Friday, 31 May 2013

What’s Important in Photography: Style, Technique, Or Something Else?

What’s Important in Street Photography: Style, Technique, Or Something Else?

This post reflects my current thoughts on many genre of photography but perhaps most obviously street photography.These are my arguments and questions and there will no doubt be many flaws and rambling thoughts. I consider this more of a personal essay that will help me define my own ideas. However I will try to draw from photography books as well as my own personal experience and pseudo-philosophy.

My personal observance is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to shoot any photography. and we should argue less about the aesthetics, styles, technique, and approach and concentrate on the question: “Why do we photograph?” It doesn’t really matter if you use a wide-angle lens, a fisheye or a normal lens, whether you shoot full frame or take snaps with your iPhone. In the end the most important question remains: “Am I creating images that make a statement? Whether this is street photography or landscape all images have the potential to make a statement”

Henri Cartier Bressons style of Street photography focuses on classic composition, balance, and beauty in the image and aesthetics, whereas  in my eye Garry Winogrand produces Street photography that aims to have a social critique or message. So should street photography be less about the aesthetics and more about the overall message, emotion, and mood. Composition is important to make an image appear interesting, but without context, it has no depth and has very little ability to convey a larger message. 

I recently bought a book by Garry Winogrand titled: “Winogrand: Figments from the real world.” The book was written by John Szarkowski, a photographer, curator, historian, and critic. From 1962 to 1991 Szarkowski was the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The book started off by a very thoughtful essay from Szarkowski about the life of Winogrand and describing how Winogrand thought about images and photo-taking.
Winogrand worked with a 28mm for most of his life, and dabbled a bit with a 21mm. He was frustrated with the 21mm because of the strange distorting effects of the ultra-wide focal length. In his career, he has also stated:
“There is no special way a photograph should look.”
In an account a student wrote of his class at the University of Texas (in a document titled “Classtime with Winogrand” O.C. he stated:
“If students were taking Garry’s class to learn photographic techniques and methods, they were sorely disappointed. Garry didn’t teach much technique. That was left to the PJ side of the photography world or to his “TAs”. You have a lifetime to learn technique, he seemed to be saying, but I can teach you what is more important than technique, how to see; learn that and all you have to do afterwards is press the shutter.”
The fascinating thing about Winogrand is how prolific he was. Legend has it that he would shoot around 10 rolls every single day, which sounds about right as he left behind nearly 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film and 6,500 rolls of developed but not proofed exposures. If you take a look at the contact sheets of his later years, you can see that he shot almost aimlessly, without much consideration. Szarkowski elegantly ends this essay by stating that he believed that: 
“Winogrand didn’t shoot to make a photograph, but to capture life.” 
This seems to make a lot of sense, as Winogrand himself said,
“I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.” 
So what I learned from Winogrand was that there is no single way a photograph 'should look'. Therefore we should focus less on the aesthetics of the street photographs we take, and focus more on the emotion and content. We should put less emphasis on lens choice, focal length, aperture, camera, flash or no flash, or angle. As much as the things forementioned are important, a photograph should be less about the technical things. And perhaps the most radical thought, The final image isn’t the most important thing ! Of course as photographers we ultimately want an image that is both compositionally and emotionally appealing to us. However what I am starting to realize is that we should focus less on the final image, and more on the process. That means having the role of documenting life and enjoying the things associated with it. For example, when you are out shooting, the joy of talking to the strangers you take photographs of or simply walking amongst the subject of your photography whether that is people or green fields. 

Back to the subject of style; is it something that we learn ourselves or something that we copy? When it comes to street photography, I think I am influenced by two types of photographers. Aesthetically in terms of shooting street photography, I have been highly influenced by the street photography of Henri Cartier Bresson but also by the photography of Bruce Gilden. In terms of the message of photography, I have been influenced by Martin Parr, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. As you can see there is a wide variation in styles and I have struggled to define my own style.
However, a photographer friend told me. 
“People need to realize that style isn’t something aesthetic.”
This caused me to rethink my own photography and photography in general. We often get so caught up into thinking that style is something aesthetic (composition, framing, technique) that we forget it is something deeper. Rather, style is a reflection of who you are as a person and how you see the world. For example, as I am a returning expat who has been away from my home county for 20 yrs I see  myself as both a local and a visitor which is reflected in my 'Aspects of Cumbria Project'. In a sense my photographic views and styles are conflicting.
Bruce Gilden said:

“Shoot who you are!”
For example, I love the romantic imagery of James Ravilious and the aesthetics and hidden humour of Henri Cartier Bresson, but I also like the harsh observance of Martin Parr. My style then is affected by all of the above and my project 'Aspects of Cumbria' reflects this confusion. Does this make it a bad thing, does this mean I have no real style of my own? or is my personal style especially in this project a culmination of many aspects and styles. Or if style is dictated by the above quote "shoot who you are" Will my next project reflect the same style or lack of style or will I have changed as a person, taken a different direction and therefore a different style?

1 comment:

  1. You have a handle on this - its all sound. The issue of visual style though is one students agonise over developing a of a perception of need,even a feeling of loss that they don't have one after a short period of study. Martin Parr didn't need a style to take pictures- he didn't develop one, he just took pictures. The same for many others Winogrand - Bresson two street photographers - completely different agendas.This may be where the style comes from ? It is continuing to deliver photography in the area that interests you that will hone your approach rather than a choice to only use a 16mm or a 300mm lens for everything.There is a familiarity even an intimacy with the equipment you use that is also honed. Its a bit like a painter having favourite brushes that feel good and always deliver.
    It is removing the irrelevant and delivering the "in your face " pertinent that makes it an obvious style. Just keep seeing and underpinning it with relevance (WHY) and all will come good in the end.