Photographer as visual anthropologist (not apologist) and visual story conduit.

I think I knew this all along but it was veiled by technical considerations in the early days. What I know is that my compulsion to shoot out in the streets is driven by some sort of desire to leave my cozy construction of relative affluence, and my wasp-y world views, and to go out and see other people's visual story; as related by their presentation in the public, on the streets, and share what I've seen with an audience that I think is largely similar to me. 

For the most part we (dedicated photographers that I know) live safe and cosseted lives. We grow up and go to college. We get, or invent comfortable jobs or careers that keep us at least resolutely middle class (economically), and because we work all the time, insulated by the corporate safety walls that are created to keep interference and interruption of the workflows to a minimum, we presume that most people are like us. 

We presume that they are looking for the two car, nice house, cool vacation, kids in private college, retirement savings safely in the bank, low crime neighborhood with good schools, lots of groceries, private health club existence that we take for granted. That they read the same stuff we do in the Sunday New York Times. Watch the same shows on PBS. Vote the way we do. Etc. 

And most of the people we know work all the time so they aren't out on the street in the middle of the day, or the middle of the night. Slowly and eventually we retire to the comfort and security of the big screen TV and the endless cable content, provided in the comfort of our well appointed living rooms. 

But there's a heck of a lot going on outside, all the time. And it's profoundly different than our own experiences. The thing that made documentary photography and cultural reportage so interesting; compelling, in the 1950's and the 1960's is that it showed average people what life looked like for people who were less comfortable, who were in war zones, who lived as starving artists. People who were less or more than average. And it showed the privileges of the fabulous rich. Now the rich are on television shows while the most vulnerable members of most cultures are on the nightly news. But there's still a giant swatch of demographics that we only see when we go outside. When we walk along a downtown street. When we go on vacation and get lost in the "wrong" part of someone else's town. 

Photographers rarely look to their own cultural or social peers as subject matter and inspiration because familiarity makes most subjects boring to us. But when we get immersed in something new and different our conscious minds filter out most of the commonalities of the intersection and concentrate on the aspects that are different. Our brains help us distill down new scenes into visual snapshot components that emphasize the differential, the deviation from our mean. 

I think these are the things (the differences) that most of us want to shoot when we walk down the street with our cameras. 

Every time I go out for walks down streets and have the bad fortune to be in the company of other photographers I am reminded that, since we live in comfortable social cocoons for most of our lives, there is a time period of discomfort that comes with trying to blend in and get into the mindset that allows us to work fluidly in the streets with our cameras. Even more time and experience needs to go by for us to work comfortably. People who can plunge right in without having to adjust may be psychologically different than the rest of us. Further along the curve toward sociopathy and away from the position on the curve that describes normal, empathetic reaction. 

On the other hand perhaps the reticence to dive right into photographing comes from a fear for our person security or, that we feel that we might be confronted for our actions, which causes us distress and anxiety for whatever rebukes and resistance strangers provide back at us as a result of their own emotional distress. 

But if we are able to change the dialog in our own heads and come to understand our desire to document our world, and the swirl of cultures that comprise our social mix, then we can rationalize our actions in a better way. One that is less about selfishly capturing charactures of social difference, replaced by a desire to document, and perhaps better understand the metamorphosis of cultures. 

I've walked through a lot of streets over the years and there is always something confusing, different or alien to me that I am curious about and want to capture. In the best of all worlds there would be ample time (and social opportunity) to walk up to people who look, dress and act differently than the people I am usually surrounded by and engage them. Talk to them about their lives, the substance of their beliefs, their experiences that are different from my mainstream. We would get to know people on a deeper level. Sadly, there are so many reasons why this doesn't happen. 

And yet, for me, the dissatisfaction of not taking a deeper dive and gaining a greater understanding is made more acute by the media training of my youth. I grew up on the photography of magazines like Life Magazine, Look Magazine, Geo, National Geographic and others. In the heady days of the 1960's and 1970's it was not rare for photographers to spend days or even weeks on assignment, getting to know and work with their subjects. 

I am reminded of a story that's been included in the general lore about magazine journalism over the years. It is Career Girl  in a 1948 edition of Life Magazine. The photographer was Leonard McComb, and he shadowed a 23 year old woman named, Gwenyth Filling, from sun up to sun down over the course of several days. Maybe a week. The story was about Fillings attempt to launch a career in NYC.  Here's a link to an overview of the story and a gallery of the images: http://time.com/3456235/career-girl-portrait-of-a-young-womans-life-in-1948-new-york/

This Life Magazine story from 70 years ago set my brain to think of this kind of immersive photo-journalism as the gold standard of pictorial story telling, and it gnaws at my artist's inclinations every time I go out with a camera and make mostly random images of life. The deeper connection provided by more time and more experiences with a subject is so critical to the ability to get anything that approaches "real" in our work. Perhaps that's why, over time, the photos we make of our own friends and families is sometimes our strongest work. We so rarely are rewarded with long stretches of time with other interesting people, stretches of time that would allow us to understand the characteristic gestures and expressions that make the person so real to the people who know them best.

I've written many times that the first hour of a portrait session is wasted for photographs but invaluable for getting to know the person you'll be photographing and vital in establishing the kind of bond that leads to a real collaboration.

I am also drawn to early images by Annie Leibovitz. I'm writing here about the work she did early in her career for Rolling Stone Magazine before being smothered and ultimately encumbered by her entourage and the enormous budgets of her later productions; the very financial nature of which ultimately limits her engagement with the later subjects.

No, earlier in her career she worked alone. No assistants and no entourage but the slight difference in technical production quality was a wonderful trade off which delivered intimacy and access. She often spent full days and even multiple days with photographic subjects before bending them into collaborations that produced amazingly connected work. Once the crew came along for the ride all the intimacy and real connection with the people on the other side of the camera more or less went right out the window.

She still does amazing work but it's different. It consists of constructs and acting rather than reportage and honest exploration.

And that, all of the above, is what I tend to think about, in between taking shots, as I walk down a street in Berlin or Austin or Denver or Mexico City with a camera in my hand, and the intention of taking photographs of people I encounter.

I have some basic rules that I enforce upon myself when I go out and walk the streets in my role as a visual anthropologist. I am fairly religious about taking one camera and one lens only. I want to understand how the singular camera package will frame and capture the scene on the street. If I were fanatical (in a good way) I would take the same camera and the same lens each time. But I am more of a "reform" visual anthropologist so my leisurely and lax hermeneutics allows me a wider interpretation which includes the ability to randomly substitute different cameras and lenses (but only one at a time) into my working construct.  If I were zealously formalistic I would inevitably choose the 50mm focal length on a a full frame body. Thank goodness my solipsistic view of existence allows me to make random determinations instead.

I am never confrontational. No means no. I can't go all Bruce Gilden on people and not feel as though I haven't in some way damaged their contemporary peace of mind while muddying the waters for all future visual anthropologists. Probably a prejudice hung around my neck by dint of my protected and insulated upbringing. If someone is uncomfortable being photographed and there's no overwhelming value of the photograph to mankind, I apologize for intruding and walk away. No arguments, no rationalizations.

One of the basic rules that I shoot by is that while photographs of the backs of people might be inevitable (especially when first getting acclimated to the street or public environment) they shouldn't be shown, or regarded as real work. I know of one photographer who is brave enough to get everything technically perfect but a bit too delicate to approach human subjects head on. His subjects are nearly always silhouetted or shot from behind, or with long lenses. He's got a rationalization for that but it doesn't wash in my version of visual anthropology.

Another rule (and one which I break from time to time to my own embarrassment) is to shoot with nothing longer than 100mm. Anyone can stand on a street corner with a tripod mounted 400mm lens and pick interesting faces out of a crowd, but........ Conversely, I hate shooting with anything shorter than a 35mm lens because then I am just depending on a scattered composition to cover a nest of visual sins. The greatest of which is a nonchalance about rigorous composition. I guess you can crop but it seems more diligent to get it all together at the time of capture. After-the-capture work always reminds me of someone endlessly reworking a piece of art not because it's necessary but because ultimately, they lack a point of view. When you take up a camera you should be able to commit to your visual gestalt.

My final rule, and it's one I become more adamant about with every passing day, is that this street photograph experience should be a solitary undertaking akin to a solo, walking meditation. Once you bring along a spouse, a friend, a fellow shutterbug you've moved from an intention to capture your singular vision to an intention to have a social outing. Most people bring along a second person to bolster their courage in shooting strangers and the unknown, but all they generally succeed at doing is to create another unnecessary layer between themselves and their ultimate intention --- getting an honest image that describes the scene that tweaks your curiosity.

I spend most of my time in the studio. I can control the lighting. I can spend more time with my subject. I can try to build emotional bridges, anchored by finding our common touchpoint of experience and humanity. But I love the process of walking through the streets and documenting the people that catch my eye. They do so because, inevitably, they are different enough from me to spark my curiosity.

The images here are taken in a number of different cities and with cameras ranging from big Nikons to a Panasonic G5 and even the late, unlamented,  Samsung Galaxy NX (which made surprisingly good images --- once it woke up and loaded its Android operating system....). I like to think that my style of shooting is more or less consistent. I wish I had more time to explore life with everyone I've photographed. At least enough time to understand how they fit into the big jigsaw puzzle.

Something to ponder in my free time.

Use the force? Oh yes.


Frank Grygier said...

I now have my marching orders. I want to begin to be a better photographer next year and your blog always inspires me to keep going.

Michael said...

Thank you very much for that, Kirk. I got paid to be an anthropologist, in fact I still do to some extent, and I found that I could march up to anyone, announce my interest in their life, and with that preface and with permission, start drilling, mostly with pen and notebook, but sometimes with camera. In retrospect I realize what chutzpah that took, because now, sometimes going out with my camera alone into the street, I find it takes nerve that I mostly don't have, except when I speak to people first. You capture very neatly the situation, the feelings, and the moral restraint/timidity in this post. It is one thing to do it as a well-defined mission, and quite another to do it out of general humane interest, even though a measure of compassionate concern may be mixed in both.


Gary said...

Kirk, are you familiar with Valerie Jardin? Her street photography is astonishing. I understand she shoots very quickly, yet her compositions are masterful. She is able to isolate her subjects in such a way that no photo (at least the ones she posts on her website) looks like a random grab.

AlexG said...

50mm all the way when wandering around on the street, unless I just have a point and shoot and never hide that I am making photographs either. I do tend to go for resolute imagery in the urban environment waiting for the crowd to clear and create a sense of loneliness in the work.

Steve said...

Hello Kirk,

I love the image of the young woman sitting in one of the red booths lined up along a wall.
A great blog post! Thank you.

Steve B.

John Camp said...

Terrific post. Girl in the red booth!

Craig Yuill said...

I haven't been particularly comfortable with taking these kinds of photographs. This feeling has been shaped by a few incidents, like when I was shooting a cityscape and a cyclist threw garbage at me from behind. I didn't even have my camera pointed at any people, as far as I could see. I seem to have a talent for bringing out peoples' inner Sean Penn. About the best I do in this regard is take pictures where people are relatively distant - noticeable, but in no way dominating the photo. Kudos to you for taking these.

Dave Jenkins said...

With all respect, Kirk, I must say that I think your Italian street photos are much better. If I have read correctly, when you have gone abroad to photograph it has usually been on some kind of assignment, even if only a very sketchy one.

I've done a great deal of street photography in other countries, but always on assignment, with a specific documentary purpose. I don't do very well when that purpose is lacking, and I don't think you do quite as well either.

amolitor said...

Great post. This is my second time through it and it won't be my last. I'm really interested in artistic process, and this piece has some great insight in to hiw the flaneur / snapshotist / street whatever you want to call it fits in with the studied process you've talked about in the studio (and which I embrace, at least in broad strokes).

I feel like I'm really starting to 'get it'.


MO said...

do you ever consider using a seperate sound recorder? I use the smalest zoom recorder. I find it makes better result on the fly than i ever get with all my tweaking from the cameras sound. And that way i can just turn the zoom on n leave it running in concentrade on pictures. Pretty simple to sync after.

You might be much better keeping many balls in the air than me. but this way i need one less ball up there :)