Street Photography. What Is It?

The Swing © Knut Skjærven

The Swing © Knut Skjærven

Street photography. What is it?

First and foremost it is a questions of attitude. It does not need to happen in a street, but for the most part it does.  Streets are everywhere. Maybe that is the lesson. The countryside is about to be closed down for all others than local beards and seasonal visitors.

Street photography is defined here as a type of photography in which people and human interaction are the bearing elements.  No dead dogs, no plain fields, no facial portraits, no houses wide and high, no diamonds in the sky. Only plain and simple people shooting. Storytelling.

Shot in a public place of any kind. Not staged, not posed.  Not spoken to or directed. Life in the raw. People in context telling a story by their mere being there. Call it straight photography.

The idea is that a photo should be the first sentences in a story that you complete when you see the picture.  You are invited to use your creativity and play along.

Typically it will be low key photography rendering subtle moments from the flow of everyday life. Often positive moments and some even with a smile. Never harassing, rude and offending. You want to give back more than you take away.

Street photography, understood this way, is indeed a far cry from the dark rolls of photo documentation seeking crisis, seeking human suffering, seeking catastrophe.

Street photography should  always be silently surprising.

Street photography must not to be confused with street documentation. In street photography you add a little. It got to be shot for a reason and that reason have to be aesthetically distinctive. Don’t tell the story in words, show it in photographs. The thousand or more words.

We call it Itching Images. The best of moments will stick to you. Even after they are gone.

That is the ambition.

Terms to be remembered: Itching Image, low key photography, street photography, straight photography, storytelling.

August 16, 2013

© Knut Skjærven 2013. All rights reserved.

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You Better Believe It

Siesta © Knut Skjærven

Siesta © Knut Skjærven

In the beginning there was light. And you could see nothing since you were blinded by sameness. The great, all covering white.

Then night was created and you could sense there was a difference and you could keep night and day apart.

Photography starts here, but there were no photographers around to record it. In stead man started painting on walls and from that he learned about art.

Later man himself created the hand held camera and proper street photography could commence. They still try to learn about art.

August 15, 2013.
© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved.

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Push And Pull Street Photography

At The Waterfront © Knut Skjærven

At The Waterfront (PULL) © Knut Skjærven

I am sure you know the difference.  Maybe you have an attitude to it as well.

You either push your way or you pull your way. The two terms are normally used in marketing where you talk about a push or a pull strategy.

When you push you push and when you pull you pull. Easy as that. You can push someone out the door or you can pull someone into your house.

We want to use the two expressions in street photography and talk about push street photography and pull street photography. Or for short just PUSH and PULL.

The difference is a question of attitude.  Some say respect as well.

Of course you can do combinations of the two but as attitudes often are integrated on a personal level, you seldom do. You either do one or the other.

What do PUSH and PULL mean in terms of street photography?

When you do pull street photography you wait for a situation to unfold and thereby let the scene come to you.  Pull photography is descriptive street photography. Standing on a corner and with you camera observing people coming and going is pull street photography.

When you do push street photography you push your way around and with your interaction you create the scene you shoot. The situation does not come to you. You make it. Jumping from behind a phone booth or from behind a corner sticking your camera in the face of somebody is push photography. In the worst of cases it is harassment of your fellow men and you could get in serious trouble for it.

Your choice really.

The photo above is an example of pull street photography. No interaction.

Terms to remember: push street photography or simply PUSH, and pull street photography or simply PULL.

August 13, 2013.
© Knut Skjærven. All right reserved.

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Stand Up And Be Counted

Be Counted © Knut Skjærven

Be Counted © Knut Skjærven

So what it is going to be then? After this summer of so much sun and so much content? And a train trip from Paris to Berlin that lasted 29 hours.

The expression Stand Up And Be Counted comes to mind and I have decided to use it. You will have to do the counting and will do the standing. Means that I have made a commitment, and that is no little thing when non commitment seem so much easier to do.

I have decided that much energy over the next year must go into making a small book on Itching Images. Why and how to get them. Much along the lines of Street Photographer’s Toolbox but with a clear beginning, middle and end. A clear structure.

Nothing big size, but enough for me and hopefully many more to get a little bit brighter on what street photography can be. A small book of learning with stress on easy understanding, precise information and usefulness. A practical book with many photographs. And many practical exercises.

The project will also be the hub for The Workshop to be arranged in 2014.

It shall not be more than 100 pages long and filled with useful information on how to improve and make street photography even more interesting. You are welcome to follow the process since bits and pieces will be published on this very site.

In fact, much of the work has already been done so it is primarily a work of adding, rewriting and editing. And to find a way to publish it.

So these are the words. If you care to do the counting, I will do the standing. We can reverse the order later on.

One year from now is the deadline. Most likely it will come much faster.

Good luck with it.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved.

August 8, 2013.

Posts that are related to this project will be tagged The Book. There will also be a special section on The Book in the blogroll.

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On The EDGE: Elisabeth Maurice

I can’t go out without a smile on my face knowing I might get a good shot whatever the conditions.

© Elisabeth Maurice

© Elisabeth Maurice

THE TOP INTERVIEW: 

Hello, I am a street photographer and I am here to tell you all about it. Do you see the picture above? Well, I shot it.

Q1: Please state you name and occupation, please. Where do you live?

A: My name is Elisabeth Maurice and I live in a very quiet part of Paris close to Père-Lachaise cemetery. My job deals with marketing, softwares and analytics/statistics. …

Q2: Welcome to The One Photo Interview, by the way. It is the TOP Interview. Do you know what that means? It means that you will only have the opportunity to show one single photograph and you will refer to that for the rest of this interview, right? Would that be ok with you?

A:.I know what that means !!! It took me days (even more weeks) to decide which photo I was to present J.

Q3: Any particular reason for taking that picture, Elisabeth?

A: Many many reasons in fact. First I wished to take a picture I took during the SP Toolbox workshop in Berlin for it has been a wonderful experience for me and I thought it might reflects in the shots I took. Then, why this shot and not another? Because it made me laugh loud. I remember the scene and me taking it. I don’t even know if the man was the groom. But it tells a funny story just like in my beloved Italian classic movies. It could have been a scene of I Mostri by Dino Risi. I like it because it is a very simple even if it has many defects. I wish I could have seized the whole car window for instance but then I would have missed the gesture. I guess it’s all about Street Photography capturing a special moment that talks. If you think too much a second later it can be gone. And finally, it reminds me I have a lot to learn to improve myself.

Q4: Is this you style of street photography then? Do you think you have a style? If so, what is it?

A: Funny for I reread my previous answer to this question and though I’ve been taking a lot of shots since and reading many photography books my answer to it is the same. I still don’t think I have a style of photography at all! This shot sure is the kind of shots I love to take. Those capturing an instant of life, be it happy or sad, are definitely those I prefer and wish to make. I don’t think this defines a style. I still wish I could deal better with light or architecture, background, organization of the shot so that it would be more aesthetic. But just like I just told I still don’t have the time for it. The instant that captivates me always prevails whatever happens around….

Q5. Tell me what is street photography? Have you got a definition? Let’s hear it!

A:. To me it’s a little bit like photographing the theater of life surrounding. The photographs I appreciate the most are those telling a story. It really has something to do with theater. There are peoples as actors and the surrounding as the stage and I am the spectator. All this mixed should tell or represent a story.

Q6: Give me some basics. How long have you had an interest in street photography? Do you have any mentors that you have learned from?

A: I think it happened quite recently, a little bit more than 3 years ago now. A change in life gave me the chance to have more time to really watch and care about what was going on around me. I always had a deep interest in life surrounding me but I kept running all the time, just like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Now I stopped running and take time, look for moments that would offer me a scene that touches me.

I do have mentors for sure! The very classic ones, Willy Ronis, HCB, William Klein, Paul Strand or Robert Frank and so on and Knut Skjaerven. I can add that photography in movies influences me a lot. That would be the factor of past experience 😉 .

Q7: Let’s talk about equipment. Some have an almost religious addiction to it. Long lenses, short lenses, rangefinders, non rangefinders, compacts. Leicas, Canons, Nikons, analog or digital. What is your opinion of this? What is your preferred gear? Don’t be boring when you answer this, please.

A: I’m still no expert on this subject. I’m still using a Sony NEX-5N and like it a lot. I always have it with me. I find it very handy, it’s light and apart from low light conditions it takes pretty good photos. I even learned recently thanks to a friend that I was able to put some classic Nikon objectives on it thanks to an adaptor so the light can be improved.

I’m thinking of using my old Minolta XG1 again but didn’t have the opportunity yet and I guess I’m a bit scared I wouldn’t be able to use anymore now.

Q8: Are there any particular reason why you call yourself a street photographer? Many people picture landscapes, seascapes, birds caved in. Do you take such pictures as well? What I mean to ask is, do you in fact do much parrot shooting in the zoo? Or similar non street themes. Do you?

A: Maybe because I love to take life, people around me. I love to watch and catch their attitudes, gestures. It has become an addiction. I can’t go out without a smile on my face knowing I might get a good shot whatever the conditions. I even take shots through the window when drived. I also take landscapes. I like to do long exposure shots when I have the opportunity.

Q9: Do you know what is the difference between photography and plain picture taking? If so, tell me what it is.

A: Photography is definitely not solely a reproduction tool but requires and generates creativity, imagination, emotion and work, work, work … that’s what art is all about!

Q10: Why do you think that all the best street photos are shot in black & white? How do you explain that?

A : I don’t think that B&W are better than color ones. But now I know for sure color is a lot more difficult. It is rare, in cities, that the colors surrounding us are beautiful. but it can seldom be wonderful. You can play with the color contrasts just like painters do. On the other side B&W takes a shot apart from reality. It also often strengthen the shots by underlining the lines and forms and also simplifies the message that too many colors might disturb.

Q11: Do you think that street photography is a serious type of photography? Can anything good come of it? How do you see this?

A: Of course, it’s a very serious type of photography. I consider it as an artistic testimony of people’s life, ways, attitudes and moments. It tells stories. It’s a very complete art and it gets better with time just like good wine J!

Q12: Are there any value in street photography you think, besides your own enjoyment?

A:  Many of the things I answered to your previous questions contributed to answer that question already. The artistic value, the story telling, the light you can catch in the eye of a person watching a shot. The fact that street photography is a testimony of people’s ways, habits, attitudes in a particular time and place. I guess we all find it wonderful to watch old photographs.

Q13: Your vision? What is your vision for European street photography? What is the vision for your own photography? I am not going to ask how you see the future, but tell me anyway.

A: I see a lot of loneliness in the Europeans shots I watch. This sadly reflects our society. It seems there are more shots confronting single people and their environment (buildings, architecture more globally) and less people interactions or scenes of life captured. And my vision for my own photography is more on the second sort. Capture simple scenes and shared instants of life.

Q14: One last question: What is the most important thing with a photograph? With any photograph?

A: I still think that “Every picture tells a story” like the song says, be it about the subjects or the photographer.

Q15: Is it true then that street photography was invented in Europe?

A: I read more about photography history and think more strongly it was.

Thank you very much, Elisabeth. Much obliged. Will you see yourself out?

© Knut Skjærven.  All rights reserved.

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The Artist Who

The Artist © Knut Skjærven

The Artist Who © Knut Skjærven

The mere exposure to masterworks does not suffice. Too many persons visit museums and collect picture books without ever gaining access to art. The inborn capacity to understand through the eyes has been put to sleep and must be reawakened . This is best accomplished by handling pencils, brushes, chisels and perhaps cameras. But there again, bad habits and misconceptions will block the path of the unassisted. Ofter he is helped most effectively by visual evidence: by being shown weak spots or presented with good examples.

Rudolf Arnheim, Art And Visual Perception, University of California Press, 1974.

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Then Go Strain Yourself

Defactor On The Beach © Knut Skjærven

Defactor On The Beach © Knut Skjærven

One point comes with a special interest. It goes like this:

Gestalt psychology is a descriptive discipline. Hypotheses are backed by clinical tests and backed by simple common sense. It describes the way of the world and gives good explanations of how people perceive visual stimuli.

Yes, an understanding of what gestalt factors are, how and why they work is imperative knowledge for people who deals with visual communication. Like photographers. Like street photographers.

But gestalt factors are tools. No more no less. They are not end results. It is up to the individual photographer to understand and use these tools.

Tools in themselves have no value unless you put them to clever use.  The factor of proximity, the factor of similarity, the other factors point to roads of creativity but are no end destinations.

Learning about gestalt factors in street photography gives extra benefits because once you know how perception works, you are in a position to create visual tension by going against the factors.

Every gestalt factor has its tension mode. The tension mode of proximity is non proximity; the tension mode of similarity is non similarity; the tension mode common fate is non common fate, and so on.

However, you will never know what tension mode is before you understand what the non tension mode is. You need to know the way of the world before you start to stain it (create tension).

Creating itching images is not always best served by plainly following gestalt factors. In some cases you get better off by straining the way of the world. By doing this you defactor.

The expression gestalt vision covers both these approaches. Both the tension mode and its opposite. Both the gestalt factors and the way to strain them by defactoring.

What does a defactored photograph look like then? Translated to the world of street photography? As there are many gestalt factors defactors can have many variants. Let me suggest a few.

In proximity introduce non proximity; in similarity introduce non similarity; in common fate introduce non common fate; in closure introduce non closure. I already suggested this.

All of this is pretty easy because all of us do defactored images all the time. They are often more easily taken than factored images.

This being so why all this fuzz about it?  Why mention it as all? For the same reason I mention gestalt factors. Setting words to things sharpen our senses. You cannot see things that have no meaning. Things that have no names have no meaning. That’s why.

Look at the photo above. It is there to make a point: There are two sets of similarities in the photograph. The first one is the sand. The second one is the chairs. You can strain both by, so to speak, breaking the visual waves, and introducing, as in this case, a human being.

It is not a question of which photo is better: the strained one or the non strained one without the woman (you have to imagine this). The matter of the fact is that the two are different. In stead of one tool you have been given two.

Think about it. Then go strain yourself.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved. Text and photo.

Copenhagen, July 11, 2013.

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How To Practise Gestalt Vision

Subdivision © Kniut Skjærven

Factor Scene © Knut Skjærven

One of the pillars of Street Photographer’s Toolbox is gestalt psychology.  Developing gestalt vision is one of the important ambitions.

Why is developing gestalt vision so important? The answer is very simple: Because gestalt vision covers both innate perception and opens up for perceptions based on your private experience and knowledge. It combines the two.

Innate perception is the type of perception that goes on without you knowing it. It is one of the basic ways we as human beings operate in the visual world.. Knowing about gestalt vision is an immense resource for any kind of visual communication. Thus for photography in general and street photography in particular.

Getting intimate with gestalt vision and learning to use it in street photography require two things:

1) You need to know the factors of gestalt vision, and

2) You definitely need to practise  the factors of gestalt vision.

Don’t under estimate any of the two.

If you get it right you will have a resource for photography/street photography for the rest of your life. After a while you will see that the new knowledge and practice hook up in you spine and start to operate as second nature without you having to bother much about it. The factors work for you on their own. You will recognise factor scenes when you are out doing photography. And you will take the shots.

What are the factors you need to know?

Having been mentioned on this site many times already, let me just list the names: 1) Factor of Proximity; 2) Factor of Similarity; 3) Factor of Common Fate; 4) Factor of Direction; 5) Factor of Good Curve; 6) Factor of Closure; and 7) Factor of Past Experience or Habit. These are the 7 you need to know. They all derive from a ground breaking article written by Max Wertheimer published in 1923.

Yes, in (street) photography we are all way behind in this matter.

Knowing names is one thing, learning to use factors is a very different thing. There is only one way to learn to use the factors and that is practise, practise, practise. Without practise  you will think that gestalt vision is just another bright idea. Think that and factors will never do you any good. So do as Karate Kid and start waxing over and over and over. There is no other way to get it and get better at it.

Here are some advice 0n how to practise gestalt vision.

1) Focus on one factor at the time

Take a day off and use that day ONLY to shoot grouping by proximity. Forget all the rest and make sure that you build you groups by proximity. Proximity means close together.

Comment on photo above: This photo is all about showing how proximity gives meaning. Yes, there are also other factor at work but you need to forget them. Proximity dominates.

2) Practise in the sequence indicted above.  Meaning, start with 1 and work you way to 7 

The simple reason for this is that it is much easier to deal with proximity and similarity as starters as the other way around. Proximity first and habit last.

Comment on photo above: Yes, I have taken the medicine and have started with 1) Factor of Proximity  as my first training task.

3) Remember it is all about grouping

Gestalt vision is about how we perceptually shortcut ways of understanding to make it faster and operational. Proximity is not about placing a single object/subject  in each corner of a frame. A group of one is no group at all.

Comment on photo above: When you have more than one you have a potential group. This image contains two groups of people. The one is sitting, the other one is dancing.

4) Simple is super

Get rid of all disturbing messages in your photograph. It should not be necessary to explain what you have done. People should feel the impact of it. In a training session make all as simple as you possibly can. After that, continue with simple.

Comment on photo above: I have tried to get rid of access information as much as possible. The image is relatively clean.

5) Size matter

Yes, size matters. Not all content in a photograph comes with the same strength and value. Size is one of the parameters you need to get the grip on. You need to learn to mentally filter a scene  for what is visually important and what is not.

Comment on photo above: Yes, there is a third couple in this image. They are sitting down and you see their legs in the upper left corner. They don’t have an immediate value in this shot, so in a training session we decide to overlook them.

6) Don’t tell, show

After you have shot a photo take a really good look at it. Does it work, does it not work? You are the first to know. If you have to start explaining what you have done you could be in trouble because people may not agree with you or even understand what you say. Don’t tell. Show.

Comment on photo above: I hope that the two group are visible to most.

7) Two to tango

Remember that you are the artist.

But there is a second artist who is as important. That is your viewer. There are no final truths about visual content and meaning in a photograph. But that is not the same as saying that all photographs are visually as well handled as others. Beauty, if that is what you are after, is not in the eye of the beholder. But the beholder is a main influencer. That is, however,  a major difference.

Comment on photo above: Yes, it takes two to tango.

8) Get itchy

The first step in acquiring gestalt vision is to make concept shots. Dealing with proximity in a training session is first and foremost about shooting concept shots. Concept shots are about getting the concept right. Once you are on top of the concept, and others agree with you, then start to get itchy. Getting itchy means that you within a concept, or combining concepts, move  from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

How you do this is for you to decide. It will normally be pretty recognisable if you succeed or not.

Comment on photo above: Well, this is a training session so this shot will have to do :-).

9) Mediocracy and indifference is not the way

Street photography, as any other type of photography, treated with a serious ambitions will not work if you are not properly dedicated.  Work up a passion or just leave the area for another where you can maybe can work up a passion. If you don’t do your very best somone else will and you will be left in the dark.

Mediocracy and indifference is not the way.

Comment on photo above: Well, we all have to do our best :-). 

That’s all folks. Good luck with it. Now go and get the wax :-). Good day to you all.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved. Text and photo.

Copenhagen, July 10, 2013.

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On The EDGE: Robert Lemm

 And for me it is also important, that there is a certain beauty in the picture.

© Robert Lemm

© Robert Lemm

THE TOP INTERVIEW: 

Hello, I am a street photographer and I am here to tell you all about it. Do you see the picture above? Well, I shot it.

Q1: State your name and occupation, please. Where do you live?

A: My name is Robert Lemm, I am a self-employed consultant and trainer and do some photography projects besides that.

Q2: Welcome to The One Photo Interview. By the way, this is the TOP Interview. Do you know what that means? It means that you will only have the opportunity to show one single photograph and you will refer to that for the rest of this interview, right? Would that be ok with you?

A:. I didn’t know about the TOP – always a hard decision – so here we go.

Q3: Any particular reason for taking that picture, Robert?

A: Yes, there are some reasons: it is a pretty new photo, taken during a street photography workshop in Berlin recently and is one of my first shots in this area. I love the focus on a subject in the foreground and a blurred out but still noticeable background in pictures.

Q4: Is this your style of street photography then? Do you think you have a style? If so, what is it?

A: I’m not sure about style and if I have developed one yet. I’m in the middle of doing so I would say. I like playing with focus and out-of-focus areas in a picture very much and this is one reflecting that. That delivers a certain atmosphere, it’s not too common in the street area, sometimes also not easy and quick to compose and a shot might be gone then.

Q5. Tell me what is street photography? Have you got a definition? Let’s hear it!

A:. Street photography to me means simply looking for a scene that can be captured for documentary purpose or to capture a mood or just both. And for me it is also important, that there is a certain beauty in the picture. It is not only about the message or the story, but also about the photo itself as a form of art.

Q6: Give me some basics. How long have you had an interest in street photography? Do you have any mentors that you have learned from?

A:. I have been watching the area quite a time since I’m back in photography in late 2006, but actively I started taking street shots just this year, so I am pretty new to this field. There is not really a mentor, but there are people I watch closely as I want to learn from them and their style.
One is for example Thorsten Overgaard. I attended a workshop early this year and learned a lot about basics I thought I would know already. But I actually did not know things to the extent to use this knowledge in a way to be reflected in my pictures plus I learned to operate my photographic tools better. And I learned to always wearing camera. This workshop was very valuable for me.

Then there is for example Knut Skjærven – I was attending a very special workshop with him recently – we come back to that later. And of course many other photographers from today and past times who are a source of inspiration.

Q7: Let’s talk about equipment. Some have an almost religious addiction to it. Long lenses, short lenses, rangefinders, non rangefinders, compacts. Leicas, Canons, Nikons, analog or digital. What is your opinion of this? What is your preferred gear? Don’t be boring when you answer this, please.

A: This is quite simple to answer for me: just Leica M. I traded in my Nikon DSLR plus some Carl Zeiss lenses to switch to the M9 in 2010. My current line-up for street is a Summicron 35 and a Noctilux 50, both with ND filters (3 resp. 2 stops) and in 99% I shoot wide open. I like to have full control, no autofocus, no flash, just available light. I was able to do so with my former gear as well but was limited to the small sensor. The M9 with the selected lenses feels like home to me know.

Q8: Are there any particular reason why you call yourself a street photographer? Many people picture landscapes, seascapes, birds caved in. Do you take such pictures as well? What I mean to ask is, do you in fact do much parrot shooting in the zoo? Or similar non street themes. Do you?

A: I’m not an only-street-photographer, but an also-street-photographer. The last years I did some landscape and most of the time events and portraits in the music area. Mostly live acts but also studio, for web and CD productions. Then you will find a big portion of car shots – I will call them car portraits. I love particularly classic cars, in a showroom or on the street – I’m taking street photography very literally here.

Q9: Do you know what is the difference between photography and plain picture taking? If so, tell me what it is.

A: A photo as the result of photography is to me something the viewer can think of a story, not necessarily the story I had in my mind when I was shooting the photo. A photo I would like to show around, a special moment captured, but also well done. A picture and picture taking is just collecting moments on the memory card. And if you are lucky you get some photos later while you review them on the screen. Some pictures happen to be just documentary shots whereas some photos might have turned out so not by purpose but why it just happened that this picture has a little story and a quality I define to be a photo.

Q10: Why do you think that all the best street photos are shot in black & white? How do you explain that?

A: I love black and white, not just for street, but in general. Color can be very distracting. But sometimes color can be rocking as well. I sometimes do color key development which I also like to strengthen certain things. But to deliver the message and also reflect photography as art all the fine grey tones or a harsh contrast of black and white are perfect to me.

Q11: Do you think that street photography is a serious type of photography? Can anything good come of it? How do you see this?

A: Yes, it is an absolutely a serious type of photography. The good thing is that there are a growing number of excellent photographs from that genre over the years and as more people are interested in street photography and joining in, the result will be more comprehensive with different facets. I don’t mean that people should just go and shoot endless numbers of pictures, but more or less thoughtful photos to let the world see how live in this particular area at that time is respective has been.

Q12: Are there any value in street photography you think, besides your own enjoyment?

A: There is definitely the value of getting a variety of real-life-pictures, some of them very aesthetic, some of them just with the documentation in focus. And think quality comes before quantity here as well, as with all things in life that have a certain value.

Q13: Your vision? What is your vision for European street photography? What is the vision for your own photography? I am not going to ask how you see the future, but tell me anyway.

A: My own vision is to develop an own style of photography in general and to use street photography as a way to experiment on the one hand but also simply to go out with the camera and take photographs of the places I’m around. Always in a way not to annoy people. I think this is an important point also, as the number of people with cameras in the streets is constantly growing and more and more people are hiding or moving away when they recognize photographers. Europe has a lot of places with great history to offer, there are plenty of possibilities to create photographs of today’s live in front of a historic background, e.g. a building or a landmark. This combination makes it very special to me. Sure, other parts of the world are interesting as well, but I am European, this is the place I live and here are the scenes I want to record with my photographs.

Q14: One last question: What is the most important thing with a photograph? With any photograph?

A: To search for light and capture the light in the best way it is in the moment of the photograph.

Q15: Is it true then that street photography was invented in Europe?

A: I actually did no extensive research but if I think of Henry Cartier Bresson as one respective the father of street photography this is probably true.

Thank you very much, Robert. Much obliged. Will you see yourself out?

© Knut Skjærven.  All rights reserved

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On The EDGE: Tony Cearns

And by look I mean feel. Actually they become the same thing. Feeling with your eyes.

© Tony Cearns

© Tony Cearns

Hello, I am a street photographer and I am here to tell you all about it. Do you see the picture above? Well, I shot it.

Q1: Please state you name and occupation, please. Where do you live?

A: My name is Tony Cearns. I am a director of a financial services business based in Liverpool, England. Before that I have lived in many places, including London, Oman and Brazil.

Q2: Welcome to The One Photo Interview, by the way. It is the TOP Interview. Do you know what that means? It means that you will only have the opportunity to show one single photograph and you will refer to that for the rest of this interview, right? Would that be ok with you?

A: That’s fine Knut. Choosing one photo is tough though, but let’s go with it! I regard myself as a beginner, so I am humbled by this opportunity.

Q3: Any particular reason for taking that picture, Tony?

A: Intuition: I somehow knew that the young woman would turn to look at me as she walked past. The eye contact is important in that it creates a tension and a moment when two worlds meet. This is recreated every time the photo is looked at again, for me but for others too.  A collective consciousness and memory is at work.

Q4: Is this your style of street photography then? Do you think you have a style? If so, what is it?

A: I am too much of a beginner to have a discernible style. I look for photos that feel right to take. In a sense the photos come to me, rather than me seeking them out (although I move around quickly when out photographing).

Q5. Tell me what is street photography? Have you got a definition? Let’s hear it!

A: Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, in their book “Bystander”, define SP as taking pictures of people who are going about their business unaware of the photographer’s presence. Winogrand famously said he wanted to see what the world looked like in a photograph. But clearly there is much more to it than this, otherwise we would not think much of Winogrand. Alas too many photographers photograph things without saying much about them. You yourself have written extensively about this.

SP helps you to see things in a new light and encourages you to really look carefully and see deeply. And by look I mean feel. Actually they become the same thing. Feeling with your eyes.

Sometimes very ordinary things re-emerge as new and fresh. Also at the moment of shutter release, new relationships are created, between subject and photographer, between the viewer and him/herself and of course between the subject and him/herself. That is why for me eye contact is often important – it brings both the photographer and the person photographed into a moment of mutual awareness, acknowledgement and collective memory. It opens a channel to the unconscious. Bergson, Kierkegaard et al have much to say about this, as does the Zen tradition. Actually the camera becomes quite incidental, as does the street. In Zen, the sword is incidental to a master swordsman as is tea to a tea-ceremony or clay to master potter. HCB recognised this through reading Herrigel’s book, “Zen in the Art of Archery”. Others too: Thomas Joshua Cooper and Minor White. But I’d better stop there in case I start to bore your readers.

So I don’t really have a definition of SP as for me it’s more a phenomenological process than a type of photography. Photography speaks in much the same way as poetry.

Q6: Give me some basics. How long have you had an interest in street photography? Do you have any mentors that you have learned from?

A: I have been interested in photography as long as I can remember. My father was a very keen photographer in the 1950s and 1960s. I became aware of HCB when I was 8 years old and when I was 15 I tried to buy an M3 with my pocket money, but could not afford it. Then photography became subjugated to career pressures and only recently have I had the time to re-investigate.

For me, Stieglitz and HCB are the giants. Both had a great eye for form. Both studied painting and composition. Both understood that form intensifies a visual experience.

But there are many others whose work I admire: Walker Evans in particular, Kertesz, Koudelka, Moholy-Nagy, Ronis, Erwitt, Klein, Frank. More recent photographers include Martin Parr’s new European colour style, the British influence through Tony Ray-Jones and Nick Turpin, the Grapevine work of Susan Lipper, Patrick Zachman. I could go on but I will stop there. I think about the work of others a lot.

Q7: Let’s talk about equipment. Some have an almost religious addiction to it. Long lenses, short lenses, rangefinders, non rangefinders, compacts. Leicas, Canons, Nikons, analog or digital. What is your opinion of this? What is your preferred gear? Don’t be boring when you answer this, please.

A: The equipment is unimportant as long as it does the job you ask of it. I use an M9 but it’s more to do with the kinaesthetic help it gives me rather than anything technical. This camera feels like an extension to my arm and eye. I like the rangefinder and I like looking through a shutter window. It just feels right to me.

Q8: Are there any particular reasons why you call yourself a street photographer? Many people picture landscapes, seascapes, birds caved in. Do you take such pictures as well? What I mean to ask is, do you in fact do much parrot shooting in the zoo? Or similar non street themes. Do you?

A: The main reason is that the street induces in me a sense of hypersensitive alertness, helping me to see universal themes and insights into the human condition and ourselves. Often, it’s a question of what to exclude. I have taken landscape photos, particularly when I was a mountaineer when younger.

Q9: Do you know what is the difference between photography and plain picture taking? If so, tell me what it is.

A: I think I do. Good photographs have the power to transform. They question the meaning of something and lead to a further cycle of questioning within a private meditation. The meaning is a shared one, recognized without rational thought. Plain pictures do not do this.

Q10: Why do you think that all the best street photos are shot in black & white? How do you explain that?

A: I don’t think that the best street photos are in B&W. However, B&W does help to simplify forms, providing a perceptual asceticism which then enables an easier subconscious identification of those factors in a photo that create this private meditation that I mentioned above.

Q11: Do you think that street photography is a serious type of photography? Can anything good come of it? How do you see this?

A: Yes it is a serious type of photography and in my view the one that has the most power to engage with people, largely because it does this in an immediate and unconscious way.

Good street photos can provide compelling insights into the human condition, particularly at a time when people with different personal histories are being asked to relate to each other more and more.

Q12: Your vision? What is your vision for European street photography? What is the vision for your own photography? I am not going to ask how you see the future, but tell me anyway.

A: To break down barriers between people. Photography, music and poetry have the power to engage directly as they work in a non-rational way. I don’t think there is something particularly called European SP anymore. The genre is truly global with so many cross currents. However, the European tradition still has much to offer – for example British street photography often offers irony, humour and a sense of quirkiness.

Q14: One last question: What is the most important thing with a photograph? With any photograph?

A: For a street photograph, to reveal a truth glimpsed and felt. For that, the photo needs to go beyond simple representation and work at a subconscious level, touching the deep self and inducing an interior monologue.

Q15: Is it true then that street photography was invented in Europe?

A: I guess it’s debatable as Stieglitz showed street credentials at the turn of the century, but my view is that Paris and London saw the birth of the genre, particularly Paris with the rise of impressionism and Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life”.

Thank you very much, Tony. Much obliged. Will you see yourself out?

© Knut Skjærven.  All rights reserved

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