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.

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