Can the Camera Shape the Photographer?

A conversation with Mike Aviña, Chris Farling, David Horton, Hector Isaac and Tom Young

A recent magazine ad for the Fujifilm X-T1 said, “The camera you carry is as important as the images you make.” But among street photographers, it is not cool to obsessively discuss “gear.” We take that for granted – cameras are just tools. While that is true, there is no better tonic for “photographers’ block” than a new camera or lens. Some photographers have truly found their vision when they switched to a certain camera. Back in the pre-digital days you had a camera. It was either a Leica, or an SLR. And you kept it forever. Today with so many choices of equipment, a photographer can pretty much find the perfect camera to suit their shooting style and personality. Or is it the other way around? In this post we hope to discover how the equipment a street photographer uses influences what their pictures look like.

Chris, you were shooting with an Olympus E-P1. Your work was solid and gaining some notice. Then you bought an OM-D E-M5 in the spring of 2012 and it seems like your vision really blossomed. I immediately noticed the quality of your work ramp up several notches and that trend continues. Do you feel that you held a vision that the OM-D finally released? Or did the new equipment present possibilities the E-P1 didn’t… i.e., eye-level viewing, fast autofocus, etc.

Chris Farling (CF)
I don’t want to diss the E-P1 overmuch in that the E-P1 itself was a quantum leap over the fully automatic mode-style shooting of the digital point-and-shoots that I had owned over the previous decade. When I committed to ponying up the $$$ to buy the E-P1, I made a parallel commitment to being more serious in my study and practice of photography. It was with the E-P1 that I really dug into controlling aperture and shutter speed and exploring different focal lengths and lenses. I’m actually glad I started with a camera that had some clear limitations (no VF, iffy sensor, slow AF, & poor high-ISO), much the way you need to play the $&@! out of a student horn before moving onto a more powerful but perhaps more complicated or less forgiving instrument in music. Everyone starting out wants to buy some perfect camera that will make them a brilliant photographer overnight, but the paradox is that it’s only through working around limitations that you grow and develop good habits. If you start out with everything handed to you, it can breed in you a certain laziness and you’ll most likely get bored and frustrated.

The E-P1 was also my first experience using fixed prime lenses and that more than anything helped me to “see” as a street photographer would and to be able to pre-visualize frames to some degree. It was really a wonderful camera to experiment with and learn on and I don’t think I will ever sell it.

So you’re saying that a more basic camera can provide a better learning experience?

Exactly. It really did liberate me when I upgraded to the E-M5 along with the Oly 12mm f2 lens because I had much of the basics in place from the E-P1. Most of the gains weren’t surprising in that I knew what I wanted out of this new camera and what advantages it held over the old one. I honestly can’t imagine needing a more powerful camera in the foreseeable future.

That was a pretty wide lens to start with! Just what are those advantages the E-M5 gives you?

The one thing that I want from a camera more than anything else is versatility. And I include the lightweight form factor of the m4/3 system as a key part of that versatility. Not for me the heavy necklace of an SLR… I like to be able to shoot quickly and reflexively and so I don’t even want the camera to be on a strap. The E-M5’s EVF was a real boon to helping me execute better edge-to-edge compositions. I for one really like having all the settings info available in the EVF, though I know many prefer optical ones. The touchscreen, which allows you to tap a focal point or even to release the shutter directly, added even more flexibility. The almost instantaneous AF (as well as the simple zone focusing capability of the 12mm lens’s pull ring) meant that I could depend on my own sense of timing and reflexes and not worry that the camera wouldn’t respond when I was ready. The E-M5 helped me to learn more about on- and off-camera flash. Perhaps the most useful thing, surprisingly enough, was simply the extra customizable dial and button, allowing me to have immediate tactile access to virtually any setting I would want to change quickly in anticipation of the next shot. Also, it bears mentioning that the rich Olympus JPG quality from both cameras has influenced my color sensibility.

As much as I like the E-M5 and feel that it has helped me develop and execute my vision, I’ve since adopted the APS-C sensor Ricoh GR as my principal camera, reserving the E-M5 for special situations where I want the different lenses or the weatherproofing. In many ways, the Ricoh is a step backwards in quality and features, yet it is so perfectly portable and well-designed in its flexibility (a real photographer’s camera) that those advantages trump all other considerations. Plus there’s that awesome TAv mode that let’s you specify both aperture AND shutter speed… I find the Ricoh is the perfect camera for my style of quick close-in shooting with a fixed 28mm-equiv. and I suffer little when adapting it to other types of shooting.

Click for a gallery of images by Chris Farling

Click for a gallery of images by Chris Farling

So with the E-M5 you became accustomed to the convenience of customizable dials? That would make the GR a logical move because, since the line’s inception, it has been praised for its flexible interface. As DP Review said, “We’ve often referred to the Ricoh interface as arguably the best enthusiast-focused interface on a compact camera.”

David, you followed a similar path as Chris, moving from an E-P2 up to the OM-D E-M5. Among this group of photographers, you used the focal length closest to what is considered a “normal” lens: 20mm (40mm equivalent). There is less margin for framing errors than with a 28mm or even 35mm. As a graphic designer, tell us how the precise eye-level framing of the OM-D has influenced your photography, especially with the 20mm lens.

David Horton (DH)
When I first started dabbling in SP, I was using a Canon G9 which has a 35mm default lens. I liked that length a lot. When I moved to the E-P2, I opted for the Panasonic 20mm (40mm equiv.) because it was considerably faster than the 17mm Oly lens* (34mm equiv.) and it received considerably better ratings and reviews.

*You mean the Olympus 17mm f2.8 Pancake, correct?

Yes. Oly’s first 17mm prime did not have very good performance especially in the corners. Although I used the Pany 20mm almost exclusively for over a year (and was very pleased with the IQ of the lens), I often found the focal length limiting. I wished it was a little wider.

The primary reason I moved to the EM-5 was speed. Although I adapted to the slow autofocus of the E-P2, I was missing more and more shots. Although the add-on EVF on the E-P2 was acceptable, it was a bit cumbersome. I shoot exclusively through a viewfinder. So the ergonomic design of the built-in viewfinder on the EM5 was also very appealing. What I didn’t know until I received the camera is that, to benefit from the increased speed of the EM-5, you also had to have one of the newer Oly lenses. At the time I bought I camera, the fast Oly lenses only existed in 12mm and 45mm lenses. The 12mm (24mm equiv.) was too wide for me. I waited for at least three months for the rumored 17mm 1.8 lens to come out. (It was my dream lens.) I preordered it and got it as soon as it released. I’ve used it exclusively since the day I got it. The combination of the EM-5 and that lens is extremely fast.

The other thing I like about the EM-5 as opposed to something like the Fuji X100 (which I also considered) is the ability to change lenses. Although I rarely do, it’s nice to have that option. I always carry the 45mm 1.8 Oly lens (90m equiv.) with me too, just in case.

Click for a gallery of images by David Horton

Click for a gallery of images by David Horton

It is nice to have the ability to change lenses, particularly when on a trip, even if you don’t do it often.

Mike, you have used quite a variety of equipment, from Leica M3 to Sony RX1 and many things in between including compact P&S’s and the Ricoh GR. I know that you are a dedicated student of photography with a deep curiosity about what is possible. Does this explain your variety of equipment? You seem to always come back to shooting b&w and I have the impression that, ideally, film is your medium of choice and because of that much of your digital work looks like film.

Mike Aviña (MA)
I’d like to challenge the conventional wisdom of sticking to one camera and one lens. There is a time and a place for sticking to a narrow set of gear. When you get completely accustomed to one focal length and one camera the gear does become more intuitive, you can set up shots and frame them before you pull the camera up to your face because you know where to stand at what distance to include given elements. That said, smaller cameras have certain advantages: deep depth of field, very fast autofocus, and tilt-screens. There are world-class photographers that have discovered and exploited these advantages. I just purchased a published book shot entirely by phone–the images are superlative. I’ve made 12” by 16” prints from an LX7–they look great.

To answer your first question–yes, I prefer film. The dynamic range of film and the separation of subjects one can achieve with shallow depth of field on a fast lens is a necessary creative tool. I have never used complicated post-processing to add blur to digital images; this is a method that ends up looking artificial. A wide, fast lens on either a full-frame sensor or over film is therefore a must-have. Shallow depth of field however is only one tool and not one I use all or even most of the time.

Arguably, you can come pretty close having a digital image file look like it was shot with film in post processing. But the methodology of shooting film is a whole ‘nother animal.

Film versus digital ia probably better left for another discussion! I also have an abiding love for small, pocketable, point-and-shoot cameras. As others have mentioned above, small cameras are easier to haul all day. In addition, shooting like a tourist, with innocuous little shots framed through the LCD rather than a viewfinder, is often more effective than pulling a big rig up to your face and clacking away. Even with a small rangefinder, people react more when you pull a camera up to your face than they do to an apparent tourist snapping casually with the LCD. I tend to frame faces off center; when using a wide angle lens this means people are often not sure they are in the shot because it isn’t clear you are shooting at them. The shooter and the subject have a complicit agreement to the fiction–the photographer is shooting something else; the subject ignores the shooter as long as it isn’t too intrusive. This helps one work close in crowded spaces. Having a bundle of different tools allows flexibility and simultaneous exploration of different creative options.

You make a very good point Mike. Why shouldn’t we use whatever tool best suits the situation? Some of our peers carry dslr’s with a zoom lens mounted that will cover most scenes. Maybe one of them will comment to the pros and cons of a zoom.

Interesting path you have followed Chris… from LCD framing, to eye-level framing, back to LCD framing. I found myself “borrowing” the small Samsung EX2F I bought for my wife and became addicted to the tilt screen. I find that I am very comfortable shooting from waist level and I really prefer the perspective of that PoV, rather than “looking down” at everything from my 6’2″ eye level.

How hard was it to adjust back to the loose framing of the GR’s LCD screen versus the precise eye-level framing of the E-M5? The concrete canyons of NY offer some shade to better see the screen, but how do you frame in bright sunlight when you travel? How often do you use the optical viewfinder?

I do use the optical viewfinder on the GR sometimes (in a way, it’s less obtrusive and noticeable than holding the camera out from your body) but I have a tougher time seeing all four edges of the frame in the viewfinder than I do with the screen. As wide as I generally shoot, I have to kind of scroll with my eye in each direction and that’s too limiting and slow for me. I also don’t like the tunnel vision that develops where you can’t receive new information about the way the scene is changing and what’s happening on the margins with your peripheral vision. With the OVF, you also don’t see the central AF point if you’re using that to lock AF and then recompose. It may seem like a minor point, but I’m also very left-eye dominant so I have to block my whole face with the camera when using the VF, even if it was a corner-mounted one.

An interesting observation I have made is how most of us frame on an LCD using both eyes, but frame through an eye level viewfinder with one eye closed. Truth be told, for street photography, framing using any device is probably best done with both eyes open, but a hard habit to get into with an eye level viewfinder. I find an optical viewfinder more conducive to shooting with both eyes open and it gives you the advantage of seeing what is going on outside of, and about to enter or leave the frame.

That is an interesting point about shooting with both eyes open. That may be what I like about using the LCD of the GR. Viewing the LCD in sunlight hasn’t bothered me too much with either the E-M5 or the GRD since the screens can be made pretty bright. Most of the time your own body acts as shade and, even when it doesn’t, you can still easily see which shapes and areas of light and dark correspond to what you’re seeing with the naked eye. I think it’s actually kind of cool having a slight degree of abstraction (less detail) when considering the composition, the same way a photo thumbnail is often easier to use for judging the effectiveness of a composition in editing than the enlarged version.

It’s also interesting that you say you prefer shooting from a more mid-body angle than always looking down at everything. Being 6’2’’, I have the same issue and, while using the 12mm lens almost exclusively for a year, I became cognizant of the great care one must take in controlling the perspective distortion with a wide-angle lens. Even having backed off to the 28-mm equiv. of the Ricoh, I still think that the default orientation with such a lens should be relatively straight on and not tilted excessively.

My biggest gripe with the EM-5 is you have to rely too heavily on the digital interface. I wish there were manual knobs to adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Since I don’t use the LCD, I have it turned off. To adjust any of these settings, I either have to hold the camera to my eye and turn the knobs or turn the LCD on and adjust them. Neither option is ideal or fast enough. This is what I find so appealing about the X100 or a Leica. I also can’t wait until they design better battery life for these digital cameras. As Chris can tell you (from spending a day shooting with me), I opt to carry a number of batteries with me than worry about preserving battery life in the camera. I turn it on and leave it on. When I need to react quickly, I don’t want to have to wonder if the screen’s going to be black when I bring it to my eye.

That’s what evolution has brought to cameras, David. With a basic film camera, like an M3 or Nikon F you have two settings: shutter speed and aperture… and, of course, focus (and film choice). Cramming so many features into a small digital camera leads to compromises.

Mike made a good point about not limiting ourselves to a single tool. Sometimes we tend to set unnecessary limitations for ourselves. Although we may at any given time favor a particular set of gear, I think most of us here have more than a single camera. We always have the option to change cameras if a project or different direction comes to us Having your equipment be intuitive is the most compelling reason for limiting equipment choices. When I saw you this last summer Mike, you were using the Sony RX1. The IQ is the obvious reason why this camera has a strong following. Is it your perfect camera? If not, what would be? The others can answer this as well.

The M3 is, for me, more or less the perfect camera–I am just reluctant to keep spending the money on film. The chemicals also concern me. For an everyday digital shooter the Ricoh GR may be my favorite. The RX1 has laggy autofocus which hinders the advantage of the high IQ and beautiful rendering that the Zeiss lens offers.

Click for a gallery of images by Mike Aviña

Click for a gallery of images by Mike Aviña

David, you mention that you use an eye level viewfinder exclusively–is that because you want precise framing? How come you didn’t gravitate toward a DSLR? There are plenty of choices in size and features to fit any budget and many SP’ers use them. Was it because you already had m4/3 glass?

I certainly find my framing more precise and that’s certainly one of the primary reasons I shoot this way. Perhaps, the more significant reason is that I feel “more at one” with the camera and the subject(s). I shoot a lot of portraiture and even when I’m not shooting conventional portraiture, it’s very important that I’m in sync and “connected” with my subjects. Facial expressions and details are very important to me; these are impossible for me to see if I’m relying on a screen. Shooting with a screen is fine for shapes and loose compositions but it’s not very precise—certainly not precise enough for me.

The reason I’m not interested in a DSLR is size. I don’t like to draw attention to the camera and a DSLR certainly does that. I’m also not interested in lugging one of those suckers around the city on a regular basis. I will occasionally lust after the IQ of DSLR sensors but the trade off is not worth it to me. I’ve spent the day shooting with friends that use DSLRs and after a day walking 10 miles around a city, they are not happy campers. The smaller and lighter the camera, the more likely you are to bring it with you.

Tom, you use a full-frame DSLR. While the 5D is not huge by DSLR standards, it is huge in terms of what everyone else here uses. Obviously it’s hard to be inconspicuous. How do you work around that? I would assume that the quality and precise framing a DSLR offers is important to the type of pictures you want to create.

Tom Young (TY)
There’s a number of different reasons I shoot with an SLR. For one thing, I don’t only shoot street. I also do weddings, events, the odd corporate photography gig. I even shoot landscapes! Egad! So while the 5D is a big rig, for many of the situations I find myself using my camera its size doesn’t really matter, and its image quality is definitely a plus.

But for my street work it can also be an asset. I shoot in a town that is really dark in the winter. During the darkest months, the sun doesn’t get up until after I get to my day job, and is already down again before I leave. And I dabble a bit with flash, but available light is generally my preference. I love the night, really, the strong contrast, dramatic brightness surrounded by black. The full-frame SLR lets me work in that environment and still get nice clean shots.

I would imagine the high ISO image quality to be a must in the arctic. But how do you deal with subjects when they see you pointing that big honker at them?

Hey wait a minute, Edmonton may be north, but it’s not the artic!!! I find that the right attitude is the key to remaining inconspicuous. People may be more likely to notice my camera because it’s big, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will care what I’m doing with it. When I first started shooting street, it seemed that people noticed me more than they do now, probably because I spent a lot of time sweating bullets about what I was doing. I really didn’t want to be noticed. And I assumed people would think it was odd. I hadn’t squared in my own head what my motive was. I knew what types of images I wanted to produce, but I didn’t have a clear sense of purpose. Best way to stand out in a crowd? Look embarrassed or uncomfortable while wielding a big camera, or worse, a small camera.

Click for a gallery of images by Tom Young

Click for a gallery of images by Tom Young

That is excellent advice Tom.

With experience, that fear has dropped way off for me. Now, when I pull out my camera, I’m pretty confident about what I’m doing. And while the odd person may raise an eyebrow, most people don’t seem to think anything is unusual about what I’m up to. I can only assume that means that I look like I belong in the landscape now. Hidden in plain sight, in a sense, despite the fact that I don’t really try to hide my activities any more. So I think the knock against SLRs being too big for street work is a little overblown.

Mind you, it probably helps that I’m not a terribly in-your-face shooter. If I was shooting Gilden-style, the big camera might tip people off before I could get close enough…

A lot of photographers feel that anything longer than 50mm equiv, or even 35mm, is “against the rules” for street photography. How do any of you feel about that David? You sometimes use the Olympus 45mm f1.8 (90mm equivalent).

I think many “rules” of street photography are pretty ridiculous. I try not to pay a lot of attention to the rules. I believe all that really matters is the success of the shot. Yes, there is an energy and authenticity that comes from a wider lens that is very appropriate for the street—there’s good reason most of us use them most of the time. But limiting yourself to that perspective exclusively is a bit short-sighted (sorry, couldn’t help myself). A lot of magic can happen when compressing images. It can be a very painterly way of seeing, especially with a large aperture. You paint with colors and shapes rather than objects or subjects. It’s a slower, more studied way of seeing. Saul Leiter is a perfect example of this. It all depends on the mood you’re trying to achieve, the story you’re trying to tell.

You shoot with a Fuji x100, Hector. Am I correct in understanding this is your first camera? You don’t have previous experience with film? The x100 is a popular camera with street photographers. You mentioned that it took awhile for you to feel comfortable with it. I have heard other reports that there was a steep learning curve with this camera. How does the hybrid viewfinder help or limit your shooting style? Is a fixed focal length limiting… do you ever wish it was a little wider, or longer?

Hector Issac (HI)
You are correct, Greg, I had no previous experience with film or any other medium and the Fujifilm x100 was my first camera. Recently, I was asked by a friend… Why that camera? I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t, but I’m glad I got it.

For most of those coming with a broader photographic background, the x100 was a struggle, for me it was a love/hate situation that still exists. After my first try, I almost sold it, then it was left on the shelf for one or two months. It took me about another three to four months to get comfortable enough to get what I wanted. The main issue back then (cough cough) was the autofocus, well … it sucked, so I decided to learn to work manually and zone focus, rather than sell the camera and buy another… Best decision I ever made.

I’m a bit obsessive when I’m interesting in learning something, so my learning curve was rather steep given the amount of time I spent to learn my camera and about photography in general. The hybrid viewfinder helped me learn the camera’s frame lines, even if the lag was a problem.

Thanks Hector. I have heard from others that the x100 has a steep learning curve. But those who master it love it to the point of becoming evangelists. Interesting choice as a first camera but it seems that diving in on the deep end and making the commitment has served you well!

There are many ways a photographer’s equipment choices shape the pictures they produce. Even though the street photography genre has been slow to embrace anything other than straight, unmanipulated images, today we have so many more choices in equipment and post processing than we did on the pre-digital era. While it should be easy to create a signature look, remarkably much of today’s street photography is fairly homogenous. We invite you to comment with your thoughts on the relationship between photographers, their cameras and the images they produce.

OBSERVE is proud to be the featured collective at the 2014 Miami Street Photography Festival. Now in its third year, this world class event brings workshops and lectures by reknowned photographers to the colorful Wynwood Arts District of Miami. A juried exhibit of photos submitted from around the globe is a highlight of the weekend event. Chris Farling and Danielle Houghton of OBSERVE along with Matt Obrey of Urban Picnic comprise the jury panel. A photowalk on Saturday provide an opportunity to take a Leica for a test drive and meet up with other street photographers.

The Miami Street Photography Festival runs December 4-7, 2014. For more information see:

A Few Words on Patience

Photo Booth, Jason Reed, 2012

Photo Booth, Jason Reed, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke on patience (and street photography)…

In a conversation a while ago among fellow Observe members, Jason Reed made an interesting comment regarding his move from London to the English countryside and how that affected his photography: “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years since leaving London is that patience is as important in this game as luck.” That caught my attention for its timing, as I had been reflecting on that matter after re-reading parts of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” – a correspondence between the Austrian author and young officer cadet and poet, Franz Kappus.

It’s been said before about how street and documentary photographers are able to create their own luck (a matter of attention, of being alert and open to the possibilities at all times). However, one should also be aware of patience in a deeper level. Not only the patience required for the long hours spent wandering and shooting – but also the time required for the work to develop and evolve. In one of my favorite passages of Rilke’s book, he writes: “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

I guess the reason that brought me again to Rilke’s words was a need to reflect on what I had accomplished in the last 4 years (the time since I got back to photography after a long hiatus) and on what to do next – a transition of some kind. I had edited my work for a new website, and took the opportunity to evaluate it, leaving room for uncomfortable questions, like, for example, about whether or not I had found my voice.

The process of finding one’s voice, though, is something that can only happen naturally. Therefore the importance of turning photography into a “habit”, according to one’s work schedule and daily commitments. Not all street photography practitioners are able to shoot everyday. Most, like Jason, don’t have enough opportunity to go out and shoot. In these cases, he notes, the process of finding a voice should happen at the pace that one’s shooting allows. “It can’t happen any faster than that”, Jason said. “Even if I wanted it to. I guess that’s patience and acceptance.”

I could relate to his thoughts on being patient as opposed to going insanely trigger-happy. “It would be tempting to wander off and shoot everything in sight”, he said, “possibly ask people to repeat a gesture, or even make images of random obscure scenes, then label it country street/fine art. In other words, explode the limits of the genre into something completely different to justify what I was doing. I won’t have it. I think we all need to stick to the essence of what started us down this road. And that takes patience.”

As Rilke would have said, yes dear sir. Jason seemed to be talking about patience as much as about trust, and the Austrian poet also wrote of how one should always trust oneself and one’s own feeling at all costs: “If it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing.”

I guess we should all search for a (re)birth from time to time. Since that conversation took place, I decided what to do next and left home to go on a long trip. It’s something I feel very lucky about, to be able to go on such a journey, mostly to take pictures. However, even in the privileged situation of being able to shoot everyday, I feel I should be patient sometimes, in order not to wander off, like Jason said. Inevitably, the time comes when shooting street photography randomly starts to feel empty, and the desire to be out in the world diminishes. It may not happen to everyone, I suppose, but it does to me. In those moments, I trust myself to slow down and go on a little retreat, wherever I am, to evaluate what’s been done and what might be ahead, to lay the camera down and be with my own thoughts for a while, or read a good book. The need to go out and photograph must be present, and it can only come from the heart. However, I believe the need can/should be fed. And silence and good books – not only photo books! – are two things that come in handy for that. I believe they may slowly feed the desire to go out to that point when it becomes urgent. And the fun may begin – again.

Speaking of good books, “Letters to a Young Poet” was first published in 1929, and since then it has inspired not only writers, but anyone who has ever felt the urge to create something. In what is perhaps its most famous passage, Rilke begs Kapuz to investigate the reasons that bid him to write: “Find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

Yes, momentary pauses to reflect on new directions are always helpful. Be that as it may, the practitioners of candid/straight photography must (italics on me now) go out and shoot. Shoot as much as he/she is able to. Above all, though, shoot as much as he/she needs to. As Rilke taught, it’s the necessity to write shoot that will move us toward something truthful: “A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other.” As long as that need exists and is constantly fed, all one has to do is to keep going – with trust and patience.

Marcelo Argolo

Embracing the The Near Win

In this evaluative age of social media and reality television, everyone seems to be an expert and everyone has a righteous opinion. Everyone can judge regardless of qualifications. As photographers, we are constantly competing for a share of recognition. How can we maintain a sane outlook on the disappointment of rejection, or the glow of a shallow success? Art curator and author, Sarah Lewis offers some insight into the process of mastering our craft and why falling short of our expectations can be a good thing in this TED talk from July 18, 2014.


The Critical Edit

Garry Winogrand recommended not looking at your contact sheets for a year. He felt that more critical editing decisions were made when there was some space between the edit and the act of taking the picture. This is good practice if you can stand to take the time. The way we edit our work has a deep influence on our art and is inextricably intertwined with the creative process itself.
When my parents were still alive they would take long cross-country motor vacations to visit my sister in California. My father would shoot plenty of slides along the way. When they got home there was of course, “the vacation slideshow”. We would sit through every slide, good, bad or underexposed. I would tell my father that if he only showed the best five or ten, people would think he was a great photographer. That too was good advice.

As photographers, what we choose to show or exclude from our output has a direct and important bearing on how our work is perceived. Other two dimensional artists are not as tied to show-not show, the edit manifests itself in what to include within the four sides of the rectangle. Of course this too plays heavily into photography and while it is generally called “composition”, deciding what to include or exclude from the frame is as much an editing process as deciding which photos to show and which to hide or discard.

Why is it that while we know that a critical eye serves us best, we give into the temptation to show marginal work? My list of excuses includes:
• I sort of like it, let’s see what others think
• On its own it’s not strong, but it fits my body of work
• “I really like this…a lot, I hope others do too.” Then when they don’t…”they just don’t understand it!”

The first is especially prevalent in today’s world of social media. It is tempting (and all too easy) to upload a picture to Flickr or Facebook for feedback from others. That’s great for photos of your niece’s new baby, but should we subject our artistic output to the masses for judgement? Can we trust the opinions of people who we know nothing of their qualifications at judging good art from bad art? Or does that not matter? Isn’t it ironic that we take classes and workshops from experienced teachers and study the work of established masters, then tacitly ask people, who may have no artistic ability at all, what they think of our work?

A firm and critical edit can go a long way toward eliminating the uncertainty of crowd opinions. The tougher we are on our own work the more conviction we will have in it.

Nick Turpin on editing

Tri-X contact sheet, 2009 Greg Alliks

Tri-X contact sheet, 2009 Greg Alliks

Garry Winogrand review

Garry Winogrand - New York, 1960 - Street Photography

New York, 1960

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a reputation for presenting landmark photography exhibits. I saw the retrospective, Diane Arbus Revelations, a decade ago and it made a lasting impression on me. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which it was curated and produced. The exhibit featured 200 or so photographs, including many that had never been seen publicly. There was also a mockup of her darkroom complete with Nikon F and Rollei cameras, developing trays and marked contact sheets, all lit by safelight.

The  Garry Winogrand exhibit reviewed here, which ran a year ago at SFMOMA, will open at the National Gallery in Washington, DC on March 2. This exhibit presents an equally comprehensive look at this photographer’s work spanning some thirty years. Guest curated by Leo Rubinfien, along with Erin O’Toole and Sarah Greenough, the exhibition contains many never-seen-before images. Winogrand died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 56 leaving behind some 250,000 frames of unedited film. Approximately 90 of the 200 plus photographs in the exhibit have been printed for the first time. Text1 at the entrance explained the provenance and preparation of the photographs on display. Prints made posthumously are all silver gelatin. There are no inkjet prints in the exhibit.

Free-standing glass topped island display cases  provide insight into the photographer’s life. There are letters, family photos, magazines with work for hire, an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship (with endorsement from Diane Arbus) and contact sheets. The contact sheets, which bear his editing marks, offer a telling view of his working method and selection process.

The photographs are presented by period (Down From the Bronx, A Student of America, Boom and Bust) and show the development of Winogrand as a photographer. Text throughout the exhibit reminds us of events of each period.

Garry Winogrand - New York, ca. 1958, Street Photography

New York, ca. 1958

Winogrand was twenty years old when he discovered photography as his calling. At that time, the country was relieved to be finished with WW II and the postwar boom of the fifties, for many families, was the beginning of the move from cities to suburbs. Uplifted by the promise of peace and growing prosperity, wartime industries returned to serving the needs of the American public and technological advances born of the war found their way to consumer products and services. Families enjoyed leisure time together, rock and roll was born, and television presented a view of life that now only exists in Norman Rockwell paintings.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, the innocence of the earlier decade was lost when president John F, Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. Throughout the sixties the US was embroiled in the controversial Vietnam War that tore the country apart. While political riots plagued college campuses, reaching a crescendo at Kent State University2 in 1970, social riots tore through major cities in the sixties. Assassination continued through the decade with Senator Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King both losing their lives in 1968, Still, president Lyndon Johnson promised the country “A Great Society.”

Garry Winogrand - New York, ca. 1960, Street Photography

New York, ca. 1960

The civil rights movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination based on race, sex or religion. The Cold War became ever more frigid and the possibility of nuclear annihilation was tangible (in high school I had a neighbor who built a bomb shelter). The role of the majority of women was as housewife and professional career choices for them were limited. One older female friend recently said, “if you wanted to work, you were either a secretary, receptionist, nurse or teacher.”

By the middle of the decade “hippies” were an established counterculture. They opposed established political traditions, hated the Vietnam War, and advocated peace, love and spiritual enlightenment. Since the 1960s, many aspects of hippie culture have been assimilated by mainstream society. From the Banlon and polyester days of the early sixties, when canned vegetables were a staple of American households, the back to the earth movement began. Euell Gibbons preached natural foods and we learned how to talk to our houseplants in the book, The Secret Life of Plants. We learned that you are what you eat and health and fitness entered the American culture. Organic farms and cooperatives sprung up in rural areas across the country. Celestial Seasonings introduced herbal tea and natural fiber clothing began replacing synthetics. The Beatles launched the first wave of the British Invasion and forever changed music and popular culture. The armchair traveler who had relied on National Geographic magazine for insight into foreign lands and cultures was replaced by a peripatetic society as air travel brought faraway places within reach of those who could afford it. For the rest, television provided a window to the world and for the first time we saw the brutal realities of war as we sat in our living room.

1967 marked the first major exhibit of Winogrand’s work. Along with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, the New Documents exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York brought attention to the three photographers and forever linked them together.

Garry Winogrand - Dealy Plaza, Dallas, 1964, Street Photography

Dealy Plaza, Dallas, 1964

“I am surprised that my prints sell. They’re not pretty. They’re not those kind of pictures that people can easily put on their wall. They’re not that window on to a nice landscape or something.”
From the beginning Winogrand’s work showed few ties to the documentary traditions of the New York Photo League. Ironically, he was friends with Dan Weiner3 and considered him a mentor. It was Weiner who introduced him to Walker Evans’s American Photographs,  the book that made such an impression on the young photographer. His eventual break from commercial work around 1969 allowed him to
concentrate on his art and evolve into the pivotal photographer of the Twentieth Century that he ultimately became. At that time there were few, if any, galleries devoted to selling photography. Those art galleries and museums that did deal in the medium presented the established names (Weston, Steiglitz, Adams, Strand, etc.). The means by  which “art photographers” supported themselves was through stipends from teaching assignments and grants, which together. barely provided
subsistence living.

Garry Winogrand - Los Angeles, 1980-83, Street Photography

Los Angeles, 1980-83

“I don’t have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I’m photographing. I have a responsibility to describe it well.”
Though the photographs in this exhibition should be viewed in context of their time, to say they are only of a historical importance is wrong. Winogrand was not a photojournalist. This work that he is best known for is not documentary photography. He felt no responsibility to be socially conscious. He was not interested in telling stories (although much of the time his pictures did tell stories for many viewers). He was not trying to make the world a better place through his photography.

In her San Francisco Chronicle review, Caille Millner states that Winogrand “was famous for never asking people permission before taking their photographs” and suggests that a generation of male photographers idolized him for his bravado. What Ms. Millner missed is that engaging people before taking their photo results in portraits, not candid street photography (a term which Winogrand disliked). When you ask someone to take a photo of them, they will most assuredly pose for you. Those people who accuse Winogrand of being brash or pushy mistake his intentness of purpose. Exploring photographic problems was a purely selfish pursuit and all consuming for him.

Garry Winogrand - Los Angeles International Airport - Late 1970's, Street Photography

Los Angeles International Airport – Late 1970’s

“We know too much about how pictures look and should look. How do you get around making those pictures again and again?”
In the exhibit the pictures change after he received his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964. The lyrical approach to image making that he inherited from Walker Evans and Robert Frank gives way to complex, sometimes chaotic frames. This was one of the photographic problems he was exploring: how much information can a photograph contain before the content overwhelms the form? The 50mm “normal” lens was abandoned in favor of something wider; first 35mm then later, 28mm.  This change of
technique is striking in the presentation of the photographs.

Garry Winogrand - Los Angeles, 1980-83, Street Photography

Los Angeles, 1980-83

“Frame in terms of what you want to have in the picture, not about making a nice picture, that anybody can do.”
Garry Winogrand was first to use many of the devices that modern street photographers take for granted today. By using a wide-angle lens, not only could he include more information in a frame, he also became part of the life of the street instead of being an observer from afar. True to the genre, today street photographers rarely use long focal lengths or even carry telephoto lenses. Before Winogrand, horizon lines in photographs were parallel to the edge of the frame. The tilted frame that is so commonplace nowadays was one of his “experiments” as he explored the possibilities of what photographs were and could be. The seemingly simple, snapshot look of his photos brings attention to his subjects and has rarely been done as eloquently. His commonplace subject matter was previously thought too mundane to be worthy of photographing; yet it is Winogrand’s process of selection that brings focus to the nature of our society itself. In order to not suggest specific meaning to his photographs, he titled them using only place and year. Like Cartier-Bresson, compositions were made in the viewfinder and negatives were never cropped when printed.

When still photography was introduced it was hailed as a medium that could capture a moment with irrevocable truth to be preserved for eternity. Winogrand knew that the tie between a two-dimensional photograph and what it depicted was questionable at best. The simple act of framing a selection of a scene could create new relationships between the elements of a photograph that did not exist in reality.

Garry Winogrand - La Grange, Texas, 1977, Street Photography

La Grange, Texas, 1977

“When  I’m photographing I see life.”
The early photographs are easy to relate to and bear a closer resemblance to existing documentary traditions in terms of subject and framing. While distinct from that of his contemporaries, they suggest
the direction in which he was heading. The early photographs present scenes and subjects without washing them in sentimentality or opinion, or over embellishing them with style or form.  By the time Stock Photographs was published in 1980, images might consist of a diagonal slash of content across the frame, or a somewhat blurred subject harshly lit by flash. Yet to say that certain stylistic approaches were indicative of a period would be untrue. The later work is certainly more somber…often more radical in composition. Early subject-dominated photographs tended to be carefree and detached. Later on they became introspective, as if promises had gone unfulfilled. Subjects seem to be involved with their own inner thoughts and problems. Was it Winogrand who changed, or was it the world? If he had a premonition about his illness, it would be difficult to pinpoint when it began to influence his photography.

Garry Winogrand - Rodeo, Fort Worth, Texas, 1977, Street Photography

Rodeo, Fort Worth, Texas, 1977

“There is nothing so mysterious as a fact clearly described.”
Garry Winogrand has often been derided for not editing the work he was producing as the 1970’s got underway, leaving thousands upon thousands of images that he never even looked at. Even some of his strongest supporters, like John Szarkowski, felt that his talent had declined. Winogrand would rather be on the street taking photographs than looking at those he had already made. Photography in itself is a process of selection. In the later years shooting may have been as much as he was willing to commit to, leaving the final selection to others and for posterity to judge in the end. With a retrospective this large and many of the images never actually selected by Winogrand himself, we can only guess as to whether or not it represents a valid statement of his work. Credit is due to the curators for even attempting such a monumental task. To be sure, there are some less than strong images in the later period. Weeding out a third of the pictures would result in a stronger collection of images, but it would not tell us as much about the evolution of the photographer. A smaller exhibition would not include the wrong turns and experimentation that all artists deal with.

Looking back at videos of him working the street we can only marvel at how he made photography look so simple, yet created a body of work that is so complex and groundbreaking for its time that it created a whole new way of making and looking at photographs. His most lasting legacy must certainly be the vast archive of photography he left showing the sixties and seventies in America with honesty and an intensely personal vision that is unique. We will never know whether he was fooling us all when he said he took pictures to see what things looked like to a camera. If Winogrand were still alive, he would probably tell us, “look at the pictures, what do you see?”

We hope that SFMOMA will mount a Lee Friedlander retrospective in the coming decade, thus completing the trilogy of the 1967 New Documents exhibit that launched the careers of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. On June 2 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will close for two years for renovation. The Garry Winogrand exhibit will travel to Washington DC, New York, Paris and Madrid. The catalog is available as hard cover or paperback from the museum’s online store at
Note on the bold-faced quotes.
These quotes from Garry Winogrand are mostly transcribed from a two-part interview conducted by Bill Moyers in 1982 (see “Garry Winogrand” post in Archive for links), although they have appeared in other writings of and about the photographer. The Winogrand doctrine was revolutionary for its time: ” …there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of ’em. They do not tell stories – they show you what something looks like. To a camera.” “All a photograph ever does is describe light on surface, that’s all there is.” To this day, people still get contentious when you tell them that photographs don’t tell stories — that a narrative involves the passage of time, not a frozen slice of it. While Winogrand is generally acknowledged as the author of this radical philosophy, I have recently revised my thinking. John Szarkowski’s book, The Photographer’s Eye, was based on his 1964 Museum of Modern Art exhibit of the same name, and first published as a book in 1966. The volume is divided into five sections with an explanation of each at the front of the book: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point. Bits of text in the book bear a striking semblance to the Winogrand doctrine; ” …photography has never been successful at narrative. It has in fact seldom attempted it.”  “…the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story, but a picture.” This is the same language used by Winogrand. It appears that this way of thinking about photographs was something that evolved as part of the interaction between Winogrand, Szarkowski, Joel Meyerowitz, Tod Papageorge and others in that circle during the mid-sixties. Joel Meyerowitz4; says,” I can tell you that neither of us (Winogrand and he) had anything intelligent to say about photographs back then, a grunt of surprise or saying ‘that’ s interesting’, or ‘that’ s tough’…until John showed us what might be part of the dialogue we were all lost.”  He adds, ” Szarkowski was the mentor to us all, and I firmly believe that his wisdom, through his exhibitions, writings, and private talks with each of us shaped the thinking of my and Garry’s generation.”

1) The majority of photographs in this exhibition were printed by Winogrand or under his supervision by Thomas Consilvio or Paul McDonough. The rest were made after his death and unless otherwise noted, were printed in 2012-2013 in Tuscon, Arizona by Teresa Engle Schirmer. All are gelatin silver prints.

In his last years, Winogrand put off developing his film and editing his contact sheets in favor of shooting. At his death he left behind approximately 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film and 4,100 more that he had processed but not reviewed, representing most of his production during the last six years of his life. Winogrand had allowed others to edit his work and print his photographs, however, and in preparing for its posthumous 1988 exhibition Garry Winogrand, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, develped. proofed and edited the work he left behind. That show included a small group of prints made by Consilvio from late images selected by John Szarkowski, director of MoMA’s department of photography, and by Winogrand’s friends and fellow photographers Tod Papageorge and Thomas Roma.

Many earlier Winogrand photographs also remained unprinted at his death. For the present exhibition, therefore, guest curator Leo Rubenfien undertook a two-year review of the bulk of 22,000-odd contact sheets in Winogrand’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tuscon. Over ninety posthumous prints made from Rubinfien’s selections and drawn from the full span of Winogrand’s career are on view here. The labels for these prints indicate whether Winogrand marked a given frame on its contact sheet, suggesting that he found it to be of interest.

2) On May 4, 1970, four Kent State University students were killed and nine injured when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a demonstration protesting the Vietnam War. John Filo’s iconic photograph of the tragedy won a Pulitzer Prize. (Wikipedia).

3) Dan Weiner (1919-1959) studied painting at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute, eventually accepting a job as a commercial photographer. He joined the New York Photo League and developed an affinity for the work of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee. Following World War II, he pursued work as a photojournalist, refining his belief that the photographer has a moral responsibility to illuminate social ills and to comment on significant events in history. Weiner’s life was tragically ended by a plane crash while he was on assignment in 1959. (

4) Personal communication.


Evans, Walker, essay by Linclon Kirstein. American Photographs. 75th  anniversary ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 2012.

Kotz, Liz. “Damaged.” 21-28: Coleman, A.D. “Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand at Century’s End.” 31-37. The Social Scene. Ed. Stephanie Emerson. Los Angeles. The Museum of Contemporary Art. 2000.

Lifson, Ben. “Garry Winogrand’s American Comedy.” Aperture 86: 32-39. 1982.

Rubinfein, Leo.  “Garry Winogrand’s Republic.” 13-61. Garry Winogrand. Ed. Leo Rubinfein. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2013.

Szarkowski, John. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

Winogrand, Garry, introduction by Tod Papageorge. Public Relations. 2nd ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 1977.

AUDIO A conversation with docent and museum visitors

Greg Allikas, May 2013

farm scene - Eileen and Garry Winogrand, Woodman, Wisconsin, 1973

Eileen and Garry Winogrand, Woodman, Wisconsin, 1973

interview: Todd Gross

by Jason Reed

Todd Gross (aka Quarlo) has been one of my favourite photographers ever since I started making photographs about four years ago. I’m delighted that he agreed to answer some questions for the Observe Blog.


T h e   r e a s o n s   w h y

JR – A few quick fire questions to get started.

You took to photography in your twenties and, despite a hiatus for a few years in or around 2005, then found yourself back in a photographic groove. What is it that motivates you to keep going?

How often do you get the chance to get out and shoot? Do you set aside time on a regular basis or do you grab what opportunities you have in between your other commitments? Perhaps (like most) it’s a combination of both?

Does your mood on any given day influence what you see and shoot or vice versa?

TG – The potential for a good photograph (one that I’m happy with) is what keeps me going. I just want to be creative. Share the shit that’s inside of me. You know, It’s nice to have something in ones life, besides the usual get up go to work come home start all over again thing. I’m not interested in football or college basketball or whatever, so there’s time for photography! Having said that, the real truth is I might’ve been convinced at some point, that I have at least a little talent with the camera, I see no reason to waste that.

I shoot whenever I’m not too cold, too hot, too hungry, too tired or in too shitty a mood. Which ends up to be not as often as I’d like! Less and less these days, as I’m working more ( a good thing) than I was, say a year ago. I still manage a couple hours or more a few days a week.

My mood plays quite a bit into the equation. I tend towards cynicism and depression, so that’s another obstacle to get out of the way. All minor issues in the scheme of things of course.


JR – Does shooting help lift your mood when you’re depressed? I find it can go either way.

TG – If I’m doing well, it certainly does. Most definitely. If I perceive that I’m doing poorly, the mood goes right into the toilet. The reality is though, that I have no idea how I’m really doing until I see the pictures. I’ve had many days where the sun is shining inside and out, only to discover later I shot a whole lot of nothing. What I really need to do is relax. In general. But, I’m a neurotic jew, so that’s easier said than done. I could over-think the operation of a paper bag. The best shots come when one least expects.. or tries for that matter.


I n f l u e n c e s

JR – You have mentioned elsewhere that Gilden, Parr, and Cartier-Bresson were a few of your early influences. Both Cartier-Bresson and Gilden’s work seem very far from where you are now in terms of your images. Did you try and emulate them when you first started out because I see little of their style in your images today? Does their influence still linger as far as you are aware?

TG – Ha ha. My stuff is very far away from the works of those great gents indeed. I take photography pretty serious, but unfortunately I’m not one of those guys that came to it early and devoted their life to it. Wish I was. Truthfully, I am influenced by every great photographer and photograph I see. Currently, this is one of my main issues… trying not to let myself get lead around by the nose by influences. As far as style goes, you would probably be in a better position to evaluate my stuff than I am.


JR – Which leads nicely to my next question. Would you say that your style or approach has changed in any material way over the years? Some say that it takes many years (if not decades) to find a style, do you think you have “found” yours – or are you still looking?

TG – Speaking in terms of approach.. I’m still looking. I may always be looking. Familiarity breeds contempt, right? I’ve never stuck with much for very long. Jobs, relationships and so on. I get restless and the cracks start to appear and I’m on to something new. But I am trying harder now that I’m getting truly bald and my back hurts when I sit down sometime. Definitely trying harder with photography and my love Jenny. I might be settling on a focal length pretty soon. And film over digital. Although that can’t possibly last, cuz of the $$$ involved.

I think much less about style. I’m not exactly sure. Again, you might be a better judge.


JR – Do you think its important to find a “voice” that defines “who you are”?

TG – No. Maybe I’m wrong, but I reckon style finds you or not at all.


JR – Does that mean you’re happy with the work and your results or is there always a conscious desire to move forward and evolve.

TG – Once in a while I’m happy with a picture. But there’s a whole lot of room for improvement. I have a small library of photobooks to show me that.

JR – Is there any particular direction that you would like to explore or are there any projects that you plan to pursue?

TG – I’d like to nail that approach down. Sharpen my scanning and photoshop skills so things look a touch more consistent. Figure out what equipment I really want to use and earn the cash to pay for it.

As for projects… fuck knows. I might not be that guy. I mean, I love prog rock, but I tend to play the same 3 or 4 chords over and over again.


JR – Is there anyone out there at the moment whose work you see as an influence on your current shooting?

TG – Like I mentioned, I’m influenced by quite a bit. My dad wasn’t around much when I was a kid, so I’m always looking for someone or something to show me the way.

JR – Do you ever meet up with any photographers in NYC either socially or for photowalks (I’ve always found shooting with others to be a bit weird)?

TG – Socially, once in a very blue moon. I had a couple chats with Bryan Formhals this year. Really fun talking to him about photos. No photowalks though. I can’t wrap my head around that concept at all. Seems mega pointless. But I’m fully prepared to be wrong about that at some point and reverse my stance.


JR – I hate to ask about gear but what equipment do you use? Do you view your kit as being just a “tool” as many claim or are you prone to gear acquisition syndrome like the rest of us from time to time?

TG – I love cameras. I think most photographers do. The tool matters. Could just be the nerd in me, but I love looking at and learning about cameras and lenses. Taking fantasy shopping tours of B&H or eBay. I think it’s a false conceit when folks say they can’t be bothered to talk about gear.

Currently, I’m shooting with an old Minolta point and shoot. The DSLR I was using is great (in a swiss army knife sort of way) and I’ll probably go back to it at some point, but the Minolta is so easy to carry and use (obviously) that I can’t put it down. Plus, it looks rad man.


JR – What would you choose to shoot with now if money were no object?

TG – Probably a Leica M6. I had an M2 briefly several years ago, but it wasn’t the right time to get my head into that way of shooting. For digital a D610 would be nice (if a bit on the bulky dorky side of things), simply because I have a collection of Nikon lenses. A digital M would also be cool, but they are dumb dumb money. Judging by what Sony (and in turn everyone else eventually) is putting out, it looks like we’re not far off from smallish affordable full-frame cams for all the proles.

JR – Early pioneers of street photography made pictures because they felt an irresistible pull to do so. Meyerowitz walked out his job after seeing Frank in action in an advertising shoot. He is now a legend and has made his living through photography. These days the streets of any major city seem to be full of budding Winogrands. How would you define “success” in photographic terms (being published? High end exhibitions? 100+ faves or likes on social media?)

TG – Success means different things to different bodies, I would imagine. For myself, success is being interviewed by Jason Reed or someone out there writing me a note saying that they enjoy the photos.

I want to continue making these little frames for as long as I can. If something besides the satisfaction of doing so comes out… great.


F i n d i n g    a    v o i c e    a n d   d e f i n i n g   s u c c e s s

JR – If the internet were to be suddenly snuffed out of existence would you be content to just shoot for yourself or would you need to look for ways to publish your work in hardcopy?

TG – I think I can safely say I don’t have to worry about that. I mean, as long as we have electricity. If we suddenly don’t, I imagine there will be more pressing matters at hand than photographing.

JR – Is it possible to reach that zen-like state of contentment through shooting for shootings sake? I suppose what I’m asking is once the camera’s back in its place at home, and the prints are processed and viewed, would that be enough?

TG – I don’t think it would be enough anymore to just put prints in a drawer. I did that. I much prefer for folks to see the stuff. That said, having every photo rated with a star or heart is pretty fucking daft at the end of the day. Still, why not go ahead and fave a few of my latest whydontcha!!??? Love me love me love me me me!


JR – I may be alone, but I sense that there is a shift away from the term “street photography”, you describe yourself simply as “a photographer” do you resist being pigeon holed or do you place yourself in any particular category? If so which one?

TG – It took me a long time to call myself a photographer at all. I thought ya had to get published in the magazines and/or wear a funny vest and cap. Now I realize, I can call myself whatever I like. Others surely will.

JR – Is it possible for a style of photography to be “done to death”? If so, are there any styles that you feel are getting a bit “overdone”?

TG – Everyone can do whatever they like. There is no overdone. After all, the only thing new about a particular thing is you finding out about it.

JR – Aside from posed, abstract and fine art imagery, do you think that there’s anything genuinely new that can be discovered in the world of (street) photography? Or are we all just standing on the shoulders of giants like Meyerowitz et al?

TG – We’re all standing on each others shoulders at the moment, I think. But I have no doubt folks will emerge with “fresher” ideas and imagery as time goes by.


Street and the internet

JR – What are your views on the way that the internet and social media has affected photography today?

TG – Ya got me. This is a question for one of the real thinkers out there. You know the ones!

JR – Do you think that the glut of online images has desensitized us to what is actually quality work or is the opposite is true? Is there such a thing as an objectively “bad” image or is it a largely subjective medium?

TG – Entirely subjective. I remember seeing Cy Twombly stuff for the first time at MoMA years ago when I was a kid. I thought, what the fuck is all this shit with the squiggly lines? Dude’s having a piss, isn’t he? I still think that, but now I know it’s prob due to the fact that I have no frame of reference or natural sense of appreciation for that kind of thing.

Regarding the glut of images, yeah, it has desensitized me. I have to learn when it’s time to walk away and stop looking or else become completely dumb and numb.

JR – The cult of personality leading to an element of “the emperors new clothes” creeping into the online photographic community perhaps?

TG – True. But that’s just folks being folks.

JR – Some photographers seem to make a decent living from the free publicity the internet affords and through workshops and the like. Have you ever been tempted to take advantage of that and move fully into the profitable “electric limelight”?

TG – I wouldn’t know how. I mean, I’ve been interviewed a few times this year, though I guess that’s a more passive form of promotion? It would be nice to make a few bucks, of course. I’ve always been clueless in this regard. I just want to go out, have fun making some photos, go home, crank The Floyd and dream about outer space. I’m just not the workshop type.


More about you

JR – It may be my projection but I see your images as being as much about circumstances and happenstance as about the human subjects themselves- is this a conscious aspect of your photography?

TG – I use what’s available to try to make a successful image. Not only my surroundings but whatever mettle I’m made up of that particular day. It sounds maybe a bit pretentious to say, but the photos are more about myself than the subject.

JR – That’s a big can of worms – images being a reflection of ourselves. Many of your shots are not of the more mainstream “pavement and pedestrian” school. What do you think this says about you?

TG – I’m not sure, except that, in general, I don’t favor those kinds pictures. Ultimately, (you tell me whether I’m succeeding or not) I’m trying to exclude distracting elements in order to create a simple dynamic graphic composition. If I shoot people walking down the street, head on, with a 28mm lens, it’s exceedingly difficult to do that. Unless, I get really close. I don’t want to get really close. Then again, I’ve used a 50mm from three feet away quite a bit. So, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Ha ha.


JR – Although you started shooting black and white, now you shoot almost entirely in colour – why the change?

TG – Overall, I enjoy looking at color photography more than B&W. I think I have some ability to see colors well. So I’m running with that.

JR – Alex Webb famously stated that photography is 99% failure. Does that percentage seem right to you?

TG – Maybe 93%. Not everything has to be perfect and in it’s right place to be properly appreciated, you know?

JR – Sounds a bit like Bresson’s famous quote about sharpness being a bourgeois concept. Do you think slight imperfections can make an image more compelling?

TG – Sure. Why not? They can also sit on top of a picture like a festering boil. I always notice the boils. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to enjoy the rest.

JR– Do you have any plans to publish your work (now or in the future)?

TG – Ambition doesn’t come easy to me, but I guess I wouldn’t mind having my own little book out sometime in the future.


Thanks Todd.

You can find Todd’s excellent images at and at

I get by with a little help…

The importance of community in street photography
by David Horton

One of the challenges of street photography is that it’s primarily a solo endeavor. We walk miles of pavement alone searching for moments of magic. While we’re searching, we’re often unsure whether what we’re seeing is unique or interesting. We push ourselves and question ourselves, alone. We usually edit alone. The whole process can be very isolating.

In my experience, the majority of street photographers don’t come to it with a formal training in photography. And for the most part, I think that’s great. It offers the genre a variety of unique perspectives from a variety of disciplines. The downside is that many of these people have never experienced what it’s like to be a part of a supportive, creative environment surrounded by like-minded peers where people are encouraged to grow and mature together. While I never studied photography formally, I feel very fortunate to have attended an art school and experienced that environment. I learned how essential a creative community is for growth, support, and maturity as an artist.

Critiques are a valuable component to the artistic process. While they can certainly be painful at times, they probably afford one of the best opportunities for growth. There’s nothing quite like putting your work up on the proverbial wall for your peers to either rip apart or praise. The reason it’s so important is that we as artists have a tendency to hold onto our creations too tightly. That doesn’t allow us to remain open to discuss our weaknesses with a measure of objectivity and acknowledgement of what we need to improve.

The moment I started taking street photography seriously was the day I submitted one of my pictures into a street photography critique group on Flickr. I’m not gonna lie, you need to develop thick skin to participate in some of these groups, but the benefits have far outweighed the negatives for me. I grew at a pace that would have taken twice as long otherwise. Of course, online critique groups aren’t for everyone. Some people can be downright hurtful for no other reason than to put other people down. Anonymity will breed assholes. But the core reason to do it is that it’s crucial to receive criticism from people whose work you respect and that’s not easily managed online. If you choose to participate in online critique groups, do some research first. Look through the work of regular participants and note whose work you like. Pay particular attention to the critiques from those people. The more you participate, the more significant the interactions become.

Aside from growing and maturing as a photographer, another benefit of participating in critique groups is that you begin to develop your own voice and opinions based on experience and knowledge, not insecurity. You learn to disagree without being defensive and that is a very powerful step in taking you to the next level.

All these experiences led me to realize the importance of community in street photography. My participation in open critique groups led me to private critique groups, private discussion groups, and ultimately becoming part of a collective. I don’t know if this is common in other collectives but, in Observe, the friendships developed first. Transitioning those friendships into a more formal arrangement just felt like a logical next step.

Street photography is incredibly difficult. There’s a good reason people like Alex Webb say that 99% of street photography is failure. I see no need to make it even more difficult by trying to navigate it alone. I don’t necessarily mean going out and shooting with others (although I’ve learned that can also be extremely beneficial) but just sharing the experience together. There’s nothing like sending your pictures to people you trust and respect and saying, “I’m trying out something new here, what do you think?” and knowing you’ll get half a dozen honest opinions back. I’d encourage all street photographers who aren’t part of a community to consider building one or participating in one that’s already established. Seek out people whom you respect, and open a dialogue. One thing to keep in mind is that the more diverse your community, the richer the experience will be. I really appreciate the fact that the shooting styles and approaches in our collective are so varied. This adds richness to our group. It also encourages us to expand in ways we probably wouldn’t if we all subscribed to one philosophy or shooting style.

I am indebted to my online community. I would not be where I am today without it. What an incredibly unique experience it is to have friends all over the globe that share a common interest and passion. I certainly wouldn’t have found that in the city I live in on my own. For me, it started on Flickr. I don’t know what the fate of Flickr will be—I know a lot of people have left or are considerably less active since the recent redesign—but as far as I know it’s still the strongest and most comprehensive platform for street photography available. I’m not necessarily making a plea on behalf of Flickr but, rather, the community it provides. It would be a real shame if this well-established community were to disintegrate entirely.

Artists thrive on community—that’s how we’re challenged, evolve, and grow. My photography colleagues make me rise to the occasion. They call me out if I’m being lazy, they slam me for shooting clichés, they are the first to let me know when I’m not shooting up to the standards they’ve come to expect from me. This is why I love and respect them. It’s always about the work first. They’re less concerned with hurting my feelings and more concerned with helping me develop as an artist. When you hit the inevitable "street photographer's block" where you feel like everything you shoot is crap, they’re there to help you through it. I know how unique and valuable this is and I don’t take it lightly.

My hope in writing this article is that it will inspire others to form a community. For those who are already part of one, be reminded of the importance of nurturing it. What you contribute is often doubled or tripled in return. Street photography is ultimately a singular vision but the process of developing it is almost always stronger in numbers.

January 2013, Times Square, NYC The first meetup and group shoot of Observe. (Left to right) Chris Farling, Fadi Boukaram, David Horton, and Larry Cohen. Disclaimer: photograph taken by random stranger. Observe is not responsible for — nor does it endorse — the clipping of feet.

January 2013, Times Square, NYC
The first meetup and group shoot of Observe. (Left to right) Chris Farling, Fadi Boukaram, David Horton, and Larry Cohen. Disclaimer: photograph taken by random stranger. Observe is not responsible for — nor does it endorse — the clipping of feet.

Louis, Street Photographer

By Chris Farling

Let’s talk about Louis (full name annoyingly withheld for a moment), a person who I don’t know personally but one whose work I enjoy and admire wholeheartedly.

Louis is enjoying a bit of a moment these days. Toiling in relative obscurity for decades but sticking to his vision and honing his craft all the while, he has really broken through of late and caught the attention of the wider world. The idea of him marshaling his newfound popularity and selling out seems laughable, however, because his work continues to have the same uncompromising impact and will never appeal to the most mainstream tastes anyway. He probably garners more respect from his peers than from any other group and that seems to suit him just fine.

He is undeniably an artist, yet he toils in a genre that has a bit of an acceptance problem in the Art world even as it becomes more and more popular to the lay world—popular enough that sometimes it seems as if every other person on Facebook or other social media fancies themselves a junior “Louis” with their own postings, as shallow an imitation as it may be. This phenomenon probably owes something to the fact that what he does seems deceptively simple and literal, like it’s something anyone could decide to do without much training.

One of the things that I love about Louis is that, while some in the field prefer facile one-liners and stale gags that pander to their audience, he favors complexity and is able to point an uncomfortably accurate mirror at ourselves, leading us to truths that we might be oblivious to otherwise.

It is clear that Louis observes people constantly—anything and everything he sees is potential fodder for his work. He creates novel juxtapositions and makes us see his subjects in a new light. You get the sense that, as a person, he himself learns from what he does just like we do.

So who is Louis?

His work does not hang in any gallery or museum and no street photography collective can reasonably hope to count him as a member. For he is not a street photographer at all, but rather: Louis C.K., comedian.


So why am I bringing up a comedian in my first post for Observe? Because a lot of times it is very difficult to talk about something directly and literally, especially something artistic. The saying that “nothing ruins a joke more than trying to explain it” is fitting here. We humans have always used metaphor to strengthen our understanding of complex subjects. It’s how our brains are wired. So talking about street photography by not talking about street photography can be a fruitful exercise.

Improvisational music is probably the most obvious parallel to street photography to me (especially the state of mindfulness that characterizes both), but I wanted to stretch a bit to show how seemingly unrelated disciplines can shine a light on each other. Find inspiration everywhere!

One of the strongest parallels to me is the idea of both comedians and street photographers as students of human behavior, which even the most misanthropic of either set must be as a matter of professional interest if nothing else. Developing a style and persona is also important in both fields because it’s partly the authorial sensibility that keeps the audience engaged from photograph to photograph or from bit to bit. (This stands in stark contrast to photojournalism, where one strives to bear neutral witness to some sort of interesting action; the comedian would be replaced by the news reporter in that comparison.)

If you think of a photograph as a “bit” and an exhibit (whatever form that may be) as an “act,” the street photographer can also derive some lessons from the best stand-up comedians about how to pace material and to sequence it to get maximum impact. Each bit in an act is generally as self-contained as a single frame, so comedians learn connecting and linking techniques to keep their audience’s interest and attention from flagging. Something to think about between laughs.

Of course, there are a lot of ways the parallel to stand-up comedy breaks down and that can be interesting to look at as well. Unless a confused audience is the goal, there isn’t as much emphasis on ambiguity and mystery in comedy (except maybe in some of the more left-field Andy Kaufmann stuff). And some contend that narrative and story—so important to comedy—aren’t even possible in the frozen moment of a photograph. A street photographer also can’t really audience-test a photograph and then rework it, but s/he certainly can draw on the experience to try to get a better picture the next time and the goal in both cases is still to edit ruthlessly until your material is as strong as possible. The concepts of juxtaposition* and recontextualization are probably better compared to improv comedy where the typical job of the group is to knit together jarringly unrelated audience-suggested things in interesting and funny ways. Another breakdown in the parallel is composition, which doesn’t translate very well from the visual realm.

We often worry about showing too much material as photographers but we also have to be concerned with the staleness that can set in if we are only associated with older work. Louis C.K. is not satisfied with repeating his greatest hits and sets himself an inspirational challenge that goes beyond others in his field. From Joel Lovell’s GQ article, where a fellow comedian talks to him about Louis C.K.:

“‘Never repeats material,’ the other one added. He very much wanted me to understand that there are guys out there struggling week after week, month after month, to get ten or fifteen good minutes, whereas Louis C.K. is taking stuff that other comics only dream of and throwing it away. Every year, a whole new act. Ninety minutes. ‘Think about that.’”

And then there’s perhaps the most telling parallel of all with street photography, as recounted by Louis C.K. himself in the same GQ article: “Every time I’ve needed it, stand-up has saved me…. I’ll never stop doing it.”


PS—Here are a few links to Louis C.K. bits on YouTube that to me exemplify his perceptive nature:
What you get with a basic life
Everything’s amazing and nobody is happy

* Besides being a good read, James Parker’s Atlantic article on Louis C.K. has a good example of him employing juxtaposition in his TV show:

“Another episode of Louie finds him in a New York subway station, propped against a metal pillar, blown away by the music of a dinner-jacketed violinist. The music soars unbearably; Louis looks almost tearful. Then a hefty, multilayered homeless man comes flapping down the platform, stands right behind the still-playing violinist, strips, and begins to lavishly rinse his naked torso with bottled water. What’s going on? A duet, that’s what: a cosmic fugue of glistening butt crack and inconsolable violin. It’s life, ugly and beautiful, in permanent exile, and Louis is transfixed.”

Days of Our Lives

By Marcelo Argolo

One of the rewarding things in photography is the people we meet while out in the world taking pictures. I mean not only the people we actually take pictures of, but also the ones we meet while taking pictures. Chance plays a good part in that, as it does when guiding us into interesting scenes at the turn of a corner. If chance doesn’t help you to get a good picture, who knows, it might help you to get a date. Or perhaps, to meet a homeless man who will grab you by the hand and lead you inside a used bookstore to show you a picture – stories we collect through photography.

I lived in San Francisco’s Lower Haight for about 3 years in the early 90’s. A lot of homeless people lived in the streets and parks around the Haight-Ashbury area, famously known as the epicenter of the Summer of Love in 1967. In the sixties its 19th century multi story houses were home to thousands of hippies, including artists like Janis Joplin and the members of Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Many of the homeless I saw asking for change on the sidewalks were old flower children from that time, often alcoholics and/or drug addicts.

One of them, who I saw almost every day, would sometimes be in an awful shape, too drunk and weak to even mumble “spare some change”. He was well and sober, though, at the time I gave him a dollar, and because he had noticed I was a photographer, took me inside the bookstore to show me a picture of him that appeared in a book of photos. From one of the shelves he grabbed an edition of A Day in the Life of California, scrolled through the pages and – there he was, in a small portrait, looking good and thoughtful. I smiled and congratulated him for being immortalized in such a noble expression. He smiled back, very proud.

I loved to wander around the Haight, taking pictures of street artists and craftsmen, watching the hipsters pass by, chatting with the deadheads and homeless that took over the sidewalks. I’d hang out with them, listen to their stories and dream that sometime I would hop in one of those hippie buses parked by the Panhandle and hit the road across America. I planned to go on a cross country trip at some point, but at that time I was really busy taking Photography classes at the City College of San Francisco and working almost fulltime as a delivery man for a North Beach restaurant. The place’s specialty was Buffalo chicken wings, and once in a while I’d take a package of dozen wings to some of the Haight’s homeless. They’d be so exhilarated it felt like I was offering them a feast. After a while, I started to be referred as the chicken-wing man.

One day when I was walking with my camera, I was stopped by the same man from the Day in the Life book, this time accompanied by a woman in sunglasses. He didn’t look good. He seemed pretty beat up, actually, with a disturbing expression, saddened eyes and a wavering speech. But hey, at least he had a woman in his arms – even if she was in an equally poor condition that not even her sunglasses could hide.

He asked me for some change, but this time I said I had none. “Then take my picture”, he said. Just then I noticed he was holding a broken tambourine. As far as I can remember, I didn’t think of possible metaphors, just that there was something touching about that damaged object and the dignified way he was carrying it. I asked him to raise the instrument. For some reason I decided not to include the woman in the composition (because of the sunglasses, I think) and made only one shot. He thanked me and walked away with his partner, both stumbling and propping each other up. I went on my way, thinking not much of that encounter – another day in the life of taking pictures.

I didn’t expect anything from it, but after a look at the contact sheet I decided to make a print. In the end – who would have guessed – I included the image in a presentation at one of my classes. Every week we had to present a set of 5 to 10 pictures. All of us students would position our photos on the walls across the classroom and we’d follow the teacher while he circulated, analyzing each group of images. On my turn, my classmates had barely looked at my work when a girl goggled at the picture of the old hippie and shouted with disbelief: “My uncle!” She told us he had been living for many years on the street and had a history of drugs and alcohol addiction. He didn’t keep in touch with his family, but would make sporadic visits, usually on dates like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Or he would just appear out of nowhere in a surprise visit. We were all astonished by the coincidence. I mentioned that he was pictured in the book A Day in the Life of California. (A note: I eventually purchased the book and still have it. I looked for the picture in search of the photographer’s name. The photo is printed on page 121 and the credit goes to David Barry. However, checking the photographers’ biographies at the end of the book, I didn’t find any David Barry.) Unfortunately, I no longer remember either my classmate’s name or her uncle’s.

I gave the picture to her. At the first chance I had, I also gave a copy to her uncle. Even though his appearance in my picture wasn’t nearly as good as in the Day in the Life, he liked it regardless. Obviously, I told him about the coincidence that my classmate from City College was his niece. Since then, every time I’d bump into him, he would not only ask for some change, but also ask about her. “If you see her, tell her I love her very much.”

Haight Hippie