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.

louis-ck-215139036

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.”

banana_tailpipe

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

New Documents

By Greg Allikas

Diane Arbus, Identical twins, Roselle, NJ 1966 (archives.evergreen.edu) - Street Photography

Diane Arbus, Identical twins, Roselle, NJ 1966 (archives.evergreen.edu)

July 7 marked the sixth anniversary of John Szarkowski’s death and I thought it fitting to look at his contribution to photography, specifically how this single exhibition shaped what we now know as street photography.

Forty-six years ago the “New Documents” exhibition closed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show featured ninety-four prints by three relatively unknown photographers; Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. The exhibit was a landmark event for modern photography. The show, curated by John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the museum, inextricably linked the three photographers together and made their careers. The new student of photography should understand that at that time, except for the work of a handful of photographers, most museums did not have photography collections or departments. The photographs of Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston represent the type of work that did exist, if at all, in a museum. Few if any photography galleries existed. For the most part, photography was photography, not art. Because it was a mechanical process and perceived to be “easy” by most, easier than painting anyway, it was not taken seriously. One could argue that Szarkowski single-handedly changed that whole notion with this one exhibit. It took some time to take root, but “New Documents” set the movement in motion.

Szarkowksi succeeded Steichen at MOMA in 1962. He was only 37 and had a large pair of shoes to fill. Stiechen had curated the monumental “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955. It contained 500 images by 273 photographers both famous and unknown and was built on a theme of the human experience…birth, death, love, joy, sorrow. The show was a huge success and toured the world. The book is still popular. While “Family of Man” was a landmark exhibition it did not break any new ground in the photographic vocabulary and relied on existing documentary traditions. It was more about the subjects of the photographs than the photographs themselves. Photojournalism was socially responsible and served to report, inform and affect change. Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand had no such goals. They selfishly photographed for themselves. Szarkowski wrote in his introduction to “New Documents”1, “In the past decade this new generation of photographers has redirected the technique and aesthetic of documentary photography to more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it, not to persuade but to understand. The world, in spite of its terrors, is approached as the ultimate source of wonder and fascination, no less precious for being irrational and incoherent.” His egalitarian view that anyone, anywhere, anytime could create a great photograph worthy of comparison to the masters shaped the future of photography and has become commonplace within the photo sharing websites of today’s digital age, where stars are born and die every day.

1967 was the year of the “summer of love” yet it was a turbulent year in America. The country was deeply involved in Vietnam and civil disobedience plagued cities across the country. Riots in Detroit required the National Guard to restore order and left dozens of people dead. The Equal Rights Amendment would not be passed for another five years. Cameras used film and photographers had darkrooms. With so many social and political events ripe for documentary photography, 1967 seemed an inauspicious year to present an exhibit of photographers so preoccupied with their own personal agendas.

Lee Friedlander, New York City 1965 (sfmoma.org) - Street Photography

Lee Friedlander, New York City 1965 (sfmoma.org)

“New Documents” received a cool reception. Jacob Deschin wrote, “”The observations of the photographers are noted as oddities in personality, situation, incident, movement, and the vagaries of chance,” in his New York Times review2. Nine years later Szarkowski would take an even bolder risk with “William Eggleston’s Guide,” which was met with even more skepticism. Today Eggleston is considered to have set the stage for fine art color photography3 at a time when the materials and medium were far more limited than they are today.

What did Arbus, Freidland and Winogrand have in common other than working in black and white? They all used small 35mm cameras, although Arbus eventually moved up to a 2-¼ square Rolleiflex. The photographs of the two men are closer to each other than the work of Arbus is to either of them, Both men realized the importance of photographic context, but Friedlander was inclined to often deal only with the elements of place while Winogrand was self-admittedly interested in people. While Arbus may have taken photos on the street, she was primarily a portraitist and is lumped into the street photography genre solely because of her inclusion in “New Documents.” Her methodology had little to do with the “catch as catch can” approach of Friedlander and Winogrand and depended on cultivating a trust with her subjects, sometimes over a period of time. Perhaps Szarkowski sums it up best in this excerpt from a museum press release4 for the exhibit, “What unites these three photographers is not style or sensibility; each has a distinct and personal sense of the use of photography and the meanings of the world. What is held in common is the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorizing.”

Garry Winogrand, World's Fair 1964 (masters-of-photography.com) - Street Photography

Garry Winogrand, World’s Fair 1964 (masters-of-photography.com)

In 1967 street photography was not a new invention. One could argue that the early work of Atget, Brassai and Kertesz was essentially “street photography”, although Brassai posed his subjects on occasion. And of course there were Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and Lisette Model (whom Arbus studied under) and Robert Frank’s opus from ten years earlier, The Americans,. Winogrand himself was profoundly influenced by Walker Evans, American Photographs. These works, however, relied more heavily on documentary traditions than the frivolity of Friedlander’s storefront reflections or Winogrand’s public relations. In an interview with John Pilson5 published in 2011 Tod Papageorge describes Sunday night get-togethers (including Joel Meyrowitz) at Garry Winogrand’s house as being focused on discovering just what photography was, and wasn’t. Papageorge goes on to say that much of the conversation was about photographic “problems” and strategies to solve them. How much information could be crammed on to a 24x36mm piece of film and still be coherent when viewed as a print? Must the horizon be level? What happens when you use flash? What happens when you use flash at a slow shutter speed? What happens to something when you photograph it? In an essay for the catalog for the exhibit, “The Social Scene”6, A.D. Coleman writes about “New Documents”, “Increasingly asymmetrical, unbalanced, fragmented, even messy, especially in contrast to preceding photography, this work demanded of both photographer and viewer an openness to radically unconventional formal structures.” With its snapshot view of the world, the work carried an authenticity that was not evident in the work of say, Eugene Smith, or the FSA photographers where it could be said that the photographs were not entirely candid, or entirely honest. Many of the visual mannerisms we now take for granted had not been seen before “New Documents” nor had such seemingly banal subject matter. The ways in which these three photographers used their cameras opened up a new visual vocabulary for generations of photographers. But it was John Szarkowski’s willingness to take risks that expanded the borders of modern photography. It may be no idle claim that he was once referred to as “the man who taught America how to look at photographs.”

Here is a list of the photographs that appeared in the exhibit.

Notes

1. Museum of Modern Art archives; press release, February 28, 1967;www.moma.org

2. The New York Times; July 9, 2007; http://www.nytimes.com

3. While color photography was commonplace by the 1960’s it was nothing compared to today’s technologies. Kodachrome was very sharp film but involved a proprietary process that only few color labs could afford. Hence, film had to be sent off for processing. At ASA 25 it was very slow and full sun would give an exposure of about f5.6 @ 250. C-41 color negative films were also slow but gave one additional f-stop at ASA 64. The various Ektachrome films were not nearly as fine grained as Kodachrome and the dyes in processed slides were not as stable as Kodachrome either. If not stored properly you could expect to find faded colors and fungus on old Ektachromes. We referred to High Speed Ektachrome of the 70’s (ASA 160) as having “grain the size of golfballs.”The biggest obstacle however for color to be used for so called “fine art” photography was the available processes for making prints. Conventional “C prints” of the time made from color negatives (or internegatives from slides) had dyes that were extremely fugitive. If displayed prints received significant light, natural or artificial, fading could be noticed in as little as a few years. Who wants a piece of art that needs to be kept in a closet? Also, color was never truly faithful even if printed by a professional lab. Dye transfer prints were the best color print available at the time and were relatively stable, but they were costly and only available from top tier professional photo labs. Cibachrome prints came later. While permanent, color fidelity was hit or miss and the process used toxic chemicals hazardous to home users. Consequently, most serious photographers who sought a place in “fine art” photography worked in black and white. Properly processed and stored silver gelatin prints should have an unlimited life.

4. Museum of Modern Art archives; press release, February 28, 1967;www.moma.org

5. John Pilson; “Taking Pictures”, Tod Papageorge in Conversation with John Pilson”; Aperture #204, Fall 2011; New York

6. A.D. Coleman; “The Social Scene”, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Los Angeles;2000

Welcome

Observe - Street Photography Collective

“I only wanted Uncle Vernon standing by his own car (a Hudson) on a clear day, I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”
—Lee Friedlander

Observe is the union of a small group of photographers, all of whom find a common passion in the “generous medium” that Friedlander sums up so perfectly.

This collective represents not only a further stage in our individual development but also our combined contribution to the diverse community of photographers around the world, past and present, who inspire and educate us with their extraordinary talent, experience and commitment.

We welcome you and hope that you enjoy what you find in these pages—now and in the future.