Since its inception this blog has covered many topics, some of them distinctly personal, some common and some highly contentious. When initiating this blog many years ago, I knew from the start that I wanted to make it honest and conversational. Especially in photography, genuine and filter-free discussions are important as they often lead to a fresh mindset. The worst I could do would be to have another let’s-all-hold-hands, everything-goes or photography-is-always-fun outlet.
Today I would like to share some personal thoughts about street photography. I know that some of my work doesn’t fit easily into the genre of street photography but for the lack of better term, it will do.
There’s no question that for those of you taking your first steps in the thrilling world of street photography, the genre offers huge awards. The excitement of hitting the street, breaking personal barriers to reach out to strangers, searching for the light and crafting imagery from ordinary elements has massive appeal. Nevertheless, street photography also has its dark side.
One aspect is visual patterns, which are clearly visible for those who live, study and shoot this genre on daily basis. Such visual formulas often lead to immensely popular imagery, which is being produced en masse, also by yours truly, I confess. I am not throwing stones at anyone but pointing out an issue. Let me give you an example.
If I were to publish these images, I would probably get many “likes” with great comments about light, shapes, etc. Indeed, they are very appealing images. What are you beefing about then, Olaf? Well, these images follow a formula and can be produced repeatedly. In fact, given the same friendly afternoon or morning light, I could go out for two hours and come back with a truckload of imagery like this. The visual literacy and intellectual zest needed to craft this kind of image is minimal. Of course, I have seen similar imagery but with a clever visual twist that adds another layer of difficulty and makes the image more captivating.
This leads to another trap: the menace of the sole image. Many of us, including me, go out and try to capture this individual imagery which, other than location, doesn’t have much in common. Of course, by itself, this is not a problem! However, after a while this approach might lead to establishing certain visual patterns and causing unintentional repetitiveness. It might also desensitize a photographer from producing what I call “articulate” imagery – in other words something more meaningful, a project or purpose-oriented work.
The popularity of imagery with a certain DNA (for example, a nice pocket of light) may provide a false sense of accomplishment. A photographer may quickly find out, consciously or unconsciously, that producing certain type of imagery pays off but the consequences are clear: a lack of visual diversity and an aversion to risk-taking – in other words, a massive visual stall for the sake of consistency and approval.
Recently I had a brilliant student at my workshops shooting really unique imagery. There was no question that this student skipped the common eye-candy phase of street photography and went for much richer arrangements. However, the reception of this person’s work is less than stellar, for obvious reasons. Of course, I encouraged the student to march on, keep taking visual risks and not let the temptation of the spotlight ruin their visual courage.
I am well aware of such dangers. Recently I published numerous images that go well beyond my street work and are project-related. Someone who is addicted to certain street work wrote to me that “your recent work doesn’t fit your usual themes” further suggesting that I should stop doing it. While I am always open to even the harshest critique, this advice is as far from my photographic philosophy as it can get.
Why I am writing about all this? Well because sometimes it’s important to pause, stand back and evaluate our seeing without any filters. Being aware that such visual traps exist is already a big plus, especially in street photography. It is remarkable and humbling to have honest conversations with some of my photographic friends, those with the most creative and adventurous seeing, who always question their current visual viewpoint.
Next time I will describe ways to navigate your street photography so you don’t fall into those traps. Stay tuned and thank you for the great, honest conversation.
Today I will leave you with some of my recent street portrais.
next time… something different
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