Last summer I went hiking with my wife and son. It was the first time hiking for my son (technically I carried him through the forest like Sacagawea) and the fist time in many years for my wife. I was running on just a few hours of sleep (my son is only one) and, against my better judgment, left my camera at home.
Now, before you scream hypocrite and hurl virtual eggs (or whatever it is you throw at hypocrites), at me you should know that I am never really without a camera… My iPhone goes everywhere with me and it’s got a fairly capable camera attached to it. When I say I didn’t bring my camera I mean I didn’t bring my “professional” camera, like a dolt.
Naturally, while hiking I came across two scenarios that made me wish I had brought a camera with better dynamic range or a different lens. This is life people, tell yourself you don’t need something and you will absolutely need it. Luckily, I had my iPhone and was able to capture these two moments (top two images)… Which got me thinking.
It seems like each time I write a street photography article I get feedback from a few people that they love the idea of street photography but they feel they have seemingly impossible hurdles in their way. Things like a fear of approaching a stranger with a camera, not living in the city, or not having anything interesting to photograph.
I’d like to talk about the last two challenges, location and ideas as I’ve covered fear multiple times before (like in this article). I grew up in the country, seemingly in middle of nowhere. This was judged, as is done these days, by the distance from the closest Wal-Mart I lived… 45 minutes. When I was younger I felt there was nothing of interest to do, let alone photograph. I couldn’t wait to blow that popsicle stand and head into the city. Life’s just more interesting in the city, right?
Fast forward 20 years (though, if there were a rewind button we’d hit it) and many of us are yearning for that country lifestyle. Living in the woods where one can simply walk around his or her house to pee without getting arrested for indecent exposure, the freedom to park close enough to your house that you don’t need to hail an Uber just to make it that last leg to your front door, and no traffic to slow you down (except for the occasional farm tractor of course). Which brings me to location…
After years of practicing street photography one of the most important things I’ve learned is that there is never a shortage of subject matter. Whether you’re photographing a woman writing a note in a restaurant in Paris (Saul Leiter), a gas station in middle of nowhere (Robert Frank), or a bench on a beach (Luigi Ghirri) there is potential for a captivating series of street photographs anywhere if you’re observant. By the way, all of the names listed above are amazing street photographers who understood that a street photography was not limited to densely populated areas or even needed an actual human being in the frame.
Dare I say, wherever there is light there is opportunity for effective street photography. Which begs the question, is it the location or a lack of vision that we should be talking about? Here is where our next hurdle comes into play, finding interesting subject matter.
Interesting Subject Matter
Now that we’ve discovered that location is not the hurdle we once thought it was we have a better understand of what may actually be the real challenge… Subject matter. One of my favorite things about street photography is how open of a genre it is. It can be portraits of strangers posing in the street, a coffee stain on a table, or the simple way light spills through your bedroom window. Our vision, literally and figuratively, is what dictates what subject matter we see. If we have tunnel vision and say things like “I only want to photograph strangers walking through the city” or “I only photograph close up portraits on the street” then we run the risk of finding ourselves without subject matter. You’ve probably gathered that tunnel vision is not ideal. If you open your mind you’ll open your eyes.
One of the absolute best ways to open your mind and find your vision is to study others work. Find photographers, painters, modern artists, etc. that create things from nothing and study them. Find out what drives them and try to see how they see. By doing this you are able to broaden your own vision to allow more interesting subject matter to be noticed by your mind. I know it seems odd to say “find your own vision by studying others” but often we are too constrained by our own world view to broaden our minds without some help from others.
One of the most successful aspects of my photography business is the fine art genre. This came from ignoring my own personal boundaries I put on my photography (“I only photograph this and I only do it this way” kind of mentality) and exploring others work and finally finding my own vision. In fact, to this day I have not stopped growing and experimenting with different subject matter and approaches to photography.
Though seemingly poor location and a lack of subject matter seem like hurdles to street photographers it’s the lack fo vision that is really at play. The solution is to broaden our minds by studying others work, experimenting with our own, and releasing ourselves from the mental constrains we self inflict. If you begin to study and experiment I promise you that you will perceive the world in entirely new ways and create some stunning images where you thought there were none before.
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