I’ve always liked street photography, but as I’ve thought more about what I’m trying to achieve with photographs – what my ‘creative vision’ is – I’ve been struggling to understand how street photography fits in. To some extent, I’d decided it just doesn’t fit, so I’d essentially abandoned making images of this kind. But it never felt like a comfortable conclusion and I’m always drawn to taking photographs in the city. I’ve recently been reading The Meaning in the Making, an absolutely brilliant book by Sean Tucker, and his thoughts have unlocked this conundrum for me.
Tucker is an incredible, well-known street photographer, but in his book, he talks about the struggle he initially had with the genre. He was uncomfortable taking photographs of people, he had encountered some conflict that put him off, and he thought maybe he just wasn’t cut out for the genre. But in this passage from his book, he describes how his discomfort led him to discover his own style.
“I didn’t give up on street photography; I just stopped trying to take the images I thought everyone expected me to make and started to take the photos that felt right to me. I’ll admit that at the start the process was very intuitive. I just followed my gut and photographed what interested me. I began to notice that I was actually drawn more towards the shapes made by hard light and shadow than the people who were out and about. The human beings in my frames started to get smaller and smaller and served to provide a sense of scale for the scene rather than feature as the main focal points of my images.
“…I had found a focus for my images that didn’t look for people first; I was looking for interesting spaces and light. I would find a compelling composition and wait to see who came through.
“…I was playing with high contrast, exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows in my images fall to black. I toyed with the shapes cast as sunlight and architecture collided, and I often positioned the humans in my shots so that their faces were obscured in shadow. My visual voice was emerging one shutter click at a time.“
These thoughts brought to the surface what I was afraid to acknowledge – the kind of street photography I like is not the traditional type, it’s not what I think street photography ‘should’ be, so I thought it was wrong. I was thinking that street photography should be up close to people – portraits, funny moments, significant interactions, notable characters. And I have made some images that fit these criteria to some extent. But this people-centred approach is not what I’m naturally drawn to, and it feels forced, uncomfortable and unsatisfying.
My natural idea of street photography is not the same as Tucker’s, but is similar. Just like the rest of my art, it’s primarily about visual design – the shapes and arrangements of things, the geometry and balance. And in this broader context, there are two specific attractions to street photography for me. One is that I like to have a single, strong focal point that serves as an anchor in my images, and people can provide that. When looking at an image with a person in, the eye cannot help but be drawn there first. This anchor then provides a starting point for the eye to explore the design of the whole image. The second attraction is the satisfaction of creating visual design from the chaos of the world passing by, of capturing a moment in which that chaos is frozen into aesthetic order. I suppose if I start delving into the psychology of it, it takes an environment where I am not particularly comfortable – busy places with lots of people – and gives me some control over it.
Whether or not these kinds of images strictly fit into the genre of street photography is a matter of debate. But Tucker’s description of his struggle is an affirmation for me that my approach is valid, it fits with my overall vision, and whether it’s strictly street photography or not doesn’t really matter. This approach to photography in the streets feels natural to me in a way that traditional street photography does not, and the concept behind it fits with my wider creative vision. Ultimately, Tucker’s story has inspired me to try again with a much clearer idea of what I’m trying to achieve, and consequently a lot more confidence in the way I go about it.