UAL Level 3, Unit 6
‘Identify and critically compare contextual perspectives and approaches to photography. Research three famous street photographers and discuss their different contexts and styles.’
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)
Regarded as the founder of street photography, Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in France. He studied art and was influenced by the emerging surrealist movement. He switched to photography in the 1930s, using a Leica with a 50mm lens, the prime set-up a mainstay with street photography to this day. He was known for his uncanny ability to capture the ‘decisive moment’, the English title of his 1952 book Images à la sauveté, which actually means ‘images on the sly’. He loved the ability that photography represented to ‘fix eternity in an instant’ as he put it. During his long career he founded Magnum, which still distributes his images, served in the war and covered important international events such as Gandhi’s funeral in India. He had a complex relationship with photography, hated being photographed himself and didn’t use flash, considering it intrusive. Towards the end of his life he returned to his first passion, painting.
In street photography, his work epitomises still many of the ideals that many of us aspire to today. It is inspirational to look at some of his many photographs available online before going out on a shoot, to help both focus and broaden one’s vision and mind and as a reminder of the importance of basics around the principles of leading lines, thirds, light and shade.
Possibly one of the most challenging aspects of all in photography is the need for unlimited patience, to be able to wait in one spot for minutes, even hours at a time for that ‘decisive moment’. This photograph above, ‘Place de l’Europe’, one of his most well-known, epitomises the value of doing that, of having the endurance to try again and again. Of course we have it so much easier, in the digital age. He was using 35mm film, so his endurance extended to the dark-room processing stage and all that this entailed, on top of waiting for that moment on the street.
‘Children playing in ruins’, from before the war in Seville, is another photograph of his regarded as a classic. Beautifully framed amid the wreckage, the children look at once free to play and yet imprisoned in lives defined by poverty and the trauma of violence and destruction. This photograph tells us so much and at the same time invites so many questions. It is street that works also as photo-journalism, of which Cartier-Bresson must also be regarded as a pioneer.
Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009)
Vivian Maier was a nanny in Chicago for much of her life but took more than 100,000 photographs during her time off that were discovered after her death when a collector linked his blog to some of her work that had been discovered and posted on Flickr. The pictures went viral and she is now regarded as seminal in the world of street photography, especially regarding her street photographs from Chicago and New York. She used Rollieflex cameras primarily but also a Leica and some other brands.
‘The images are beautifully constructed and it’s clear she knew her references. There’s a glimmer of Diane Arbus, a glimmer of Robert Frank,” photographer Anna Fox told the British Journal of Photography.
She has become known in particular for incorporating self-portraiture into her photographs. A selection of these can be seen on the Vivian Maier website. These were most frequently reflections, in shop and office windows, where she would hold the camera unobtrusively low, leaving her subjects oblivious that they were being captured on film.
Despite her posthumous fame, little is known about her motives. The children she looked after found her to be as varied as a Mary Poppins-style figure, to someone almost at the other extreme. Her enigmatic secrecy combined with the remarkable quality of her work makes her an important and intriguing figure for photographers to study. Her actual photographs have shed new light on a world only recently past, light from the unusual point of view of a woman in a world of photography still, as then, dominated largely by men.
3. Alan Schaller (c1991 – )
Alan Schaller combines some of the best of the artistry of Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier, as well as incorporating many other influences from art and phoography into his work. He uses a Leica and carries it with him always. Co-founder of the popular Instagram account Street Photography International, he has a huge following worldwide and in particular in his home town of London. He combines art with photography and works in black-and-white, making strong use of light and dark, and has spoken of being influenced by the Magnum era. He has also spoken of how he has moved on from focusing on capturing the ‘instance’, like a ‘hunter’, to being patient and waiting for the moment to reveal itself, more like a ‘fisherman’.
He has also explained the importance of finding a ‘voice’ in photography, of defining your own genre, for those who wish to be more than hobbyists and who wish to develop a following, or a distinct photographic identity.
Images such as this, below, make creative use of negative space, and he has written of how living in a metropolis such as London shows how we can be ‘dwarfed’ and ‘lost’ in the world around us..
The surrealist, diverse and abstract content of his contemporary images have established him as a true master of the present day and, with his ability to combine all that the modern day offers in terms of technique and processing with an imagination that draws clearly on the art of past masters, he is for students of photographer an ideal role model to help inspire their own.
4.1 Identify and use safe working photographic practices.
In street photography, as in all photography, permission is not needed in law to film or photograph in public places. However, it can never be a free for all.
Not everywhere that might seem public is in fact a public places as defined by law. For example, taking photographs in Trafalgar Square is restricted legally, as it is in the Royal parks in London.
I had an example of some of the perils that can befall street photographers when out in Shoreditch on assignment for this class. An eccentrically-dressed gentleman was walking up the street, with a real live cat wrapped around his shoulders in place of a scarf. I snapped a picture and he rounded on me, demanding I delete it and insisting I was not allowed in law to take his photograph without his permission. I tried to explain the law to him and he became very angry and said he had succeeded in having another photographer arrested and cautioned by police the previous week. Naturally, I apologised for causing any offence, deleted the photograph as he demanded and walked away. He did permit me to stroke the beautiful cat.
This article in Amateur Photographer explains the law well. Legally I was entitled to take the photograph of the man above, but when doing street photography out and about, I have found that quite a few people do not like it and do ask me to delete any photographs I have taken. I always do as they request and desist. Ethically, I believe that is the right course of action. As Damien Demolder writes in the above article: ‘We need to self-regulate to ensure that we don’t shoot things, situations and people that leave us feeling uncomfortable or regretful afterwards.’ He adds: ‘The boundaries for this will be different for everyone because we all have different sensitivities – however, the basic premise is that we really want to avoid feeling ashamed of ourselves. For me this means I try not to exploit, make fun of or humiliate anyone. That doesn’t mean I can’t notice and photograph funny behaviour, funny dress sense or funny expressions, but it should all be done to show the human condition and our diversity – and in good humour.’
Regarding Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square in London, bylaws prohibit commercial photography without a permit, but amateur photography is permitted. Similarly, amateur and student photography is permitted in the Royal Parks such as Richmond but a permit is required for commercial photography, including for professional portfolios.
In street photography, but also in all photography generally, an awareness of the laws around harassment and privacy is needed. In addition, social media sites such as Twitter and photo sharing sites such as Unsplash have rules about posting images of people without permission, which in many cases needs to be written permission.
Regarding wider health and safety, it is important to be traffic-aware when crossing a road, for example to get a better angle on a shot. Venturing into high-risk areas known for crime, especially after dark, can be hazardous if visibly carrying expensive camera equipment. Some apparently busy, safe places such as central London might not be at all for those who do not carefully safeguard pockets and bags from certain opportunists! And there are some interesting scams out there. Inspired Eye blogger writes: ‘When someone asks you to take a picture of you in front of a monument or somethhing, careful. There’s a scam out there where they have accomplices that would run into them and snatch your camera while they are taking your picture. They would act innocent and you would lose your camera.’ This same blogger warns about the risks of inadvertently taking photographs of people up to dodgy business in dark corners.
At the end of the day, I find it helpful to repeat the little verse my mother often used to recite to me, when I became objectionably stident about my ‘right’ to do what I wished:
‘Remember the story of Jonathan Gray, who died defending his right of way. He was right, dead right, all along, but just as dead as if he was wrong.’