Monday, 22 December 2008

What Now for Street Photography?

I sense that street photography is slowly splitting into two distinct genres. On the one hand, there is the Henri Cartier Bresson school where interesting or unusual people are captured against photogenic backgrounds. And on the other, there's a type of street photography that basically involves mugging passers-by with a camera. You might be able to tell which side I favour.

HCB, Robert Doisneau and the like practised a style of photography that required some forethought, planning and patience. If you study their images, you often find they feature interesting characters, the kind you would tend to look twice at if they passed you in the street. So many of these people were captured against backgrounds that were an important part of the picture and not just some incidental backdrop. There is usually something of artistic merit in these photographs, be it composition, timing or light.

The HCB style is the one I like and I've included a few of the pics I've taken in the last couple of years to show what I'm on about. All were shot with the K10D except for Les Halles, Crossing and Mid-Flight for which I used the Minolta A2. The "street mugging" style is as often as not bereft of these qualities. Instead, practitioners seem to hang around and then jump out and blast away at someone who happens to be walking by. Sometimes on camera flash is used.

The results, not too surprisingly, show people with expressions that range from bemused, through startled to irritated or even angry. The background usually adds little to the photograph. Composition appears rushed or even non-existent. There is not much evidence of artistic input.

This approach can still produce some memorable images. Probably the best exponent of this was Garry Winogrand. I like his earlier stuff best of all. In later years, he seemed to develop a scattergun technique that involved walking down a busy street shooting, shooting shooting almost non-stop.

He got through masses of film and reportedly left 300,000 unedited images and more than 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film when he died. This rift-if that's not too strong a word for it-between the two styles also seems to follow some sort of geographical divide. A continental fault-line, if you like.

The HCB school seems strong in Europe and South America. The street-muggers seem to do their best work in the USA. Before some HCB enthusiasts in America take me to task, it's obvious that there will be followers of both schools all over the world. Flickr is an interesting place to study the differences between the two styles. There are several groups devoted to each. My impression is that HCB groups are populated by people of more conservative taste who would prefer not to be noticed as they go about their photography.

The muggers seem to have a brash approach to photography. They're up for anything and go about their business in a more open way. Of course, with increasing concerns over terrorism and constant worries about paedophiles, both styles may be under threat as society attempts to restrict the long-standing right of individuals-at least in most western countries-to take pictures of people or events in public places.

Whichever of the two colours you nail to your mast may be less important than the fact that you make a point of photographing people on the street. The more of us who practise this type of photography, the harder it will be for the authorities to pull the plug on it altogether.

2 comments:

Gerry Morgan said...

Bruce, your shot of the person and dog outside the fish and chip shop is a brilliant, brilliant photo. I think if you take HCB and add a dose of humour, you get Elliott Erwitt. And your photo would not look out of place in such esteemed company -- especially with a dog in the frame!

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Thanks, Gerry. I'm away to get a new hat to fit my swollen head. ;-)

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