Street Photography :: Photography Is An Enigma
This week Complex Magazine named me as one of the top 50 street photographers right now. I’m part honored and part embarrassed by this. Part of it has confirmed something inside of me. Part of this has depressed the hell out of me. On one hand I feel empowered to go deeper and on the other hand I feel I owe a lot of street photographers an apology. If I had a third hand I owe some photographers a big thank you. Let’s see. Can I be more random? How about this. This post is best read late at night while listening to “Last Confession” by Hilltop Hoods.
I’m honored that my street photography work seems to be gaining a lot of traction right now. It confirms in me that shooting what excites me the most, and putting that work into the world, will get it noticed. I feel empowered to go deeper into the genre of street work and find ways to translate it to commercial work.
I’m embarrassed by it because there are a lot of street photographers who eat, breathe, and sleep street photography. It’s what they do. It’s who they are. Cement, asphalt, juxtaposition, humanity, and the like, are the building blocks of their DNA and many of them aren’t on that list. For me, street photography is sort of a hobby. Street photography is a sort of subculture of photography as I see it.
I come from punk roots and the first half of my high school experience was partially spent being bullied by the older punks because I didn’t deserve to wear Doc Martens. I had to prove my worth. There was a saying of something about knowing your roots before you got your boots. Back then there were only two stores in Atlanta that carried Docs. Now you can buy Docs at any mall in America. The assimilation of subculture into suburban culture kills the special shine of subculture. It dulled the shine of Docs. It dulled Harley Davidson. It’s Starbucks becoming the McDonalds of coffee. All to be found on every corner of every house farm and condo complex in America. Found in every Applebee’s parking lot. Ooops. Random bells are going off again.
I’m not a street photographer but dang it all, I love it. It’s my favorite thing to shoot these days. If I could shut the doors to my studio and live on the streets with a camera I’d be a happy man. But my family would be living on the streets with me and then I’d not be a happy man.
Photography is such an ugly bitch and a gorgeous siren all at once. It’s such a moving target. It’s a flux of oasis and mirage. It’s an enigma. Following your heart and your passion seems to grow a perfect storm of joy and fear. I was telling someone this tonight and they aptly replied, “Those are equally strong motivators.” Yes they are. We just came home from a family road trip through West Texas and we watched a lot of storms cross the land. Big Texas storms are gorgeous at a distance and scary as hell in the middle of them. A fitting metaphor about being a full time photographer.
Yesterday I filmed a short intro to an upcoming blog post calling out some crap happening in a part of our industry. I felt this future post needs a personal introduction because I call a certain person out, along with their crap website they’re spreading around, and I wanted to be sure you heard my exact voice so it doesn’t get lost in translation. I see this “system” thing as an ongoing process of the assimilation of photography into suburban culture. Every photographer I’ve ever met wants nothing to do with “corporate culture”. Yet you look out at the landscape of the photography industry and find it to be more and more corporate. Corporations survive on systems. Repetition. Sameness. A leads to B leads to C. You’re not supposed to go from A to C to 5 to R to D.
Corporations can’t survive without linear systems and that thought process is leaking, nay, pouring into certain parts of the photography world. Follow these five steps. These ten steps. This 30 or 40 day process. Use this vendor then this vendor then deliver via this vendor. 10,000 other photographers are doing this thing. Here are your flash cards of what to say to get this photograph. Then use this automated system to process it. Then use this exact process to deliver it. Follow up in these three steps. Make sure you use this specific brand of camera and this specific lens set to these settings to ensure maximum effectiveness. Sun flare through an 85mm lens in a field at sunset anyone? Shot with a 5d? Anyone? We’ve all done it. The goal is to learn to stop doing it or elevate it beyond what has ever been done with a girl. On a vintage piece of furniture. In a field. At sunset.*
Look out in the landscape. See how difficult it is to find something different. You’ve got to strip mine the entire industry to find something of a brilliant gem. I came across such a gem this week. Carl Spring from the UK shoots a lot of concerts. A genre covered in every imaginable way possible. Carl has come up with something that isn’t new per se but has given it a new narrative I’ve not seen before. It’s called “A second with ____”. When he’s shooting a show he takes some exposures for one second. We’ve seen motion blur a billion times but now it has a new story. A new way to think about it and a new angle to view it from. It’s a gem found in the mountain. 500px picked it up on their blog and there’s a great back story on how he came up with this personal project. This is one of my favorites from his ongoing series…
It’s pretty beautiful especially with the narrative Carl is building with it. Eff you Carl. Wish I had thought of it. Aren’t all these great ideas something we see and wonder why we didn’t think of it ourselves? I’ll tell you why we didn’t think of it. It’s not due to the lack of pain meds Carl was on. No. It’s because photography, in the pure sense of it, is an individual art form. It’s personal. It’s who you are. It’s a Lone Ranger kind of job. We’re all floating in this sea together but at the end of the day, you’re on your own whether you sink or swim or get to your final destination. The coast guard comes by every day and plucks people out of this ocean. Some are just too tired to keep going. Some have died. Some are on a yacht. Most of us are on a plank but still happy to be in the water and wouldn’t have it any other way. If we die, we die trying.
Photography is done by individuals. Photographers look to the leaders and want to be like them but the problem is they can’t fit in the mold. The mold wasn’t made for them. Leaders sometimes get confused and think that the mold they are in can be repackaged. It worked for them why can’t it work for others? So the mold building process gets packaged up and sold but people find it hard to fit into without looking exactly like the person who made the mold. Even after crawling in the mold of another they aren’t getting the same clients/money/photos/etc. What came easy for one person will be utterly impossible for someone else to replicate. Because it’s personal.
None of us will ever be Dan Winters. Ever. If I could shoot portraits like anyone it would probably be Dan Winters. I know his work before I ever see his byline. It can be the simplest of a photograph with the simplest of light and it is undeniably Dan Winters. That MF’er can put his finger print on every image he shoots. I’d go to 20 of his workshops if I could but I’d be trying to get in his mold. I can’t. He’s already occupying it. Eff you Dan Winters. You’re a gem in the mountain.
I can’t count the number of days I spent as a photography student and photography assistant wondering how people crossed the chasm of “learning about photography” to “doing photography full time.” I saw myself and my peers standing on one side of the chasm and the folks we learned from and assisted standing on the other side of the chasm. Somewhere there must be a worm hole that transports one across because there sure as hell wasn’t a bridge in sight. I think it’s a series of chasms because I look at folks like Jeremy Cowart and wonder how in the hell he got this job or that job. I’ve personally asked him about this and it was some odd random thing that led to some other thing that led to him having Minnie Driver in front of his damn camera. Eff you Jeremy.
I moved into a new studio last year to accomodate all the work a client was sending me. How did I get that sort of client? Meg sang at church one morning. A lady stopped her to compliment her on the song she sang. They ended up becoming friends. Her husband is an Art Director. He went on to work for this client and needed some stuff shot. It was a 30 day project that’s been going on for three years. How’s that for a wormhole? Everyone! Send your wife to church, have her sing a song, then talk to the spouse of anyone that talks to her after the church service! You too will soon find success!
If you aren’t close to getting clobbered for a photograph then you aren’t trying hard enough.
Someone recently said of me on a forum something that went along the lines of…
“I don’t know how he (speaking of me) has so many followers. His photography isn’t all that special. There are so many other photographers doing real work out there yet this guy (again, speaking of me) has everyone thinking he’s great.”
That’s not a direct quote but it’s close. To whomever you are… There’s a lot of truth in your sentiment. I agree with you. It’s what continues to push me deeper into photography. The only thing incorrect in your statement is that I am somehow actively trying to get people to believe something about me. I’m just doing what I do; that would be whacking around in the wilderness trying to figure out WTF I’m doing with my life and my craft. At least I’m not a photographer that found a better deal in teaching and selling crap and stopped shooting pictures.
Gads. Let me get this rabbit trail back on track to my third hand. Those to thank. I’ve always been a fan of Bresson and Doisneau. I’ve always loved the street genre. I love anything urban. Street art. Street food. Street culture. Street photography. Once I got on instagr.am I was introduced to a whole new generation of street shooters. RichNYC, Fixelzero, Anton_In_NYC, wesq, and many others (sionfullana, texturl, _raygun, eros_sana, rottenronin, et al). I have them to thank for opening my eyes to the iPhone being a street camera and instagr.am being an amazing gallery space for it.
I want to thank Vincent Laforet. I heard someone ask him why he wasn’t teaching more. His reply was something along the lines of, “I’m in my 30’s. This is the time I need to be creating my work. I can’t do that if I’m teaching all the time.” That hit me square in the chest. Thanks to David Hobby who continues to find ways to turn his camera on his local community. Big thanks to Daniel Milnor for a talk he gave to me over a beer at PhotoPlus last year. I’m on my own but I’m not alone. Neither are you.
Big thanks as well to Jason. He was a rep for a vendor in our industry and his job was to attend as many workshops and seminars as he could. He once told me that he’d sit in the back of many workshops and hang his head low. He said, “If you handed many of these teachers a single roll of film they couldn’t do their job.” I shot a roll of film the next week because I feared I’d become that person. I’m happy to report that I can do my job on film.
I also want to thank the leaders in this industry who pretty much hung up their cameras to teach, sell stuff, and start web sites dedicated to helping people become the thing they stopped being in order to start websites and workshops to help people be what they aren’t anymore. Should I repeat that for the choir?
As a teacher. As a guy with stuff to sell. As a person who has been paid by a camera company to give their products a run for the money, I don’t want to be the person who hangs up the camera. Those who stopped fishing to sell bait motivate me to keep fishing. To keep trying harder to be a photographer than to be one who talks about being a photographer.
Are you this person? I honestly want to encourage you to stop talking about being a photographer for a little while, pick up your damn camera, and go be a photographer for awhile. Find a personal project to work on. Find an organization you can donate your time to and don’t just shoot their fund raising galla. Don’t wimp out and shoot portraits of the executive committee. Do something unique. Do something difficult. Do something really different then what you’ve done before. Prove not only to this industry that you still have your chops but prove it to yourself. You want to help people really be a better photographer then go do the same for yourself first. Put your oxygen mask on before helping others. Do you want to be the personal trainer that runs with your students or the kind that sits in the shade and yells from a megaphone? I fear becoming this type of person. This fear pushed me to find something; I hit the streets with an x100. I fell in love with it. Still am. I’m running.
A lot of you leaders block the cynics and critics of you. Embrace them. Follow them. Listen to what they have to say. There’s truth in the trolls. Learn. Pick up your camera. Turn your haters into your motivators. Quit acting like you’re 12. Run you MF’ers. Run
*Meg here. Just as long as what you’ve done with the girl, on a vintage piece of furniture, in a field, at sunset only involved the camera. And taking pictures with the camera. With her clothes on. Just sayin’.**
** I love you Meg.
This will be my last confession
This industry can leave harsh impressions
I have little faith, forgive me for my past discretions
But we live and learn that history and pass the lessons
The day this is work, the love of it dies
A handful make it, the others will strive
And hunger can drive hatred but such is this life
I guess jealousy’s the curse that the struggle inspires
These critics seek to break and divide
I know I’m bitter but my faith is divine
Take it in stride, yeah I act like I hate it at times
But I found love through this music and a place to reside
For every friend, I have an eager opponent
For every cent I spent on meagre components
I gave something back so I don’t feel the need for atonement
Cause we all get our hands dirty when we’re seizing the moment
And we always took the lead, peers would follow
And paid for everything that we cleared or borrowed
If my son can benefit from what you see here, my sorrow’s
Justified, just that I might not be here tomorrow
When it rains, it pours, when you’re soaked and the world
Tries to fuck with ya, trust in ya own and yourself
My biggest fear’s to die not knowing you well
And I ain’t afraid to die, I’m afraid of going to hell
– Hilltop Hoods