Community Member Dan Redler and I are both currently enrolled in Dotan Saguy’s Street Photography Masterclass, which was released earlier this year. I’ve written a bit about Dotan and his work, you can check that article out here if you feel so inclined. Anyway, one of the module assignments inside of this course requires students to answer the question What Draws You? I find this to be a pretty expansive question with no short answer and wanting to be a good student, I answered the question, but I mean, I really answered the question. I feel that this in important inquiry and I wanted to share it with you. The following discourse could serve separating into multiple articles for independent discussion, though I want to put it here for posterity and perhaps clean it up and expand upon it later. I hope you find something here, and I certainly encourage a discussion in the comments below.
1. Moments that Matter
Ultimately, I’m looking to create images that are beautiful, and which contain moments that matter. That seems pretty simple on the surface but since both of these criteria are entirely subjective it’s really about what these two components mean to me. And each of these two components are loaded up with their own criteria, which again, I have firmly planted in my own head, my habits, and in my sensibilities, but would take a rather long article to explain. I’ll try to do it in short form for whomever might be reading this.
First, one might subscribe to the Henri Cartier-Bresson thing around “the Decisive Moment.” I’m not a subscriber of this whole philosophy, though I am a big fan of HCB’s work and his approach. I’ve seen videos of him working on the streets and he was a balletic little thing who quite literally danced around his images and created magic. Two things that are very important to note is that first, he was a classically-trained painter, and as such he had his fine art education firmly planted which informed his sense of composition and subject weight. This includes all of the geometry and balance that he was so good at. The second important note is that HCB hated the term “the Decisive Moment.” This is misattributed to him. He hated it. That term was foisted upon him by a book editor who renamed his first book The Decisive Moment instead of translating it from the original French title, Images à la Sauvette, which HCB far preferred. He regretted being saddled with that and having to live with it throughout his entire career. I’ve seen many images that contain what could arguably be described as a Decisive Moment, but this doesn’t automatically make for an image that I am going to care about.
Don’t get me wrong; capturing the Decisive Moment requires skill and luck and preparation and luck and reflexes and luck. It’s hard. I prefer to look for, and to attempt to capture to the best of my ability, moments that matter. Matter to me, of course. For instance, a pic of a skier coming off the end of a ramp and flying off into an epic jump is definitely an example of a decisive moment. I’m not into sports though, and therefore I don’t give a shit about such a moment. I’ll leave that to the sports guys. It’s a moment that (to me) doesn’t matter. So, moments that matter. That’s item one for me.
Next is mood. I’m hyper-sensitive to the mood of a scene. This is one of those things that’s very difficult to describe. I either feel it or I don’t feel it. I can often inject the sort of mood that I’m looking for with more or less exposure compensation, or with how I post process the image. (More on that in a moment.) I was talking just today to a friend who mentioned that he is striving to have his images appear as true to life as possible. I told him that I think that’s great for him, but I don’t want my own images to look “true to life.” If I wanted images that look true to life, I’d simply shoot with my iPhone. No filters, no processing. True to life. I don’t want true to life. Personally, I feel that photographs should look “photographic.” And what on Earth does that even mean?? Sounds like nonsense, doesn’t it? It’s not, but it is very subjective and deeply personal.
One of my big problems with technology today is that cameras, both still and video, are just too good. The resolution is too high. Everything looks too clean, crisp, so very digital, and I hate it.
I don’t like to watch HD television programming and I can’t stand HDR photography. I like being inhibited by the camera’s natural limitations. I like that film, and most camera sensors can only see about 65% of the light that the human eye can perceive. I like that if you have a high dynamic range scene and you expose to the right of the histogram, you end up with deep blacks. I like that if you expose for the shadows you wind up with high key brights. I like how film renders “reality.” My favorite images are film images. Hands down. I like that the colors are not accurate. I like that the lighting is not perfectly “true to life.” I believe that photographs should look “photographic” and as such I will process my own digital photos to include some filmic aspects to dull down the perfection coming off of the Leica or Fujifilm sensors that I use. I also shoot film and am working hard to improve my skills around that whole discipline. So there we have mood.
Next is subject. Most of my images have 1 or more people in them, though I try not to get crowds in my shots unless I’m specifically showing (say) just how crowded the Santa Monica Pier can be on the Fourth of July. Then I’ll want to get as much crowding and claustrophobia in there as possible (mood.) Otherwise, I do try to simplify my compositions as much as I can by reducing the subjects to only as many as the frame (the moment) requires. Sometimes I can create an image that carries my requirements around moment and mood without any life form in the photo, though evidence of the human element is largely required to pull this off. I tend to look for relationships between my subjects. Of course there’s the gesture that I’m always on the look for, but I largely seek an exchange between two subjects. Shooting in Italy is so much fun because people are arguing with each other all the time and there is so much opportunity for catching two people actively engaged in intense shouting matches with one another, and these relationships make for cool moments. I consider myself to be a fairly (usually) acute observer and I’m looking for all of the things Dotan mentions in this assignment description. Faces, gestures, relationships, exchanges, mystery, emotion, humor, joy (especially joy), irony. While on the street I’m ever scanning my surroundings. Some days I see far more or less than other days and I have been able to connect that with how my life is otherwise going at the time.
The next thing I look for is composition and presentation. My favorite images are made with a rather narrow depth of field. I’m not talking about shooting street wide open, necessarily, that’s really difficult to do. You all know the term “F/8 and be there.” I don’t really like to work at f/8 though I’ll do it while I’m shooting from the hip, or while I’m executing a zone-focusing strategy in a particular area. I’m not good enough with zone-focusing enough to do it at a faster aperture than around f/8. When I’m working up close and in tight formation, I will very frequently work at f/4 because (on a 35mm sensor or on 35mm film) this gives me the look I’m after. Have a look at the Jeff Mermelstein image with the man holding the paperback novel in his mouth, or similarly of Mermelstein’s image of the woman with the $10 bill in her mouth. He’s working at maybe f/2 there, and while that’s a bit too shallow for what I’m after, it’s close.
I feel that to achieve what I’m after, both with regards to the look I’m going for and to convey the story I’m trying to convey, I usually don’t require background elements to be in sharp focus. If I’m working Venice Beach, it’s enough to have a row of shops disappearing off on the left hand side of the frame while a couple of palm trees are visible to the right. These items, combined with a compelling subject moments still conveys “you are in Venice Beach right now” and the background items do not need to be in hard focus in order to achieve this. Also, throwing the background into softer focuses also serves the necessary (for me) function of subtly blurring any other humans that I’d prefer weren’t in my shot, but who are by simple virtue of working in a crowded public corridor.
I routinely deploy all manner of “get high” and “get low” camera angles. I like Dutch angels with a cantered horizon line. I sometimes throw the camera level way off if it will help to create tension, particularly with a subject in motion. I’m not a very big fan of rules.
To that end, I don’t feel that focus is necessarily vital either. Henri Cartier-Bresson once quipped that “sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” That line has been taken way out of context and in all actuality enjoys a very rich level of subtext that I think is almost entirely overlooked by a 21st century rhetoric. I’ve been meaning to discuss this one on a live podcast with a couple of fine art friends to really get to the bottom of it. It runs deep, but there’s this crazy obsession with focus and sharpness especially among the sort of male photographers (it’s always guys) who are also heavily into the gear worship aspect of the thing. So many of HCB’s images were soft focus, which is interesting because he was shooting with an M3 or M4 for most of his life and he was using lenses that were renowned for their sharpness. Yet his images are pretty blurry. Yet they’re excellent. They have MOOD for days.
I’ve intentionally pulled focus on some of my images to try to throw them just barely off into abstract territory and I’ve had some good success with these shots. Some of my favorite images in my library are out of focus or were shot with an intentionally dragged shutter to get the motion blur happening.
Here’s an example of that, shot in Downtown Los Angeles. I was going for mood and vibe far more than documentation and realism.
Alright, that one was a bit long, so congratulations for sticking it out. What about you? What draws YOU when you’re out shooting? What are you after? What’s your plan? What’s your fallback plan in case your plan doesn’t work out?
Thanks for reading, and thanks even more for leaving a comment below.