If catch and release works for sports fishermen then why not street photographers?

 When I walked with my friends this week, ostensibly to take photographs, I found myself looking forward not so much to finished images but to the different parts and pieces of the walks themselves. The job of selecting the right camera and lens for an adventure can be lots of fun. Having someone else set the formalist boundaries of the walk is a great change from a route becoming a hobby. Getting out on a cool but sunny day and tasting the fresh air feels right. Conversations that run far afield from photography can be eye opening, entertaining or just plain fun. Chancing upon a new place for lunch is always an interesting and, if the food is great, it's a discovery for future good meals. 

On the two days I was out walking with a photographer friend this week I was less enamored with the actual process of taking photographs than I was discussing life. Now that's not to say that we didn't discuss social issues, favorite photographers and a bit about color science, it's just that those topics weren't constant, front and center, or even very important. We did talk a lot about travel and food and other friends. Catching up, expanding horizons.

All of which got me thinking about the practice of random street photography and how it fits into my existence. Or my life style.

So much of what I photograph when I am out walking, with or without company, is more like note taking. Or at an even more basic level it's me saying to myself, "Hey, Kirk, did you see that? That would make an interesting image. Let's see how you'd frame it. Let's see how you would approach that person. Let's see what it looks like once you've tossed some adjustments on it in post. Let's share this with people who might enjoy it." It's not even that I think the photographs have "long legs" or need to be archived. I've come to realize that the vast majority of the images I take are analogous to Garry Winogrand's repository of thousands and thousands of undeveloped rolls of film. Filled with shots he wanted to capture but shots that he had less interest in using again past the process of actually just looking and shooting. The feel of the camera in his hand. His mastery of instant composition, etc. 

Were each of those frames vital and precious to Winogrand he would have had ample resources with which to have them developed and contact printed while he was still alive. Heck, when he was a guest instructor at UT Austin he could have tapped any number of grad students in the College of Fine Arts Photography courses to work on processing his work. They would have appreciated the chance to do so. But he didn't. And he didn't because the act of shooting continuously was more important to him than cataloging every shot frame and preserving them all for some future posterity that most of us mortals never see. 

To me Winogrand lived in the process of "catch and release." He was nurtured by the flow of his work. The actual, physical work. Everything else was moved along by the need to finance and underwrite his experiential photo existence. I always had the impression, when talking with Winogrand at UT (or at one of our favorite haunts, a local hi-fi store) that he derived the most pleasure from being outdoors engaging in the pursuit of beautiful co-eds to capture on film with a deft click of his Leica. The rest of the business of being an artist seemed much, much less appealing to him.

After all, he left behind 6,000+ rolls of undeveloped film. If he was concerned the way most amateurs exhibit "concern" about their "work" he would have been rushing back to the dark room at the end of each shooting day to "see what he got."  To start the process towards making prints to share. Instead...he pressed on with what he enjoyed: the search, the moment, the capture of the image. The latent image. The mastery of divining when to shoot and what to include. For him that was the resolution. Not the print or the book or the show. Those things were done, I think, to primarily keep his career as an artist on track and financially supportive. It's almost as if his actual practice was more like conceptual art with the operation of the camera and the constant loading of film being the actual art itself. Performance art.

In the past four or five years I've filled up a number of multi-Terabyte hard drives with raw files and Jpegs of the images I shoot nearly every day out in the streets. I find I photograph differently than my friends who are in my local orbit. When we shoot together I'm happy to use up many frames to get something just right. Each frame building on the last one. My friends are careful, almost parsimonious about shooting. They'll maneuver and jockey about, searching through the camera for just the right angle and just the right juxtapositions before they engage the shutter. And they generally walk away with one or two shots of a scene instead of my ten or twenty. 

My time as a photography student and then instructor gave me a window into the many different approaches to making photographs existing out in the wild. Local influencers like Russell Lee and Reagan Bradshaw worked with view cameras and were, by nature, frugal with film. After all, each frame was much more difficult to work with than the smaller film cameras of the day. On the other hand, Tomas Pantin, for whom I was a teaching assistant early on, was a commercial photographer who often worked with Kodachrome slide film in a bunch of Nikon SLRs and was famous (infamous?) for banging through 50 or so rolls of film to bracket exposures for a single scene or set up. And then there was Winogrand who felt constrained if he came back from an afternoon walk down the drag with fewer than five or so exposed rolls of film. 

I fall into the Garry Winogrand, Tomas Pantin camps. I shoot like I have an endless roll of film in my digital cameras. It's my belief that my brain builds up a scene a frame at a time, constantly making small or large adjustments to my shots of a subject until the frame "feels" right. On a typical afternoon walk by myself, which might span two hours, I can, on a good, high energy day, come back home with 200 or 300 good exposures. If there are a lot of people out and about, like in the pre-Covid days, I could come home with double that numbers. 

A very, very small percentage of them turn out to be interesting to me but of course I don't edit or delete stuff in the field. You have to scan through and make sure of what you got. But lately I've come to the conclusion that it's the chase or the enjoyment of the process that's foremost in my priority list. The final image is a souvenir, not a product. It's a culmination of looking at a thing that drew my attention but that's all there is to it. The actualization of my thought pattern that existed while photographing. An image need not have any more value than that. 

In getting over my acceptance of the film era idea that all the images are sacred and worthy of hard core archiving I've begun to feel free to edit, delete, trash, unburden the hard drives, and otherwise toss all the images I know I'll never need or want to see again. If they were at all good (and that would be only my subjective appraisal) then you've probably already seen the images on my blog, or on my Instagram feed, or my website. 

I've been editing ruthlessly when I get home from a personal photography adventure. Out of 250 shots taken sometimes none of them are worth keeping. On lucky days maybe five or ten make me happy and get saved into a folder. Everything else goes away permanently.

The last time I checked I had nearly 500,000 images uploaded to Smugmug. I've put over 14,000 images up on the blog since its inception. I have 491,568 images in my Lightroom Catalog. And more on local hard drives. Some is client work but the vast majority are the residue, the fallout, the bounty from walks, trips, explorations and adventures taken just for my own artistic pleasure. I've seen most of the images once or twice and the vast majority I never need to see again. 

Lately, when I get back from a walk I'll take a quick look through all of the images and I may just sigh and re-format the SD card instead of bothering to upload the shots or even search through for well disquised "winners".  If they are so well hidden that I don't see them on the first pass they are probably not good enough to sustain anyone's interest going forward. The ones that stick stick because they stand out; or stand above.

So now I've started to think of my experiences out walking around as walks augmented by a camera instead of adventures driven by the hunt for photographs. It's a calmer way of approaching this particular process. And now I have little to no compunction about deleting a whole afternoon's take solid in the knowledge (and decades of experience) that there's little of value to anyone nested in that day's collection of "captures." 

How does this help? Well, not having a backlog of material I feel compelled to "own" and care for and keep safe frees me to continue shooting tomorrow and next week and next month, etc. Not having an obligation to hunt for gold keeps me out of a lot of cold streams. But in the long run it prevents my feelings of guilt and loss for not having the bandwidth to engage meaningfully with this ever growing mountain of content. The vast majority of which were just adjuncts to the pleasant reality of being alive and free to do whatever I want with my time. Having to act on the ownership of an ever growing archive is a form of self imprisonment. A way of chaining oneself to a desk to forever catalog and massage the work that's already in the rear view mirror. 

Statistically, based on parents, genetics, lifestyle, etc. the actuaries predict I could make it to my late 90s. That only leaves me, at best, about 30 years. If I'm realistic I'll probably only be independent and mobile for twenty of those years. That's not a lot of time. Will I spend it chained to my desk captioning, cataloging and continually archiving what I've already taken, already used and already shared right up until the day I die or will I chuck responsibility for as much of it as I can to continue on with the very pleasurable process of walking around, seeing new things (and old things change) and making photographs which please me in the moment? Oh. Believe me. The actually photographing will win every time. 

There are billions of us on the earth right now with cameras. It's not like the 1930s when the process itself took amazing skill and dedication. And only a handful of people did it well... Now photographing is almost automatic. The images we make might please a half generation beyond us but the reality of what photography is now has changed. We no longer make rare, precious objects. We are more like poets. They recite their poems to an audience and move on. Once the sound clears the performance is over. Once the images have been seen and enjoyed (or hated) that event is over as well. We move on. We make new work. We follow the momentum of our own universe. 

Nice photo? Sure. Caption it and save it for all eternity? Nope. Most of them now are "catch and release." 

Collectors? They'll all be dead some time in the near future as well. The work. The work will survive or die on its merit. But I'm the one who gets to judge if any of, or which of, my work has any merit beyond my own enjoyment. 


adam said...

i got round to getting a gopro, and have just tried making one of those street photography videos, it was pretty fun, got the special gopro bra thing and recorded chest mounted, hit record when i spotted something i'd like to photograph, recorded the runup and me fiddling ineptly with my camera then lined the photo up with the shutter click then transistioned to the next shot, couldn't bring myself to add music but like the ambient sound, no need to add a shutter sound effect then

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, really got the grey cells going...
Actually one of your more thought provoking articles, I need to think on it.

Gary said...

The camera as an adjunct to a nice walk. I wholeheartedly agree.

Norm said...

As a now, nearly emeritus “boomer,” some years older than you, the editing of the backups, work prints, archive prints, negatives, CD-Rx’s has become an important part of “downsizing.” How to approach this? What to do with the shots of a touring band’s sound check from earlier today, most of which will never make it beyond Adobe Bridge, never get post processed, certainly never printed? That said, do I I really need all those old sci-fi novels? Well, maybe the first edition Heinlein and the first edition Van Vogt. Maybe the collected Beckett plays? What to so with all those multi-volume sets that have populated multiple rooms with floor to ceiling bookcases, consisting of volumes not opened in 25 years–more, even. What about the “gotta have it” music CDs not listened to in longer than that? Not to mention CD-Rs containing scans of negatives from 1960s, 70s, and beyond. Oh, then there are the CD-Rs and later on, DVDs–redundant backups of raw files also stored on equally redundant hard drives. Negative files, too, although somehow, with film, I was able to develop half a dozen rolls, and after they dried, put them on a light box and keep a few six negative strips that mattered. But they do accumulate. The digital archive? How many of these photos will matter on into the future–matter now? How many of those jazz recordings will I listen to in the next five years, that can’t be streamed online? How many of those accumulated raw files will ever be converted to tiffs, much less processed and printed?

Thank you for helping get this in perspective and reinforce some of my own thoughts as we’ve begun “downsizing” at our house. I will continue to listen to music because it makes me feel good, read books and maybe even revisit some old favorites. I will continue to take photographs to see if the things I encounter in the world work as photographs…because I like doing it and it makes me feel good. I think I will purge a lot of stuff.

Miguel Tejada-Flores said...

I really like what you said, Kirk, about being more like poets, who speak their words aloud to those who may listen, and then move on. And, as you so aptly (and poetically!) put it, "once the sound clears the performance is over." Except, in this case, even though you (the poet with a camera) may have moved on, your photograph - of the dark glasses, on a tabletop - isn't moving on: it's still lodged in the part of my brain that reacts to - and studies - and remembers - certain images. Great shot. And a great post, too - thank you for stirring up the slumbering neurons, with this double jolt of words + images.

karmagroovy said...

A photographer buddy of mine spent many months taking shots with a film camera without film being loaded. For him the process of composing was so enjoyable that he didn't feel like he needed to see the image become permanent. After he returned to shooting and developing, he said that the prior months improved his eye.

I walk 30-90 minutes daily weather permitting. I always bring a camera, although photography is always secondary. Lately I've been bringing a quality point and shoot which is attached to my belt via leather holder. During the walk I often forget that I have the camera with me until a scene or subject calls out to me. It's kind of like fishing where you stick your pole in the sand while you read a book in your sand chair until the bell on the top of your pole starts ringing.

Eric W said...

Very nice article today. These are your best, and help me the most as a photographer...well I do take notes on your lighting methods too.
My reflection is how in my evolution I've come to enjoy seeing moments from some grab photos over the years in various "On this day" features. Sometimes it was a challenge I overcame, like clearing our driveway bridge of debris with my sons after a small flood. Other times like yesterday it was a moment of levity when one of my sons tried on a cowboy hat in a store, and rocked it. These throw aways jog my memories and fill a vital need for me, because I know soon these kids of mine will take on the mantle of adulthood and be far away.
Yet, there are times I just want my camera and a couple good M43 primes to play with in my pocket. I want to frame, light, compose, capture people, places and things in the some type of creative artwork to move my mind and soul by capturing a present moment for future memories and purposes. Whether writing inspiration, lessons on composition and lighting, or to seek new subject matter for a better shoot it all can matter. In these shoots a lot hit the garbage bucket, but a different part of me still is engaged in the moment, and inspired in later moments.
It will never cease to amaze me how the photography process and product can do so much for people at different times in their lives. Maybe this is why I so enjoy it.

Craig Yuill said...

This post resonated with me in many ways. I too get a lot of pleasure walking about and taking photos. Sometimes I bracket or take more photos of a subject than I need in order to “nail it”. I like to photograph birds, and take many photos of them because they move erratically - getting sharp, well composed photos of birds can be quite a challenge.

Questioning the need to preserve all captured photos is a good thing, IMO. Forums that I regularly visit contain posts by many who insist that they absolutely “need” a camera that can fire off twenty or thirty frames per second. They will store multiple backups of their photos on elaborate RAID systems. And in the end some will admit that most of their photos are crap. It makes me wonder what the point of all of that rapid shooting and backup storage is. These days I am tending to favour taking care when composing photos, and putting the camera in single shot mode as much as possible.

This is one of my favourite recent posts of yours.

TMJ said...

"Statistically, based on parents, genetics, lifestyle, etc. the actuaries predict I could make it to my late 90s. That only leaves me, at best, about 30 years. If I'm realistic I'll probably only be independent and mobile for twenty of those years. That's not a lot of time".

"“Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.” quotation from the novel 'Never Let Me go' by Kazuo Ishiguro

M. Hartt said...

Nicely framed Kirk. This certainly gets me thinking about the goals and process for my own walkabout photography. Thanks for that.

Rusty said...

Kirk, great and timely for me thoughts. I've just gone through boxes, yes boxes of machine prints and turfed all but a fraction of 1%. There is a large drawer of slides yet to be dealt with. It is liberating. The accumulation of digital files will need to be purged, someday...

A Photog said...

How most of that rings true for me.
A release of feelings down the alley of "why we photograph". Ideas to ponder.
Thanks for expressing what is felt by me as "opening....making more space" to be in.

Rene said...

Kirk, I really enjoyed this column today. Over the years (I'm about a decade older than you), photography has become more about the process and less the result. Sure, I like to get a "good shot" as much as the next person, but I find I go out more with my camera to go through the act of seeing than any particular result. Years ago, during a long meditation retreat, I came to the realization that, for me, meditation and photography were really the same things. In each I was trying to find a way "to see" the world and myself. I've embraced that perspective more with each passing year.

Gunny said...

Even catch and release guys take a snapshot.