Is street photography changing in the digital age?
This discussion is a growing theme for some of the words that I pen here when I have the time and motivation to do so. I guess I write these things on topics that I feel passionate about. In all things in life this is where you get your best results (maybe a topic for another time). The theme in question is how the world is changing and how this is changing photography. I have asked this question specific to Street Photography, but I think we will be able to investigate the topic in a more holistic nature as far as photographic genres go.
I have spoken about some of the masters of our wonderful art here, and its a series that I need to continue. So little time and so many things to write about. But I think what I want to get at here is a basic question. Has the photograph changed? And if it has, has it changed for the better?
I think I will start with an image from Man Ray. There is a reason for this as a start point.
To us in the digital age we would likely look at some on Man Rays work and think that what he did would be so easy to achieve. But one needs to make sure that they are looking at the work with the right perspective. Man Ray was working in a time long before Photoshop, and some of the things that he was able to achieve in the darkroom and the studio were simply stunning. The image above is a great example of a master executing a print in the darkroom, and someone creatively working with the tools that they had at their disposal to express the idea that they had in their head as a still image photograph.
Want another example?
This portrait of Salvador Dali was shot in 1948 by Magnum photographer Philippe Halsman.
Again, some are thinking right this minute, I could do that. Shoot the water in one shot... Get some shots of cats (there are heaps of them online, just take the funny MEME off) and the the shot of the guy in the background... Shoot a room, and then layer everything up in Photoshop, make sure the shadows are all correct, and away we go. Think about this shot and what it would take to get the image without the help of a digital file and a computer. Think about how you would do this and then have a look at this link that shows the process in a little more detail and some of the outtakes of the shoot. So much for animal rights yeah?
So we have looked at some examples of images shot in a similar era where the techniques used then would likely not be the same techniques used today if the artists were still working. What about the street aspect though?
We have some massive names that were around during the film era, and they really are the guys that so many of the current Street crop aspire to. So much so that more and more people are making the return to film. Lets have a look at a couple of unmistakably film images from a couple of these iconic artists.
Garry Winogrand is one of the most well known of the street photographers of a film generation. His work is extensive, and people would argue about what image is their favourite of his massive body of work. For me its the image below.
Its a simple image, and its a fun image. The gritty feeling of the film grain is one that is present in much of his work. Some argue that Winogrand wasnt technically as brilliant as some of his counterparts of the era, and they may be right. But I think that the sheer volume of his work speaks for itself. Street was his passion, and I feel that this is ever present in his work. Would his work have been materially different in todays digital age? Would he have shot even more images? Would he have shot even more work? I dont know if this is possible. But the look and feel of him images would have been different, this is for sure. The image above shows fantastic framing and timing and this is no easy feat. It also took a great and well trained eye to find and capture the image.
Just the plain fact that film is a tactile medium that you can touch and feel I think sets it apart from the digital medium. Even if you only ever touch film and put it through a scanner, its still a much slower, more involved process than just working on digital files all the time.
I want to have a look at another artist of a similar era to Winogrand. A little later, but not a lot, but still firmly planted in the film era before the development of the digital medium. And this one is close to home. Some people may not know his work, but this is an Australian artist by the name of Rennie Ellis. A lot of his work is very political, but also firmly in the street genre.
The image tells a story. The image has a place in time. Its also one that is close to me as its shot around the corner from where I live. Its interesting to digest Rennies work and see the images that he captured in Melbourne. I hope that my work is one day able to be viewed in a similar way by others. As a time capsule of sorts.
Film has this feel to it that digital tries to mimic through a number of different means, but only really succeeds in some. The dynamic range of film is greater. Film has an organic look that for me generates more emotion than the clean crisp digital files. The whole process of shooting and developing film adds to this for me as well. Film cameras have a heft and weight in the hands that I have not experienced in their digital counterparts. The race for supremacy for the best film camera is well and truly run and won (subjective winning, is still winning for me). The digital race continues to develop, and continues to fester the awful human trait of greed and lust in so many of us.
I dont want you to think that I discount artists that shoot digital. There are a truck load of them that do great work. And this is really a matter of preferance. Its sometimes driven by output. Its sometimes driven by the need to be able to deliver a final product to a client quickly and efficiently in professional work. Other times its driven by the fact that many photographers these days dont know how to shoot film, and if they do shoot film they are restricted by the fact that they dont know how to process it and therefore rely on labs to do this for them. Labs are now few and far between, but there are new ones opening as well. Its sometimes driven by the fact that shooting film is expensive. You shoot one roll and process it, you cant then wipe it clean and reuse it again like you can with a digital card.
Below is an example of an image that is clearly digital. Its by an artist that I recently was drawn to at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale. Young Ho Kang.
Young Ho Kang
Amazing work, and when viewed as a set his work really came alive. We can tell that this work is all shot on digital, the camera forms a part of the image, and is present in all of his self portraits. A very interesting and well executed idea, and the length that he has gone to to dress up and capture the images is no less extensive than the similar process that was undertaken in the Dali portrait above. But the image is digital. There is no mistaking that fact. Even without the camera being displayed in the image it would be plainly evident. And dont get me wrong, the digital feel to the image is probably appropriate for this shot, and most of his other work as well. It almost becomes a feature to the very futuristic feel that Young has created with his work.
Its an interesting space with the technology and marketing of current digital trends leaning towards the retro touch and tactile sensations of old, with the technology and medium of the present. You have companies like Fuji producing some cameras that are highly functional and have that retro rangefinder look and feel to them. People tout them as likely classic cameras of the digital age.
I dont know if the concept of a classic camera is really the same these days though. You are never going to have another Leica M3 come round for example. A camera that more than 60 years after its development is still sought after as an image making tool. Digital just wont have that happen. Its not like there is likely to be a classic sensor that people just like the look of its results that much that they strive to find it in an old camera in 30 years time so they can get that feel. And if there ever was, whats the likely hood that it would be functional. Not much I think...
This is not the case with film emulsions. People still have hoards of expired film in their freezer that isnt made. I know there are some that have a collection of Tri-X 320 as an example. I dont know that putting a digital sensor in the freezer would make it last any longer either, but Im no tech head... Maybe Im wrong.
So street photography in digital. I think that a majority of the work that you see on the net in the various forums and groups is shot on digital. I think that the look and feel of a digital image is sometimes very hard to pick with some of the presets and settings that people use in post, so I am not going to risk showing an image here thats a well known one and having someone correct me on that, so I will use some examples of my own work to highlight this fact.
Lets start with some colour.
I chose this image for a couple of reasons. First it is a digital shot that I took a while ago when I was shooting a lot more digital. Second, I dont know if this is a result that would have bee as easily achieved with film. This high contrast work is something that I struggle to mimic with film due to the films greater dynamic range. Even when working the image in a digital post process its a little harder to get these results. The shadows will retain details that you sometimes down want. Burning this out in a darkroom is a lot more of a task that doing the same in Lightroom I tell you. The other issue with this being that I personally dont like the results from scanning and processing film digitally as much as I like results from darkroom silver gelatin prints. When you digitise a film image you open yourself up to the issue of digital noise a little. Paper prints of film images tend to highlight that organic grain structure that I mentioned above. Anyway, as usual I am off topic a little.
How are these differences changing street photography, and photography in general?
We have already talked a little about the number of images shot, and the drastic increase in the sheer volume of photographs since the development of the camera phone in a previous post. I dont think that its just the camera phone that is changing the landscape of photography though, although it does have a massive place in the drastic devaluation of the mystique of the still image that was present in past years of film.
The digital process as a whole though is changing the what and how that we are able to do with a camera. Granted, there are people that would be able to achieve similar results with film, but it would take them a lot longer and cost them a lot more money. With Photoshop, and full frame DSLR, and a good lens its amazing what you can achieve. With film you are always limited in some senses by the speed at which you have to work. But this is not a bad thing in my mind.
So I think I have said enough. And I likely havent actually answered the question at hand, but I hope that I have provided some food for thought. I hope that it at least inspires someone to put down their auto ISO digital camera, load a roll of single ISO film into an old film camera and learn a little more about this art form that I love so much. I am currently in the middle of another blog post on the relative ease of learning to shoot film vs digital, as I think that investigating the different learning processes involved with each, and also the transference of the various skills that one learns with both mediums is another topic that will form an interesting discussion.
I am leaving to go on holiday to Thailand tomorrow though, so unlikely to see that in the next couple of week. I promise to return with a truck load of film shot, and some stories to ramble about. I have a whole 30m bulk roll of Tri-X rolled and ready, as well as 10 rolls of Portra, and another 10 rolls of Across, as well as some other random bits and bobs. I am really looking to taking a trip as a photographer again. I dont think I remember the last time I shot images in another country.