The genre of street photography is about 178 years old. It was Louis Daguerre who “invented” it trying to capture 1838 Boulevard du Temple – a busy Parisian street. His monumental ten minute exposure time meant that the photo didn’t capture any of the crowd in the street below except a man who had been stationary the whole time having his boots polished.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that all of the great masters of photography we know were “street photographers”, although very few of them would have referred to themselves this way. I think of Alfred Stieglitz, Andre Kertesz and Henri CartierBresson (and the list goes on). Put simply, I think street photography is essential to the art of photography.
After capturing his Parisian photograph, Daguerre apparently cried out: “I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight”. Yes, it sounds bombastic to the modern ear, but the principle remains the same throughout the years, since it can be clearly heard from words of Trent Parke, without a doubt one of the most intriguing street photographers of our time, “I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical”.
For me, I wouldn’t go as far as that. In fact most of the time I spend roaming the streets it is me who has the feeling of being chased by the overwhelming feeling that my work has to be done just to survive as an individual or to cope with the world in a proper manner.
In my opinion there is only one way to achieve anything meaningful in the art: by trying to sustain the approach of an amateur. Staying an amateur for a long-time, if not forever, is imperative when creating great art. Andre Kertesz was such a master of this philosophy achieving a brand new portfolio at the age of 90! Being a real amateur does not mean acting poorly but rather attentively, with the understanding that in the realm of art there is one rule that is bulletproof: ́less is more ́.
Today it is harder to understand such complex simplicity than years ago. The world celebrates immediate exposure, gratification and instant fame. So instead of teaching themselves patience and spending more time hard at work, many photographers convince themselves that better tools, rather than their actual ability, will grant them ultimate creative freedom. They enslave themselves to major gear producers, whose goals aren’t for better art but bigger profits. People are celebrating the work of how great their cameras and lenses are yet they play such a small role in the real art of photography. It’s sometimes forgotten that not everything we approach in awe in the outside world will still be as awe-inspiring when shown in two dimensions.
Limitations in art are very liberating. I virtually live by the principle “one camera, one lens”. I own a 35mm, 50mm and 85mm lens. The human eye sees in around 40mm, so for shooting on streets I prefer to use my 35mm. Of course, using a limited number of lenses has its restrictions, but it gives me the chance to feel more what I am shooting. Rather than rely on uncountable pieces of technology to shoot quality pictures, I literally have to rely on an intimate connection with the camera.
The relationship between spontaneity and uncertainty in street photography also fascinates me. Most of the time I photograph digitally, but in my eyes analogue is the right medium to embrace. Not only is it more forgiving, but it also slows down the process and teaches patience which is hugely important in art.
Alex Webb puts it elegantly, “Street photography is in 99.9% about failure”. This point is almost identical to the real mystery of life. To learn this lesson is crucial for both art and life.