17 October 2013

Street Photography

In my heart, this is all I really want to do. Candid photographs of strangers going about their lives. It's almost always more compelling to me than landscapes or portraits or anything else. Here's Robert Frank:

Daido Moriyama:

Lee Friedlander:

These three are so different, but all came from this method of capturing natural human moments as intentional compositions. Something that comes out, when you look at a bunch of street photographs by a single artist, is how different they all are. Of course there's a consistent style, but so much is dictated by subjects that are outside the photographer's control. It's visually a very fluid and interesting form, and people just interest me more than anything else.

But how does one do this in Fairbanks. It's not New York. If you go downtown, hardly anyone is walking on the street. You can hear the shutter of a dslr half a block away. Also, people in this town are very private and not unlikely to be violent.

The box stores are where the real activity is, but you have no legal right to shoot inside a business. I still tried it a bit, and nobody complained, but I didn't get anything good. At this point I've shot strangers just enough to realize how demanding it is, looking for opportunities and capturing them in the brief time you have. I think I could try for years without ever getting good. But apart from the difficulty, trying to do it brought home how complicated the ethics are. Take this shot:

ISO 1600
31mm lens (~47mm equivalent)

It didn't come out, obviously, but I want to talk about the postures of the man and women. I think anyone looking at it would see a defensive posture in the man and some low-level aggression or threat from the woman. At the very least they appear to be at odds. But nothing could be further from the case. They were talking and laughing, and she happened to be turning when I snapped. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Everyone knows how easy it is to lie or mislead with photographs, and sometimes that's okay. But street photography has a documentary element, and I'm not comfortable with the idea of street photos that appear to show something very different from what I witnessed when I took them.

But there's a more pressing ethical problem. Who is it okay to take pictures of? In a city like Kingston or Honolulu or other places I've lived, everybody walks. In Fairbanks, people tend to walk because they're poor or have other problems. Take this kid:

ISO 1600
31mm lens (~47mm equivalent)

It would have been easy to walk up closer and get maybe a decent shot. I mean, it's not everyday you see somebody go fetal on Airport Way. Instead I called him over and drove him to his house. So I might not be cut out for this. Would Lee Friedlander have driven the kid to his house? No! Lee Friedlander would have gotten the shot.

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