raised on the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and that new upstart, Josef Koudelka, street photography is photography.  Those artists fostered two or three generations of Leica M toting,  Nikon F toting, Tri-X shooting fanatics.  What were these guys thinking?  I guess they were thinking that the world around them was going through tremendous upheavals caused by wars, human migration, the conflict of generations, the smell of the new,  the evolution of fashion and so much more.  And all of it was playing out right there on the streets.

Well, guess what?  The world, right now, is going thru tremendous upheavals caused by wars, human migration, the collapse of the world economy and the move from post industrial service economies to a future we're not sure about yet.  Gee.  It all sounds very familiar.  Except now it's playing out for the most part in front of big screen televisions in the service of endless video games, shopping and social excursions to ubiquitous and homogenous malls and in the sealed, air conditioned cars streaking back and forth from home to mall to quasi-fast food restaurants and back again.  Makes it a lot harder to be a visual "cultural anthropologist" on the street and yet photographers are reconnecting with the old tradition of trying to get a handle on what is "now" by documenting the evidence of their eyes.  Or maybe the thrill of street shooting never left us.........it was just napping through the Flickr age of endless cat whiskers, chunky girls lit by off camera flashes at dusk, and ninja's with smoke machines.

    People at the Termini train station in Rome.

I've absorbed books like, "Why People Photograph" by Robert Adams and I have a huge collection of photo books by Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyons and many, many more.  All of them shot in the streets.  Many of their images are stunning and provocative.  I appreciate them on two levels.  The first is as a time machine to the immediate past.  The descriptive content of these fractions of seconds shows me a time that seems so foreign now and yet it was occuring during my early childhood.  But I appreciate more the well seen graphic images of humanity as a visceral force of emotion and motion.  Flux and decay.

Street photographs are so different than set up photographs.  For some reason I get the impression that millions of "enthusiasts" who, in our father's day, would have been roaming the street and putting in time hoping to become informed observers of the human interplay have abdicated the exterior life in preference for trying to "create" art in their basements and living rooms.  Everything has become so self-referential as though we, as a culture, have lost our ability to attach to things outside our selves or to people outside our isolated, one degree of separation spheres.  We seem to have lost the feeling that we are all part of an interconnected bio system that's interwoven and interdependent, not just physically but also spiritually.  We've become a generation afraid to travel.  Even if it's just travel across town.  Or even fifty feet from our cars.

And so, in some ways, we, the new generation of street photographers, are like explorers out to show the mall and house trapped people what the world outside looks like.  We're trying to show how people exist without cars or credit cards or iPhones or Blackberries or large bank accounts in order, I think, to find the common intersections that will allow us to have renewed faith in the intentions of all the people who seem less like us.  Shooting in the streets gives us access to characters we wouldn't meet in the halls of our normal jobs in white collar America.  It shows an existence without the intangible safety nets of privilege that most of us have hovering below us.  But these images can show the same desire for fun, joy, love, affection and potential that drive us as well.  And by finding the common touchstones of being human we can understand more about ourselves.  

That's the big, philosophical point of view but it's not exactly why I photograph in the street.  I do it because there is some energy there that I'm trying to capture, like a lightning bug in a jar, to take back to an audience I'll never know and show them things in the way in which only I can see things.  I want them to acknowledge that I've looked at things from my very unique perspective and, by showing them, I can help people better understand me.  What my mind must be like. What I think has aesthetic value.  I'm sharing my perspective.  I'm sharing what interest me now.

I don't always photograph people.  Sometimes a Mexican fiesta banner of deep magenta flapping wildly in front of a talkative blue sky is enough to say, "look at what I see."  An altar to Hispanic pop singer, Selena, surrounded by saint candles and flowers allows me to visually shout,  "Do you think this is as weirdly different from my daily life in Austin as I think it is??????"  But the very bottom line,  figured out after years and years of intensive, daily pyscho therapy I've never had is this:  Shooting on the streets gives me a chance, an excuse to walk around and just stare at interesting stuff without having to have a real reason.  And it gives me something to share.

I think the best fiction writers and the best street photographers are the same.  We love to tell stories.  But we don't need to tell the whole story right away.  Sometimes it's better to just tease our audience (and I include myself in my audience) with a snippet that tells a little part of a story but tells it in a way that's so poignant that it's worth savoring in it's unanchored and compartmentalized whole.

Can I tell you a story about "the one that got away" and how it has haunted me ever since?  I was in Russia for a few cold weeks in February of 1995.  The country was in tremendous distress at the time and no one was sure where the next food or money would come from.  Times were very desperate.  But just typing these words makes the scene so banal.  What does desperate really mean?  Everyone's mind and their own history create a subjective mental story when we use words to describe despair.....So let me tell you what I saw.

I left my hotel on Nevsky Prospekt one afternoon with the intention to walk the streets of St. Petersburg and take photographs.  It was so cold you could see the breathe you exhaled ten minutes ago as it formed into snow and gently settled toward the earth.  I was out of place in my western, technical, cold weather gear.  My Contax camera dangling from its neckstrap.  And as I walked down the street the light was fading and becoming a dark and dusky rose color.  Street lights were flickering on and the cars crunched by on hard snow with their little headlights flickering.  

And then I came upon him.  Huddled against the stone wall of one of the ancient gray buildings was an old man.  He was wearing bits and pieces of an old uniform.  I could see a bit of newspaper tucked in around the tops of his worn shoes, put there as extra insulation from the biting cold.  He was worn just like a photos of every sun damaged homeless person living on the streets past a certain age.  His face had deep clefts and his eyes were worn, sad and vague.  Battered by the chill wind of hopelessness. 

He'd lost one arm.  His coat sleeve was pinned up to his shoulder.   This wasn't some faux display to evoke sympathy from tourists because I'll tell you that in the dead of winter in 1995 there weren't any.  At least none that would leave their hotels without chauffeurs, body guards and cars.....And he stood there in the freezing cold.

In front of the man was a very small and delicate wooden table, painted a fading french blue, faded away by time.  On the table was a glass case.  The glass itself was old and filled with romantic imperfections and bubbles.  The seams of the glass case were soldered bronze.  All crude handwork.  The glass case was the size of fairly typical home aquarium.  Inside the case were three littles vases of flowers.  Just two or three stems in two of the vases.  The third held a small bouquet of flowers and the smallest sprig of baby's breath.  In each corner of the case were small, white candles which gave off a peculiar, warm glow.  

I say it was peculiar because the slight warmth of the inside of the case caused just enough condensation to diffuse the candle light as it would be diffused through the living room's winter window of my house back home. The job of the candles was to keep the flowers, and the water they sat in, from freezing.  And as I stood there, riveted by this site the ambient light continued to drop until the streetlights, the daylight and the candles seemed to provide even amounts of illumination and the points of candle flame seemed so much warmer in the purple blanket that was slowly falling through the sky to cover the quiet city.

It was hauntingly beautiful and sad all at once. Deeply sad.  And I couldn't figure out how to include all the pieces of the scene in a frame of film without impinging on the dignity of the old man.  This was his life.  He knew it was his life.  It was all he had.  To photograph it seemed wrong.  It seemed exploitive.  It seemed like trophy hunting.  I left my camera dangling around my neck and I walked over and, in broken Russian, bad French and pantomimed English I bought the small bouquet of flowers.  I paid the man much more than he asked.  He gave me a memory that would haunt me for the rest of my life.  What was that really worth?  What can we ask from others except to make us kinder, more empathetic and more grateful?

What happened to the flowers?  I was out shooting.  I didn't want to carry around flowers.  I walked several more blocks and then turned a corner and gave the flowers to the first young couple I saw.  It was a beautiful day of street shooting and I returned to the hotel without having fired a frame.......

    Detail of the entry lobby at the Alexander Palace in 
    Pushkin, Russia.  1995.


Alan said...

Your moving post about the "one that got away" reminded me of mine. My mother had a stroke and was lying intubated in a hospital bed in a room with a translucent skylight in the ICU, my sister sitting next to the bed, holding her hand and leaning over her, hair falling onto the bed. The toplighting flooding the room, the positions and posture of the people, made it one of the most beautiful photographic scenes I had ever seen from where I was nearer the door. Of course I couldn't photograph it (I had a camera with me as it happened), it would have outraged the rest of my family, but I'm always sorry I wasn't able to, it was a tableau of so much beauty in the midst of so much sorrow.

Steve Korn said...


Anonymous said...

Have you thought of creating a post for writers? Really!!! That was beautiful!!!

Anonymous said...

What a rich cup of heartfelt warmth.

christopheru said...

Thanks for sharing that one (both Kirk and Alan).

Kirk, perhaps you were not able to photograph what you saw (and many times I have felt the same when I see something that speaks volumes to me on the streets) but by writing it down so effectively and sharing it with us you have created an image more powerful than a mere picture could ever be.

John said...

Last year, I was traveling in Handan, China. As I walked the streets with my camera, A gentleman came rolling down the busy street, full of people and bicycles and others walking. I say rolling because he was on a 2ft. by 3ft. piece of plywood with a wheel on each corner. In each hand he had a block of 4X4. He would strike the street on both sides of the board and pull and propel himself along, rather quickly. His clothes were tattered and filthy, but his face had a fierce determination and deep lines and signs of struggle. He was a torso of a man with nothing below the waist.
I did not have my telephoto on my camera and it was so disturbing I could not be the ugly American and run up to shoot.
I will forever remember this image. An image I wish I could share as a reminder as to how fortunate we are to have been born in a country where I like to think we would not let this be. Someone or some organization would help this individual.
As I travel to remote locations in China now, My tele is fixed to my camera. . . .there are stories yet to be told.
Thank you Kirk for more than your photographic expertise.

Stephen said...

wow--what a great read. thoroughly enjoy your blog; have all your books; but...this post stopped me in my tracks. Had to reread it to make sure i didn't miss anything--thanks for sharing. as one other comment noted: Excellent!!!

Anonymous said...

You captured the beauty and sadness of the situation — not on film, but spiritually. Thanks for sharing your experience so beautifully. It wasn't "one that got away", but one that required more than full-frame.
Cordially, Joe Dasbach

Jay said...

Kirk, To get back to your original point, why do we shoot street? Precisely as you say, because we (I) have a sense of life being lived "out there"--24/7 by the way, rushing by--and not "in here" with the TV in the background, "reality" TV. Give me a break.
I live in a beautiful quiet place. A big city would probably drive me nuts. But I was in NYC for a long weekend recently and the pulse of Life was palpable. There were photographs almost anywhere you turned. When I was in the borrowed apartment, I was anxious to be out again, because the show never stops. It killed me to have to go home and go to sleep at night.
Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on street photography.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

(silently nodding)

Yup - you just *have to* write that book, Kirk. Consider it ordered.

Thanks, and cheers,

Kreighbaum said...

Well told. I think it is moments like this that help to drive empathy and an entire range of emotions allowing us to "see" the world. I believe these moments benefit our future of imagery without walking away from a particular scene with a digitized or film exposure of the scene.
Kevin K.

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

Kirk, I'm moved to tears by your beautiful post, as well as Alan's and John's enriching comments. In a weird and zenlike paradox, maybe our most beautiful photographs are those that we don't take (nor make). BTW, I love that Vatican ambiance picture. It's almost a sequence in one frame! Better than a multiexposure! And a perfect match and counterpoint with the three oriental women of the second picture. Great inspiration and food for thought. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Tuck is an absolutely brilliant writer. Brilliant. In many ways I think he's wasting his time as a photographer. But I love his photos.

Paul "pabloconrad" Conrad said...

Great piece.

Full of emotion and sensitivity.

Thanks for sharing

Gene Trent said...

Thanks for this insightful and accurate description of what it is to be a street shooter. Totally me and I personally have come to the realization from over 40 years of shooting now that I don't HAVE to get every shot I see. Sometimes the better part of being a caring, human, concerned photographer is NOT to take the shot. It is hard to leave those shots behind but good for my heart and self perspective. Very touching blog.

Anonymous said...

I cried when I read this post all the way to the end. I'm a 42 year old guy. I don't usually have tears running down my face. I thought I'd end up reading about some new camera. Or some new technique. But I really read about the meaning of life. Jesus this guy can write!

Stephen Cysewski said...

Sometimes, reading your posts, I wish we could meet. Your writing mirrors many of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I share your posts on a regular basis and encourage people to subscribe to your RSS feed.
Thanks again.

DrMickey said...

Thank you.

Richard said...

You write as well as you take pictures. An excellent piece of prose. I love the detail of candles keeping the flowers warm.

Well done. I am now a confirmed fan of your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Just perfect.
Any plans to publish your essays in a book? They deserve it. I'd buy it.
Colin [Margate UK]

Glenn said...

The power of images and words is nothing short of astonishing. In this case, I could totally visualize the scene just from the written word. Kirk, thanks so much for sharing, simply beautiful.

Unknown said...

I don't know how I missed this one previously, but thank you for re-posting it Kirk. This may be you best work, yet: powerful, moving and deeply thought-provoking.

Unknown said...

Kirk thanks for the image you developed with your words. Made me cry like a baby.

atmtx said...

I'm left to think what I would have done in that situation, what we all would have done. I think you did the right thing. Fantastic story and fantastic writing.