The Masters and Street Photography: Not what you think
So there is a wealth of information out there on the classics of street photography, and what you can learn from their work. I thought I would take this tried and tested, well read blogging formula and perhaps have a look at some of the masters of photography in general, and what we can still learn from them from a street photography perspective. I have blogged on the rules of photography applied to the street, and I think that my aim with this initial blog will be to take some of those rules and contrast them with some work from some of the real greats of our art. Not just street greats, but landscape, studio, and fine art greats, surrealists... What can we as street photographers learn from them?
What can we learn from their work flow? Or at least the assumptions we can make from looking at a small sample of their work.
What did they achieve with their simple film cameras and darkrooms that we would struggle to contemplate with technology today?
I believe that a better understanding of what these greats of photography achieved in progressing our art will give you a better respect for what you do today, and hopefully a better understanding of where the art of photography has come from.
I think that I will use this initial blog as a start point to introduce you to some of the work from some of my favourite artists. I think that I will then start to do a regular critique of some of their work. The aim not being to pick apart the work and talk through what could make it better, but to look at the work through my eyes and assess what I think I can learn from each piece.
My hope in writting this is to learn myself. The writing of a post like this and the ones that I will submit on a semi regular basis will require a certain amount of study and preparation. Like being back at high school studying studio arts theory.
So, some examples of the greats...
Lets start with some classic landscape work.
Adams is by far one of the artists that I was exposed to and taught about from a very early age. This is thanks to my Dad. I have written a post on my Dads influence on my photography already. The image above is one of Ansel Adams'classics. It is not however the most influential of his works for me, there is a shot of a massive oak tree in the snow that hangs on my Dads wall at home, this is an image that will be forever in my mind due to the number of times that I have seen it.
Adams was an innovator. He shot black and white film, and there are even recipes listed in some of his logs for his favourite home made chemicals for developing his films and prints. I would love to give this a go some day.
The image above is a textual masterpiece really. The patterns created by the ripples in the sand dune and the way they naturally lead into the crest of the dune where they meet the clipped black of the shadow on the left of the dune are simply stunning for me. The line created by the crest that leads from one third point of the image to the other works very well to separate the two halves of the image. If you have any interest in landscape work I am sure you kow of Adams already, but if you dont then google him. Amazing artist and I am sure I will find some more of his work to comment on at some point.
Man Ray was one of the first surrealist artists in photography. His darkroom skills were simply out of this world. I dont really know how else to explain it really. Ray was also an innovator, but in a very different way to Adams. Ray worked predominately in the studio for much of his work. He was able to manipulate light and shade both in the pre and post production of his work in amazing ways. Double exposures, merging negatives in the enlarger, and many other unique and wonderful techniques to ply his trade. He was also a painter, and was a major part of the Dada movement as well.
The shot above is one of my favourite of Man Rays work, and one of his most famous. I think that I am drawn to it due to my early exposure to the studio world when I was at high school. I will have to scan in some of my early darkroom work and post this later.
The light reflected in the eyes of the subject is classic portraiture, and the fake tears that have been stuck on the subject work strongly as a lead in to the right eye. I also enjoy the way the gaze of the subject is upward. The tears make me lead into the eye, and then the eye makes me continue through the shot. Again, there will be more of Man Rays work in the future.
Now we come to some of the pioneers of street photography. We always hear of the Winogrands, Erwitts, Freidlanders, and now the Mairers of the SP world. However there were artists before them, that whilst maybe not technically street artists, provided a basis for what would follow in this genre.
Brandt spent a large part of his life documenting life in the UK. This was through world war 2 as well. Brant was actually a student of Man Ray, spending a lot of time in Paris as Rays dark room assistant.
The image above works for me on many levels. The processing as far as the print is concerned is fantastic, and from a technical perspective would have proved a challenge due to the dull tones output by the fog. One of my favourite things in a good photo is the questions that they leave me asking. In this case I am wondering what this man is doing. Is he hiding from someone? And if so, do he know its not a very effective hiding place?
The dull outline of the trees poking through to the right of the image create a haunted feeling. The subject is almost perfectly on the third. The added question that is left in the viewers mind is, what is the man looking at? The fog is concealing whatever the man is interested in.
So, the first of the females hey... And now we also start to really hit the street pioneers as well. Lisette married in Austria and then emigrated to New York in the 1930's. Here she started working in photography, and has a large body of work. Its her personal work that is of interest to the street world however.
She spent a long time working for Harpers Bazar, and also created a legacy of other young photographers following her by teaching many students the trade.
The image above is interesting for me due to the layers created by the reflections in the window, the papers in the shop, and the shadow cast by the self portrait of Lisette herself. Add to this the light bulb that seems almost to sit in the place of the subjects heart, and we have a very interesting and layered image indeed. The central positioning of the subject is also very strong, when paired with the framing of the reflected items in the window.
John Gutmann, last example for this post, and what a way to finish off. Now we are really getting to the start of street photography, at least in my view anyway. People always talk of big name street shooters from the 50's on wards, and I think that at times, this period of time in the late 1930's is a little disregarded. Gutmann really laid a strong foundation for the genre of street photography.
The image above is a classic. The happenings of the street in the 1930's. The slight movement of the car passing, whilst the innocent child sketches on the road with chalk. The framing is fantastic, the timing is spot on, and the placement of the child in the frame works very well. Even the slightly faded old drawing next to the main piece by the child lends a sort of history to the piece. This child has done this before...
So, there we have an intro to a few of the masters that have influenced me in small ways. These are artists that I studied in the late 90's in high school, and as my love for the art form of photography returns I am going to ensure that I stay in touch with these artists, and quite a few more. I will study their work, and steel their ideas to make them my own. I will gain an appreciation of where the art of photography has come from, and I will love every minute of the learning process that will be the end result.
There is a saying that is around at the moment, and its a saying that is directly related to the modern day consumer photographer... It is a real shame that its required, and it directed at all those who spend countless hours on gear sites and dreaming of more expensive and better equipment... Dont get me wrong, I was as bad as the next guy, but I am content now. I have a digital and a film set up that I will have to work for a few years to do justice to, so now I concentrate on practice... That saying is:
BUY BOOKS, NOT GEAR