Aesthetics in Urban Documentary Photography?

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by cyanatic, Jan 13, 2016.

  1. This may be more suitable for the Philosophy of Photography Forum, but I think it can justifiably be part of a Casual forum as well. And, to be honest, I think that some PN members find the POP forum a bit off-putting and might not participate if I placed it there. If does not belong here, well, my mistake.
    The notion for the discussion arose in another thread which shall remain nameless for now. ;-)
    Julie H.: I'd love to see a thread where you "urban documentary" photographers discuss your feelings about the place of aesthetics in your work (I'm not being sarcastic; I mean that sincerely).
    Anders Hingel: I agree with Julie about a thread "where you "urban documentary" photographers discuss..... the place of aesthetics in your work". Maybe someone should start such a threat here or over there.
    I'm trying to quickly cobble this together during my lunch break, so I can only start with some general notes to give this some direction. I hope Julie or Anders might help channel this in desired direction should I not hit any of the points they were thinking of.
    "urban documentary" photographers discuss your feelings about the place of aesthetics in your work"
    "My work". I'd prefer to begin with a rough overview of the historical place of aesthetics in this type of photography.
    Although there are "urban documentary" photographs and photographers which predate it, I think John Szarkowski's "New Documents" show at MoMA in 1967 was a watershed moment in terms of acknowledging the place of aesthetics in the genre. Yes, an argument can be made that Steiglitz (with the streets of New York), Evans (with clandestine subway photographs long before 1967), and others came long before that, but I am choosing 1967 as a defining moment.
    But what are those "aesthetics"? Have they descended into sad parodies in the endless stream of "street photography" we now see all over the internet?
    What are my feelings about their place in my own work?
    Real rough because I have to go: I can only speak for myself -- A good deal, though not all, of the aesthetics I find are a kind of "found" aesthetic. Instinct leads one to a particular corner, or a street, to a particular light, or person, and one depresses the shutter button. For me, the aesthetics may be "felt" in the moment, but often do not reveal themselves until the editing process occurs later on.
    Now comes the real hard part: what, exactly, are those aesthetics? (Damn you, Julie!) How can I even begin to talk about without explaining what the aesthetics are? Again, only for me, it initially comes more from the gut than the mind, and it involves a feeling. A sense of, "Ooh. Wow. This gets to me." This applies to my own work as well as the work of other photographers. Then, on further examination, different signifiers may come into play -- symbolism, social significance, surrealism, beauty of the light or what is revealed and what is hidden.
    I will attempt to put up some examples, but I really, really do not want to use this as a way of showing my own work. I am comfortable having my work viewed, but not in the circumstance of a thread like this one because this is not about me, this is not an excuse to get exposure or critiques. I'll try to put up photos which, at this point in time (because it changes) have some significance for me. Whether they possess "aesthetic" elements (which I have poorly defined anyway) is another matter. I think they do, but what I call "aesthetic" may not seem so to someone else. Bla, bla, bla. In short, they are examples only, not the objects which are intended to be the sole point of discussion or example in this thread.
  2. Sample 2
  3. Sample 3
    Perhaps I am sensitive to misunderstandings, but I'm going to try to make this crystal clear: These are some recent samples of my work. They have some aesthetic value to me at this point in time. I do not apologize for them, but I also do not put them up here as examples of great work.
  4. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Suggest searching The History of Street Photography. Not sure the link is o.k. here, but I'll give it a try.
    Interesting and lengthy history.
  5. Sandy Vongries -- Thanks. Yes, a very good book I think. He does an excellent job of discussing, and providing examples of, the very earliest occurrences of what later came to be called street photography. Although, I was trying to generate a discussion along the lines of what was suggested by Julie and Anders. Which will require participation from other photographers.
    (Amazon link for anyone who is not familiar with this book: )
    And ...
    Examples of the work of other urban documentary photographers in which I find some aesthetic value.
    I still haven't said a damn thing, hardly, about Julie's original topic. Certainly not in detail or with much meat on its bones...hopefully later. And hopefully others will join in.
    [And a question: Does saturation in the historical period in which it is created diminish the aesthetic value of a given photograph?]
  6. Often when I look at an example of street photography, I see yet another example of the typical clichés that are so common: people in situations that elicit pathos, such as the homeless and other down and out persons, people exhibiting some kind of emotional expression and usually unaware they are being photographed, unusual juxtapositions of people and objects, the close up of an old man’s face full of wrinkles and whiskers and the scars of a hard life, the attractive woman, etc. To be fair, landscape photographers are as guilty of pursuing clichés too, as well as portrait takers, wedding photographers, etc. We’re all guilty of it at some time or another. After all, clichés are popular for a reason, but after a while they start to lose their ability to elicit a feeling or fascination with the image: the aesthetic?
  7. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Steve G, thanks! In regard to the initial concept of aesthetics in street photography, a couple of thoughts. First, I think that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". I'll snip the dictionary definition to manageable size (no intent to exclude) " the branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc., as applicable to the fine arts". So, the guy I saw on the street yesterday, a cart with all his possessions, his two dogs, which looked better fed than he did, and who were certainly more obedient than mine, had, to me, a certain beauty. Not the scene itself, but the implicit relationship, the story. Great affection, loyalty, empathy, the context of the image. A second thought -- if the photographer has a mission, or more softly, a point to make, a sequence of photos, some of which may be profoundly ugly, may achieve beauty or a beautiful outcome. I have a predilection toward story photography, so that makes sense to me. Think of the WPA / FSA photo project from the Depression era.
    I must admit, when I lived in cities as a younger man I was an enthusiastic street photographer, but shied away from the grim, and looked for the ironic, whimsical, curious, and examples of the resilience of the human spirit. Just a couple of thoughts to scratch the surface.
    I still have all those old negatives, this has got me interested in going through them again.
  8. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Steve J, I believe a certain type of street photography, except as part of an effort for change, is at best invasive, and at worst exploitative. Some seem to revel in depicting people in awful circumstances, feeding -- schadenfreude at F 8?
  9. Steve wrote: "what, exactly, are those aesthetics? (Damn you, Julie!)"
    Heh! Here are some suggestions, though I obviously don't know what I'm talking about. Borrowing from Robert Hariman's beautiful essay 'Seeing the Stranger in the Mirror', try these out and tell me if they are completely wrong (I like them ... which may be a bad sign). Aesthetics of this kind of photography might be:
    ... to capture the presence, strangeness, and pathos of what it means to live as ordinary people in a society of strangers.​
    Too dramatic, or too distant from gritty contact?
    How about this one:
    ... To see society as such; to see how social behavior is systemic and habitual; to see the category system that undergirds social performance; to see how these things are literally set in stone and also in steel, plastic, wood, and glass; to see how the individual is constantly surrounded and prompted and guided by social cues in the built environment; to see how that environment is painted, carpeted, decorated, furnished, and otherwise suffused with meaning; to see how the individual must live amid networks of association that are deeply embedded, historical, and largely unconscious; to see how the familiar could appear strange, alien, or hostile precisely because it is human artifice -- to see all these things one needs to be able to see things.​
    Way too long and way too dry, right?
    How about:
    Lines of sight can become channels of meaning.​
    Well, but that only gets you a picture. Where's the aesthetics?
    ... a momentary but endless capacity for transformation.​
    .... okay ... but that's completely formless. I think Steve better define this himself.
  10. I think Steve better define this himself.​
    Thanks a lot, Julie. ("Steve! I think you should go poke that bear with a stick and see what happens!")
    You, Sandy, and Steve J have all given me some starting points. I will have to continue this when I get home this evening. I do like Hariman's remarks and Steve's "feeling and fascination". And lines of sight as channels of meaning... hmm.
  11. Thanks Steve for taking the initiative.
    One can of course take the starting point in definitions and I found the "long and way too dry" five lines "definition" of Julie above (where does it come from?) the most compelling. It fits to what a photographical eye catches of visions in cities of any sort, any size and in any country. Personally I find myself in all these dimensions. I feel at home in cities because of the physical presence of humans and the signs of their life and history. So, for me that long and dry outlining of photography in streets is near my emotions and intellect. It is photography of "everyday aesthetics" in "streets": the beauty of humanity. But again, with the danger of repeating myself, such photography, as all creative and artistic expressions, needs to go beyond documenting the seen, it has to make the viewer see the unseen.
  12. Steve et al,
    I think this question first needs to be anchored in the meaning or definition of the word, then perhaps to see some examples or use in street photography.
    Aesthetics is described (OED, others) : "Concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. So in this context a street photograph would be noted as giving great aesthetic pleasure. If we consider what that may be, the synonyms can be things like decorative, ornamental, graceful, elegant, exquisite, beautiful, attractive, pleasing, lovely, stylish, artistic, tasteful, in good taste.
    Aesthetics is also a group of principles that underly the work of a particular artist or artistic movement." But here can we consider street photography as an artistic movement? In that sense Cartier-Bresson had an aesthetic approach which might be considered as a pleasure of seeing our fellow humans in everyday activity and their relation, often amusing, to their environment An aesthetic of work that also included aesthetic street images - many of us will connect with memories of seeing the older lady sipping her wine with freedom and grace at a dinner table, the cyclist riding a road or lane bend in a city architecture that frames him and describes urban beauty, the two women walking beneath a set of two vertical statues sitting above them on the second storey of a building, the duck on the s-curved country road anchored by a distant tree (duck analogy for human presence?).
    Other street photographers like Boubat had a particular ability to show beauty in quite simple everyday street things he perceived, like the little girl shrouded with dead autumn leaves in a Paris park, the children independently but also individually at play at a school in that city (an incredibly beautiful composite of junior humanity at serious play), the idealistic angel like photo of his proud girlfriend seen beside the darker image of her companion, or the shepherd and his troop seen in a stylistic circle in the field before him, no doubt the result of much patience.
    Such images touch on aesthetics in terms of grace, beauty, exquisiteness, style and artistic compositions.
    A lot of street photography, mine as well, touches on a harder view of humanity and there the the question of aesthetics is less important than atmosphere, contrasts, disequilibrium and other qualities that while interesting to a viewer are not always aesthetic,even rarely so. That was not the purpose (Why beauty? The eye is free to perceive other things).
    Also, beauty aside, the frequent use of an approach in hard street photography (my label, you might have another) or other street photography can become the "aesthetic of the photographer", which has a meaning differentiated from that of beauty or its appreciation.
    Another question I think is did Julie refer to a photographer's "aesthetic of street photography" or to the aesthetics of street photographer images? Not the same; or at least not obliged to be the same.
  13. I think an aesthetic is different from a genre, so I'm not sure there's a street photography aesthetic as much as different aesthetics that street photographers have. I'll compare briefly how I see Anders' aesthetic compared to Steve's. I think they share a genre but I find their aesthetics quite different. This is not a value judgment as I am not interested in critiquing their work here but rather understanding how the visual images they create communicate something significant to me about the street. I'm going to pick what I consider representative photos. I don't mean to limit their work to my descriptions. It's a general feeling I tend to get and it goes to how I would describe an aesthetic, which is how visual elements and composition, lighting, and placement, texture and design relate to content in order to give me a feel for the street as they approach it.
    ANDERS 1
    ANDERS 2
    ANDERS 3
    While there are photos of Anders that certainly don't continue this sort of aesthetic, as I study his portfolio, I do generally get a profound sense of man within and sometimes dominated by a larger space, often including the elements of strong lighting and color (as in Number 1 above) as part of the space around them. I think there's often a sense of scale at work on the emotional relationship between people and place, also often an exploration of man's relationship to what's man-made. I rarely if ever get a sense of imposition from Anders's street work. It's observant.
    STEVE 1
    STEVE 2
    STEVE 3
    Steve's people and places are often a bit more equally weighted and there's often a sense of dynamics among folks on the street more so than a dynamic of the folks with their surroundings. Again, this is a general feel I get from Steve's works (as from Anders's) and there are exceptions and alternatives in both photographer's portfolios. Picture 3 of Steve's gives me the most awareness of the three I chose of the effect of the design of the space on the scene and the people but, still, the dynamic of the members of the family plays an important role once I get past the geometry and visual impact of the background. Steve, while he doesn't seem like an imposing photographer, and doesn't seem invasive of privacy, does make me as viewer part of the scene, as if his people are either walking away from me or about to bump into me almost unawares.
    Now, obviously, Anders uses much more color and in a very un-self-conscious way, IMO, though the color often acts like a punctuation mark. Both obviously participate in urban street photography and, as I said, I think that's their genre and I've tried to describe their different aesthetics.
    I know I could have picked a different three photos from each and probably given a very different picture of each. Again, I chose photos that I thought generally showed their overall approach to the street, though each of them do not limit themselves to that general approach.
  14. Aesthetics in terms of beauty - I think the Cartier-Bresson and Boubat examples I gave (but sorry for not having the photos at hand) are near perfect. So are much of Franck and Gibson photos. Anders no. 1 and this one of Steve ( come close to that for me.
    Aesthetic defined as the principles that underly the work of a photographer is one that I would like to see something more of. Perhaps the graceful one of Steve I mention above convinces me of that in regard to his apparent overall approach, as I see a curiosity, respect and admiration for humanity (the four quite different women suggest that) in some of his work.
    For what its worth, and street photography is not my usual bent, one or more of these may be of interest in terms of aesthetics and street photography and possibly my aesthetic (whatever that may be):
  15. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    If this gets too subjective e.g. "Beauty in the eye of the (particular) beholder(s), or a comparison of a limited set of photographers, IMHO, substantial value will be lost. This is potentially a very engaging and impactful discussion. To throw a Fox in with the chickens, let's add a soupcon of morality / humanity to our photographic subject choices, and consider ourselves, and our role as observers / recorders. As an example, I could not take photos if there was a need for first aid or other physical intervention.
  16. Sandy, it's funny and not that unusual. I have the exact opposite feeling. If this is not kept specific, then aesthetics just becomes an academic exercise. I have a hard time relating to any of the descriptions Julie supplied because of their lack of specificity and lack of connection to actual work. In a sense, they don't relate to anything and could relate to everything. Any street photographer could claim that's what they are doing and, as a matter of fact, any portrait or landscape photographer could as well. And there would be elements of their work that could be seen in the light of those quotes. So they do serve a universal purpose but they don't address, at least for me, specific goals of different visions of the street. I see the quotes more as intellectual copouts for not addressing photographic specifics. Not a word in those quotes is said about HOW a photo would communicate those things. That's what I tried to do in looking at Steve's and Anders's work. Talk about HOW their photographs show the aesthetics I'm seeing and feeling in them. I do, however, understand what you're saying and do know that being more specific and bringing in how specific photographers relate to different types of aesthetics does not appeal to everyone and I respect that even though I prefer to be a little more hands on, practical, and down to earth while recognizing the limits of doing that.
  17. Addition: Because I don't think there's such a thing as a "street" aesthetic per se, generalized quotes about street, to me, are not about aesthetics. Aesthetics in photography are about how photographic elements and qualities communicate a vision.
    I also don't think what I've done is subjective. I think the quotes supplied are subjective. Nothing about those quotes is shown or imaged. It's in the mind of the writer and the photographer. What I've talked about is actually quite objective, not in the sense of an agreed upon reality but in the sense of making clear what we can see in a photo that suggests what is being communicated. People may disagree on what things mean or represent or how to interpret stuff, but if they give visual reasoning for their opinions, it's not merely each person being subjective, it's each person stating what they see that makes them feel a certain way. The quotes are all feelings or states of being. Photos are IMAGES (that convey or express feelings or facts or states of being).
  18. How you see the world through a lens is your own aesthetic, or a visual approach to your subjects. Consider the variables that will make or break the moment: the light in the scene, placement of all objects--including the various color elements, angle of the shot. Basically, did you get what you wanted in that moment.
    Then you move the stage of interpretation for viewing. Most likely editing will entail looking for one or more crops which strengthens or enhances the image impact. Such ratios as 4x5, 1x1, 2x3, circular, or others such as panoramics. Followed by development of the original shot into an object worth looking at by others. Clearly you will first-off be developing to satisfy your own creative need. Getting anyone else to even look at is another issue.
    It is important to look at one word you used in the first message: documentary. This implies you are attempting to build a set of images of something specific that have a relationship. Such as all car accidents in a specific area for a year. Or beach life over a series of summers. People sleeping around town in all the various body poses. How about odd dressing attire or women in outrageous makeup. I fall into the documentary area. For the last year, the bulk of my photos, several thousand in color and IR, were covering the Polar Pioneer deep-water drilling platform, which floated in the Port Angeles harbor twice this year. The changes in light, location for the shooting (angle of the shots), and constantly changing objects in the harbor, made for interesting photos for the whole year. The changing weather really made it fun. And it finally forced me to try long exposures in the early evening as the sun dropped.
    And it is all WORK! It gets tiring editing all of the material. One great image makes for a good days shooting.
  19. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Fred -- so, do we create a Procrustean Bed, cutting off whatever "doesn't fit", or do we attempt to come up with some general parameters?
  20. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Matthew, excellent photo. Though I think street photography, at least as I view it, can be episodic -- the individual situations in themselves compelling, I think there are gadflies and documentarians, and gadfly documentarians as well. Cheers!
  21. Sandy, IMO, we each approach it in the way that strikes us as most productive and interesting. No amputations. There's plenty of room here.
    I don't think Steve's original issue has general parameters. That's kind of my point. If you look even at the OP of this thread, you'll see that Steve started with something Julie said to him, which I'll re-quote here:
    Julie H.: I'd love to see a thread where you "urban documentary" photographers discuss your feelings about the place of aesthetics in your work
    I tried to discuss what I thought Steve's and Anders's aesthetics were and what the place of those aesthetics were in their work, and I tried to be visual and specific. Since I don't do much street work myself but have a lot of interest in and familiarity with it, I answered in terms of the place of aesthetics in their work.
    I certainly don't mind hearing what you or others might think are some general parameters, especially since I have no clue what those would be. So have at it. I'm always open to learning.
  22. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Fred, not poking at you, just askin', thinking. No offence intended.
  23. As mentioned, there is the adjective aesthetic of the photographer which from my experience relates to his approach, values, principles, and the other aesthetic a noun that relates to nature of the qualities of the image, that is generally (and I agree summarily) defined for art in general as as beauty or order. The two can go together.
    My examples of photos above, like those of Steve and Anders, are examples of thee two aesthetic definitions. Feedback on such images is I guess what the photographer seeks, with the viewer seeing or not either form of aesthetic, unless the photographer is undertaking the activity uniquely for himself. I see this thread as a good opportunity for interchange among us on that, as much as a word exchange of philosophy or different approaches. The subject is good. It focuses on one aspect of our personal photography and I hope incites us to give examples of our photos in which those elements of aesthetic are prominent and as such invite discussion.
  24. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Arthur, adjective, objective? And, a gauntlet thrown down! I would love to be able to immediately show examples -- unfortunately, my negatives are from a "past life", the boxes in the basement will take a bit to parse and convert. I'll take a quick shot at it in the morning and see what I can find. Cheers!
  25. I don't know how Jack McRitchie would characterize his own work made on the streets of Osaka, Japan.
    Here is one of his recent ones that instantly became one of my favorites:

    Yet, yet, it appears in a folder that has an enormous range of subjects and even approaches. I continue to be astonished by his ability to find something of interest literally anywhere.

    Knowing the larger context (Osaka) gives a richness to the documentary nature of his work, although I do not ever remember reading anything written by him that suggests that he thinks of himself as a documentary photographer. Each picture has its own source of appeal, and yet all together these (and many others) do serve to document quite well a sense of what it is like to walk the streets of contemporary Osaka.
  26. Here is another by Jack McRitchie that captures both a moment and the larger context:

    Again, the picture that emerges of Osaka transcends the particular photo.
    Context is both everything and nothing in Jack's work. This shot could have been made anywhere. It was not. It was made in Osaka. One might go so far as to say that all street photography from all over the world gives a general sense of what one can only call "the urban."
  27. "Documentary" is going to be a problem, Steve. I think I know why you use it -- to separate your kind of work from that of the eco-tourist type or that of the urban trophy-hunter. However ... tell me if you would agree with this, from Leonard Freed, and, if so, doesn't this directly contradict the idea of "documentary"? Here is what Freed said:
    Basically, I think there are informational photographs and emotional photographs. I don't make informational photographs. I am not a journalist. I am an author. I am not interested in facts -- I want to show atmosphere.​
    That's pretty far from documentary.
    All of the many urban photographers whose statements I can find talk about exactly the kind of statement you (Steve) made in the OP:
    A good deal, though not all, of the aesthetics I find are a kind of "found" aesthetic. Instinct leads one to a particular corner, or a street, to a particular light, or person, and one depresses the shutter button. For me, the aesthetics may be "felt" in the moment, but often do not reveal themselves until the editing process occurs later on.​
    Like you, over and over again, they talk about "connecting" at the time of making the picture and they talk about finding the best shot in the editing process.. Here is Stuart Franklin:
    A contact sheet is a record of a journey, of a pursuit. It carries all the wandering around an idea -- or, as some would have it, a vision.​
    Here's Nikos Economopoulos:
    One always has subject matter: it's a matter of selection, the form that works the best. Usually one element strikes me initially, and then I start building around it. The rest of the elements are fluid and it is this fluidity that I try to capture and understand what I see.​
    I like that: "it is this fluidity I try to capture" re urban life.
    All of the photographers I read (I'm looking at various Magnum compendiums) seem to assume that I/you will just know that this picture is the best one out of a group or a contact sheet. Watching a video that I have of Klein talking about a series of his contact sheets, he walks me through the progression of shots until he gets to the one he picked ... and all he says is "THAT's a photograph," in a very satisfied and triumphant voice. No explanation of why beyond his approaching patter about "see this" woman/person/whatever moving into or out of the frame as he moves into or out of the space. But why these things matter, he, and all the other variants in these books, just assume I will know or feel ... because the picture is good. Period. The picture makes the aesthetics by its rightness, and I can go with that, even though it entirely avoids answering the "what is the aesthetics of ... ?" question. Maybe this can only be answered by saying what it's not, like the answer of what is God; we tell you instead what God is not.
    Last (you thought this would never end), I will note that many, though not quite all of those who talk about their work mention some kind of "ethnic" markers necessary to a good picture. By that I mean that near, middle and far have to work together to build a where-ness, or at least there needs to be some kind of local flavoring to tether the picture to place/time.
  28. Just a rapid remark before I rush out, I would also chose Jack McRitchie and his Okasa series of often exceptional shot as a perfect subject in a discussion on aesthetics and street photography, but so would John Crosley also be and his monumental collection of photos mainly from Eastern Europe like this one from Eastern Ukraine.
    I would however expect that the several very fine street photographers who regularly participate in our Street and Documentary forum would contribute to this discussion.
  29. Well, I tried....
  30. Arthur, think of this thread as an urban scene. Find what interests you, your "channels of meaning," and work with them. But this urban life will go on whether you "tried" or not.
  31. Fortunately, the downside of encountering deaf ears or blinkered eyes is often short-lived. My remark from the soul (an existential one at that) is colored by the defeat yesterday of a proposed program that my citizen research group initiated to help save important rural architecture in a community that is more interested in where their next dollar will come from or the next new global product that make them danse. Not easy to absorb (especially as I agree fully with Rachel Kyte of the World Bank that "heritage anchors people to their roots, builds self-esteem, and restores dignity. Identity matters to all vibrant cities and all people.").
    However, what is down doesn't stay there long. In the next hour I received a sought after research contract from a European client and look forward to fulflling that pleasure during the winter and early spring in a neighbouring province. So let the urban world see what it wishes. The singular process of making the photos I posted for comment is just compensation. Ciao.
  32. "Basically, I think there are informational photographs and emotional photographs"​
    In my mind there is so much more to street photography. These shots below are what I prefer to call "engaged". Shots that take a standpoint, which are analytical, activist, political, conceptual.... but not seen or meant to be emotional, neither informational :

    I will stop here, hoping to have made the point.

    By the way, Fred, thanks for looking through my portfolio. I can agree on your formulations on the general characteristics of what I see in streets. But as you might understand above, in many cases, there is more to it than that. Whether the viewers of such photos actually experience seeing the unseen, is of course an open question.
  33. Arthur, sorry to hear about your professional "defeat", but luckily Europe stepped in to save the day :)
    Your heritage work might have been a very good opportunity for "engaged" street photography.
    Looking through your photos you gave links to earlier on, I especially found pleasure in three very Cartier-Bresson type of shots :
    La terrasse
    Different lives
    And of course, if I may say so, this "untitled" shot:
  34. Steve:
    I'm looking at first sample image you posted:
    "Sample 1 Man at Foster Ave Beach"
    What makes it specifically "urban" or "documentary"?
    Aren't all photographs "documentary" to certain degree even if not intended to?
  35. Anders, it's not that all (other) urban ***** photographers will fit the Freed "emotional" claim. It's that if Freed, who claims that for himself, is to be an urban ***** photographer then the definition Steve chooses should be able to encompass Freed (as well as you).
  36. "Your heritage work might have been a very good opportunity for "engaged" street photography."​
    Anders, thanks. In fact IT IS, and it will be a part of a theme on identity and heritage (Title not sure to date but likely to be "The spirit of place" or "In search for time lost" depending upon the results) that I suggested a few years ago and which has been accepted such that I mount next summer's sponsored exhibition (solo, and yet to be completed) for our island historical and geneological centre and tourism site. Notwithstanding my "defeat" to get support of the elected for heritage conservation (albeit a battle and not the war) for disappearing buildings, I am very optimistic about the challenge and who knows, photography may persuade more people. Last year's exhibition was by a young conservationist and artist trained at the Louvre who presented the subject of the physical and philosophical aspect of bridges (our island is so connected). I am looking forward to it and recommend to any PNetter that engaging in thematic and series photography is a very rewarding type of photography pastime (Themes, as part of the aesthetic of some street photographers. Jack Ritchie I think certainly has a specific approach or viewpoint in that regard).
  37. Thomas K., Jan 14, 2016; 10:49 a.m.
    Steve: I'm looking at first sample image you posted: "Sample 1 Man at Foster Ave Beach" What makes it specifically "urban" or "documentary"? Aren't all photographs "documentary" to certain degree even if not intended to?​
    I am actually in the middle of trying to write a response to Julie's original statement and question. The amount of time it is taking me tells you something about how difficult this is. There is also work and personal life events going on -- it's not like I have been spending every hour since yesterday grappling with it. But there's been a lot of commentary and photographs added to this thread and I would like to at least attempt to do justice to them.
    That said, I saw this post by Thomas K. and thought it a good question. Yes, documentary could apply to almost any photograph, though that is not what I meant. To be honest, my use of "Urban Documentary" in the title of this thread was a sad and bad mistake on my part. Fortunately, most of the posters in this thread are using a more inclusive and broad interpretation, which is what I actually intended. I should have used the term "street photography", but used it in its most catholic sense. ("catholic" as in broad-based, liberal, inclusive, etc.).
    In response to someone else who brought up my unfortunate use of the term "documentary", Sandy Vongries had this to say about individual photographs being "documentary":
    Sandy Vongries: "the individual situations in themselves compelling​
    For the purposes of this discussion, I am using "street photography" or "documentary" in the broader senses that I, or Sandy, described. This is about the aesthetics which may be involved in such photographs, not really about what category or genre this, or that, photograph, should be called or plugged into.
    Discuss as you will, but that's my intention. Hope that helps, at least a little.
    Back to wrestling with the angel/demon that Julie and Anders let loose....
  38. Anders, the only thing a little bothering for me is that those more classic approach pictures (re Cartier-Bresson) I posted are from my uniquely film photography days (late 80s early 90s). Perhaps I should go back to that aesthetic but more in color like in the very recent ones in my list (chipwagon, Languedoc market, girl in St-Tropez).
    As for color rather than B&W, your Inside/0utside stands out for its strong message, and chromatic contrasts
    seems really ready-made for B&W
    This one
    is very urban street, nicely framed and full of information about the mobility of urban living. The girl talking to the driver, possibly about directions or where to get off, is genial. Good use of color but the characters (animate ones) are not too evident that leads the viewer to look a bit further into the frame. As everyone we see is inside, the ad on the side of the tram or electric bus goes with the scene. Well done.
  39. As you then know, Lannie, French people don't die, they disappear or "trespass". Their aesthetics they leave behind for survivors to care for. We have partly something in common in that respect.
  40. Thank you, Lannie. I am glad you like those and the beautiful photo of Anders. You have no doubt enjoyed a most agreeable and beautiful 30+ years. I am partnered with a Simard family daughter, ex Chicoutimi and former Nouvelle Rochelle lineage and North American migrants of the 1600s. I am sorry to hear of your loss. Olivier is a beautiful name, owned as well by an equally attractive and fruitful tree.
  41. Before I write anything else – Lannie, I am so sorry. I had no idea you had lost a wife of 30 years to cancer. I won't bore you with my personal history, but I only ended up in Chicago in 2008 because my wife contracted a rare form of cancer and required an intensive operation. Although I did not lose her (for which I am grateful beyond words), the thought of it, and the thought of what you may be going through…touch me very deeply. I wish I could say something better, but there are no words. I can only say I am sorry.
    Because I failed to write out some of my responses yesterday, I'm faced with a monstrous thread, with many side avenues that I would like to explore.
    There are now numerous photographs that have been linked to in this thread. I have looked at all of them, and I feel that they deserve some sort of comment and recognition, at least in regard to how they have helped contribute both to this discussion, and in illuminating each contributor's take, and approach, to aesthetics.
    But I am like a dog with a bone and I cannot rest, or move on to other photos or comments that have been added to this thread, until I have at least attempted to grapple with the slippery angel/demon that is Julie's original question and statement regarding aesthetics and its relationship to street photography.
    As brief as I will try to be, this is going to be a bit lengthy. I'm not stupid. I am aware that some people may look at the sea of words and say, "The hell with that! I don't have time to digest all of that." I can't say I blame you.
    Arthur Plumpton: “I think this question first needs to be anchored in the meaning or definition of the word, then perhaps to see some examples or use in street photography.”
    Fred G: “I'm not sure there's a street photography aesthetic as much as different aesthetics that street photographers have...”
    Anders Hingel: “...needs to go beyond documenting the seen, it has to make the viewer see the unseen.”​
    To Arthur's point, yes, ideally the question and discussion should be anchored in the meaning of “aesthetic” or “aesthetics”. But how? The definitions can be so varied, as we've seen in the various approaches previously made in this thread.
    Fred, I agree with the distinction you make. I don't think we're talking about some kind of aesthetic unique to street photography, but rather the aesthetic (if it exists) that some street photographers or photographs may have.
    Anders hits upon something which, to me, is at least one aspect of this vague and amorphous thing we call “aesthetics”. It is the “unseen”(as eventually revealed by the “seen”) in a street photograph which allows it to lay some claim to possessing an aesthetic value. (I am not saying that this is unique to street photography. It is not. Any photograph, from nearly any genre, may possess this quality.)
    Julie saved me some time and verbiage by touching upon one of the problems often encountered when talking to street photographers about aesthetics :
    "…a video that I have of Klein talking about a series of his contact sheets, he walks me through the progression of shots until he gets to the one he picked ... and all he says is "THAT's a photograph," in a very satisfied and triumphant voice. No explanation of why beyond his approaching patter about "see this" woman/person/whatever moving into or out of the frame as he moves into or out of the space. But why these things matter, he, and all the other variants in these books, just assume I will know or feel ... because the picture is good. Period. The picture makes the aesthetics by its rightness, and I can go with that, even though it entirely avoids answering the "what is the aesthetics of ... ?" question."​
    Julie, this is exactly what I struggled with last night when I wanted to post some kind of response and definition. I am NOT satisfied with stopping at "THAT's a photograph." I feel I understand exactly what Klein is saying, because in the editing process I do exactly the same thing. I select and work a photo until it "feels" right. (To "work a photo" does not mean heavy-handed manipulation. The "rightness" of the image does not come from software buttons and sliders. But that is a separate discussion.). But, damn it, Julie's question has made me realize that I want to at least attempt to get at the "why" of a photo's "rightness".
    One approach I hit on is similar to an approach I sometimes use for critiquing or attempting to understand a photograph. When I am making a serious effort at understanding a photograph, my first step is to describe it. (I have sometimes contributed critiques on PN that are not much more than a description.) The act of describing helps me to bring out some of the salient elements in it.
    (As an aside, there is a book I bought years ago which I have been re-reading lately. "Criticizing Photographs" by Terry Barrett. Although it covers far more than just description, the book recommends beginning with that approach and gives examples of it in critical writing.)
    After that, it starts to get a bit complicated because there are so many other factors and points of view from which to consider a photograph and its attending aesthetics. To name but a few: conceptual, windows & mirrors (in the way that John Szarkowksi used those terms), political, social, "the thing as it is", symbolism, allegory, punctum, etc.
    One problem I ran into when I attempted to go beyond mere description was that I started to get "aesthetic" confused with "style". A whole other conundrum, but what is the place of style in relation to aesthetics? To serve the aesthetic? When is the style the aesthetic? Looking at some of my own work (black and white, toning, often grainy, sometimes tilted, sometimes lacking in sharpness, intentionally cutting off or putting subjects at the extreme edges of the frame, etc.) I started to get a bit lost. Then I thought about where I was photographing (the streets of Chicago) and what I wanted to say about that environment in comparison to what my photos might actually say about that environment. Some of the common elements (grain, tilt, movement, proximity or lack thereof to people) seemed to express both how I see and feel that environment and how I move through it with my camera. It is part of my style, but does my style, such as it is, also express something aesthetically about the city of Chicago?
    Another consideration (again…damn you, Julie, this never ends!) – For argument sake let us say that my style is an aesthetic interpretation of the city of Chicago. If it is, it grew organically. I did not consciously set out to create a conceptual representation of Chicago in that manner. It grew that way over the last 8 years of wandering the streets of this city.
    So, Julie, when I am editing, at least one of the elements that might cause me to stop and say, "THAT's a photo" is when it successfully contains some, or all, of the things which I have just described. That still doesn't cover it all, or fully explain the "THAT" moment, but it's a lot closer than I have ever come before, because I never tried to understand it before.
    Other factors might be the light, or the combination of light and shadows. It might be the arrangement of subjects.
    I used the term "organic", and that vaguely ties into the concept of "found vs conceptual". If there are aesthetic elements in my photographs, they are primarily found. I do not conceive of a look I want to photograph and then set forth in search of it. I am highly instinctual, but this also leads to a certain amount of sloppiness. My photographs are often what I would call "messy". I'm not consciously seeking to emulate a "snapshot" aesthetic, but a lot of the time that is what I end up with. This is not everyone's cup of tea and I realize that some people find it off putting. But, since I primarily work instinctually, that's how it is. Earlier in this thread, I think Fred did a nice job of looking at some of Anders photos and some of mine. Not critiques, not "this is better or that is better", but a simple comparison. Some of Anders photography appears to me to be a bit more conceptual than mine. If I am completely honest about it, some of his photographs appear to be constructed with more thought than mine. I am not being self-effacing, nor trying to subtly criticize by making myself appear to be more spontaneous. It's my honest assessment. I mention it because I think it shows Anders aesthetic as a little more conceptual by comparison. But categories break down because I don't know how Anders works and his work could just as easily be considered "found". (Maybe "found" vs "conceptual" is a false dichotomy?) There always seem to be more questions than answers.
    Okay. This post is already ridiculously long, but I'm committed now, so here's another possible example of Klein's "rightness" of a photo, the "why" of a photo's "rightness", and how a so-called "mistake" can lead to a possible aesthetic element.
    Years ago, when I first decided to try my hand at street photography (somewhere around 2004 or 2005, I think), I lived in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. There is a large gay population, and the San Diego Gay Pride parade is held in Hillcrest. Some of the major streets are blocked off and there is a wonderful street party held with various concession and informational booths.
    I was using a Fujifilm hybrid camera at the time (an S9100, I think) that had an articulating LCD screen. Because it was less obtrusive, I started using the LCD screen and holding the camera at waist level to look down at the LCD screen (this is long before I ever heard of Vivian Maier, or the technique of a "hip shot"). One of the photographs I took was of a gay couple passing by as I walked down the middle of 5th Ave.
    When I looked at the photo later on, most of the couples heads were cut off by the top of the frame. I remember thinking, "Damn! This would have been a cool photo if only I had captured them in their entirety!" For a long time I would keep going back to this photo and realizing that I really liked it. It worked for me. But because it did not fit into the normal convention of what is considered a "good" photograph, and because it was a "mistake", I rarely shared it. Years later, I came back to it and realized that, for me, it was actually a good photo. But why!? Because cutting off their heads, and even including just a tiny bit of their faces, did a number of things that a full "good" version of them would not have accomplished. 1.) The absence of most their face created a certain tension. 2.) It forced the viewer to focus on their bodies, their choice of clothing, their tattoos, and most importantly it gave a sense of their relationship to one another. They almost look like they are holding hands, but not quite. Their forearms are very close to each other, possibly touching, and to me it gave me a strong sense of their relationship. 3.) The posture of their bodies (more evident in the absence of most of their face) also gives one a sense of their personalities, their ease and comfort with their bodies, each other, and their environment. The way one of them carries himself also seems to show a kind of pride and confidence. It would not surprise me if someone looked at the photo and saw none of that. That's okay. To be honest, I often think that very few people see in my photographs some of the things that I see in them. I can't force people to see in a certain way, but at the very least I hope to cause them to feel that they are, in some way, actually there, on that street, if only for a brief moment.
    So this "mistake" that I stumbled across in 2004/2005, became in later years one of the techniques, or style elements, that I intentionally use in some of my photographs. It does not always work and I have far more instances where it did not work than where it did. Putting up one such photo (an intentional one) on a FB street photography group page elicited a comment that "You cut their heads off and need to learn how to frame better."
    One last example:
    Naming convention as style element, but also part of an aesthetic. Particularly for street photography, part of my personal aesthetic theory is that a street photograph is, at the same time, both a truth and a fiction. An "illusion of the literal" (Szarkowksi said something very similar in relation to Winogrand, but I find it to be true and used it as part of the title of a book of my street photography that I published in late 2014.). The photograph is an illusion of reality, but it is also a reality unto itself. What appears to be in a photograph may, or may not, have actually transpired and a viewer's interpretation (in "my" aesthetic) can, in many cases, be just as valid as my own interpretation. To enable a viewer to find this unique photographic reality on their own, I intentionally keep my titles as neutral as possible, sometimes not even referring to the human beings who appear in them, i.e., "Wabash and Adams, Chicago 2014". That title tells you absolutely nothing about the photograph except for its provenance. This is intentional, and also makes up part of my aesthetic that the viewer has to discover the "reality" of the photograph for themselves. (I do, on rare occasions, violate this convention, but it is true for the most part.)
    That's way more than enough out of me. My apologies if it seems egocentric to have gone on so long about my own process and talk about my own photographs. Quite to the contrary, it is actually uncomfortable and I hope I do not regret it. Laying all of this out there is laying myself open to being mocked, ridiculed, or thought a fool. Even if no one says it directly. None of this means that I consider myself to be brilliant or more talented than anyone else in this thread. I have tried to cover some of the possible aesthetic elements in street photography by way of my own work. I cannot speak for how anyone else works, or why they present the photographs they do, in the way that they do. If anyone else wants to talk about their approach to their work and how they see the place of aesthetics in it (although some of you have already done that), I'll be happy to read it.
  42. Steve, your post is a feast. I have one quick comment that I what to poke you with, just because ...
    You wrote "I don't think we're talking about some kind of aesthetic unique to street photography." I don't think I agree. I think, as an outsider, looking at your work, it has a definite qualifier. To my eye, all street photographers (and I'm going to live dangerously and not qualify that "all") contain their work within the social. In other words, it's always social.
  43. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Spent the day reviewing thirty odd years of my life through negatives, all I have found so far. A bit like Alice thru the Looking Glass or a visit to a strange lost world. I had already been working on my color slides, but the B&W and, the period covered, late '50's through early '80's were more impactful. Of course, just as when you attempt the task of culling books to donate because your home is overflowing, you can't resist stopping and sampling favorites. I reviewed a dozen sleeves of negatives from my street photo days, and they are pretty much as I remember. Some stood the passing of time quite well.
    I have a scanner coming week after next, and will be starting a gallery or two culled from the collection.
    I find myself, now "re inoculated" with what I believe street photography was and is, and at what may be the end of this thread I feel unsatisfied.
    So, I will make a target, a straw man, by describing what I think of as describing the event and aesthetic of street photography. Feel free to "have at it."
    In a public, urban space, there is an unscripted, usually unplanned "collision" of the observer / photographer with an event, combination of people and objects, just objects, along with light and /or other environmental factors that trips the "shoot" reflex. The nature of the strength of that stimulus would vary from observer to observer based I believe on that hard to grab "aesthetic". Some factors that would bear, artistic preferences, elements of personal photographic style, use of light, psychology, prejudices, and that mix intangibles that makes each of us the unique individual that we are. This would include the kinds of subjects one might choose or seek, and another would never be willing to capture.
    So at the end, I would have to agree that the Aesthetic does need to be / is subjective.
    There are an awful lot of photographers out there of all skill levels, even some who have a style similar to mine, or vice versa, none I have seen are the same. Possibly if several individuals trained were at length under a strong and gifted mentor there could / would be some consistency that could lead to a rule set, but I suspect a lot of us were self taught.
    There you have it.
  44. Cities and neighborhoods have a dynamic, rhythm, and energy. That's what I try and capture.
  45. Steve, just a quick reaction to what you've said about your almost headless gay couple shot. You used the word mistake and put that in quotes because you realize it was only a mistake when seen against rules or conventions of what other people think is a good photo (usually one that doesn't cut off heads). I see it as an accident, something often at play in photography. And I think your choosing it when looking at your days' work not only is an acceptance of this accident as OK but is a transformation of this accident into something to be reckoned with, by your choosing to include it in your body of work. It's not just that you choose it because you find it has certain elements or qualities. Your choosing it and making it a part of your greater body of work actually GIVES it some significant elements and qualities. Your choosing it actually TRANSFORMS those elements into something that now has an organic (love that word, which you used) relationship with your other (also chosen) photos. In a sense, those elements you recognized now come alive even more because you choose it and put it next to your other work. Your choosing is not just a recognition. It's part of the creating, IMO.
  46. Messy, bodies, tension, relationships, absence, almost, neutrality (of titles).​
    For me, these words stood out, and many of them came when you were being the most visual and specific when describing the so-called "mistake" you made that seemed pivotal to your work. I will try to put this together into a description of a Steve aesthetic.
    I submit to you a couple of sentences from an article on constructivism which I think encapsulates the aesthetic of constructivism, just to give you an idea of a concise description of an aesthetic.
    Constructivism was an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia beginning in 1919 and was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art. The movement was in favour of art as a practice for social purposes. . . . Constructivism combined a machine aesthetic with dynamic components celebrating technology such as searchlights and projection screens.​

    Now, obviously the above is a quick summary but hits at some of the major themes of constructivism. So, going with the concepts I pulled out from your own description, maybe we can isolate a Steve Gubin aesthetic.
    Steve's aesthetic is messy, tense, and born of the physical. There's a neutrality of approach rather than a singular politics or social assumption. There's often a sense of absence that is actually a presence. There's a kind of striving (a sense of almost but not quite) to his relationships, an indistinctness that comes across as non-dogmatic and allows the viewer quite a bit of range of interpretation.​
    Obviously your work is much more than this as constructivism is much more than what the little paragraph communicates. But this, to me, in so many words and in summary, describes your work as you see it (or at least talk about it) and I think it's borne out in the work itself. Actually pinning down our own work is tough so I have no idea how this will sound to you.
  47. Social = embedded in a much larger whole; part of the weave, the fabric; subordinate to, continuous with some greater, overarching structure or narrative, which is assumed.
    Compare the aesthetics of Ray Metzker's early (street) work with his later (not street) work. Compare Meyerowitz's street work with (not street) Cape Light. Harry Callahan shot the street, but I don't think he did "street photography." Look at the aesthetics of his pictures. What's different? Compare Eggleston's work (he sometimes shoots in the street) ... to any street shooter. Eggleston is not a street photographer; look at the aesthetics of his pictures. Look at Friedlander trying not to do street work in The Desert Seen. He can't do it. He does the desert as if it's a street (social). LOL
    An aesthetics of the social assumes that it (the work; the depiction) is part of a (much) larger binding whole.
    Metzker described his oscillation to and from street as "humanistic concerns" (street) vs "formal invention" (not). He also described street work as being "of an event" whereas in his later work, the picture "is the event," i.e. it is not part of any other binding structure.
    Metzker also said, and this has nothing to do with aesthetics, I just think it's lovely; that he hopes: "to give breath and encouragement to some incipient thought or feeling."
  48. I'm far behind in the reading after a good nights sleep here across the ocean ! Especially after Steve's masterpiece above. We finally got to the centre of a discussion on aesthetics and photography. Photonet is on nightshift, seen from Europe :)
    While reflecting, maybe it is relevant to compare the process of painting with that of shooting street photography. This concept "this is a photography" or "this a a painting" is central to all artistic expressions. It is almost impossible to put your finger on the "why" but you feel it in your heart, in your guts, and shout out when it is there in front of your eyes. This also why going to art shows,to museums is such a wild experience: you are virtually surrounded by "this is a painting, photography, sculpture.. type of experience.
    In my experience with painting (or sculpturing) it is always a long agonizing and engaging process of corrections and additions to a painting like this: Carmine abstract space , before suddenly a defining moment arrives it is there and nothing more is to be change without ruining it all. I can afterwards, llke any viewer go back and force analytical tools on it and then see that whatever color rules and compositional rules that we have out there, are present within the frame (or not) and that :"this is a painting", can be explained - but mostly not. My artistic eye have expressed itself - to better or worse.
    In photography and especially street photography things become somewhat more messy. It ends up in the quick impression that what you have in front of your eye, within the frame is a photography and the rest around is mess and noise. Or you see it in the postprocessing work when you come home, and very often long time after.
  49. Harry Callahan shot the street, but I don't think he did "street photography." --Julie H.​
    Gotta love it. There's more:
    Compare Eggleston's work (he sometimes shoots in the street) ... to any street shooter. Eggleston is not a street photographer; look at the aesthetics of his pictures. Look at Friedlander trying not to do street work in The Desert Seen. He can't do it. He does the desert as if it's a street (social). LOL
    An aesthetics of the social assumes that it (the work; the depiction) is part of a (much) larger binding whole.​
    Wow. This is why I don't try to talk about aesthetics. I don't see anything until you guys tell me what I just saw.
    Take Jack McRitchie, though. He cannot NOT do abstracts. Put him on the street and he comes back overwhelmingly with abstracts.
    I shoot the street at night, but since I don't know what I'm doing, I don't try to figure out what to call it. I just think it's magic. I'm talking about the night, that is, not my photography. . .
    I just love to be outside, especially at night. Ultimately, I think I'm just a gearhead. Half of what I shoot is just another informal lens test. The mountains at night are cool, but they aren't street photography. They are just more midnight magic.
  50. Not having given sufficient time to reading the posts in this OP (being semi-retired is supposed to allow lots of time, but that gap gets filled in so easily with many things) which is unfortunate as the discussion is very much good P of P stuff that we seem to find missing in that sleepy forum these days. When I finally noticed Steve's photo its strong effect was immediately evident and it reminded me of the importance of the choice in how subjects are pictured. I always liked the quote that someone provided concerning his desire to photograph things to see what they are or how they appear when reduced to the image frame.
    As Steve says, he works "instinctively" and realised later that his instinct was not a mistake. The emphasis on the costumes, tatoos and bodies of the couple certainly tells more than having shown the two persons fully where our attention might be less concentrated. Essential canbe a fuzzy or debatable term, as has been mentioned in previous OPs but the importance of Steve's photo for us is to see that he found essential aspects of the couple, and how it is important to find and concentrate on the essential of our subjects. Although he is not a street photographer and his minimalist approach may not suit everyone, Micheal Kenna has found ways to concentrate on what he finds to be the essential of his subjects, reducing landscape, architectural and other subjects to their essential. Gibson, in his way, did the same, without normally shooting streets. The Frank street image already shown is a classic model of simplicity and high implied meaning, and a jewel to find for any street photographer.
    Much street photography seems to me to be less focused and facile, and we come away thinking yes that is what streets and humans in streets look like, often in common but uninformative (for the viewer) ways of being, without showing more. Street photography shines when meaning is introduced by the good choice of scene and by photographer's approach (aesthetic if you like). Lannie's excellent choice is a Jack Ritchie photo that immediately seizes our interest by the road sign and by the person looking in the other direction while being on the opposite side of the road. Meaning can be a moment of humor like this or an observation on life as that of Frank's open hearse and little girl photo. Or the street photo can also provide a mirror for us of the artefacts surrounding our lives, as shown in many so-called "abstract" photos.
  51. Steve, in Duo, do you feel like the slight torso lean and the visual weight (with latent threat?) of the raised arm (upper left) of the man on the left puts you in the picture? It's like a tractor beam sort of probing my intent. Feeling for chemical bonds ...
  52. "Image making" is much too cerebral. Street photography is to do with the photographer's physicality and movement.
  53. Phil wrote: "If we can move beyond thinking of photographs as photographs ... " Can't do that until you've actually made the photograph. Then, whatever happens after the shooting, that's called "editing."
    Street shooting comes more from the gut and the gonads than the mind. And that, in my opinion, is exactly from where/why it gets its particular visceral power and flavor. The shoot brings in the raw ore; the mind then mines for the gold (in the edit, later).
    The pig finds the truffles; the farmer gets to eat them. (Steve, I'm calling you a pig!)
    No pig; no truffles.
  54. "putting one's head, one's eye, and one's heart on the same axis"
    I think Picasso did that, but I don't think HCB did. He got the above-the-neck parts (head and eye) but I don't find a lot of heart (and surely not gonads or gut) in his photos. (You won't be surprised to find that I don't particularly admire HCB's pictures.)
  55. Phil wrote: "But you can agree that HCB did street shooting, yes?" Yes and no (i.e. good question for me, Phil).

    I think he is the farmer without the pig. He knows there are truffles; he knows where they are, but to my eye, he's very ... clinical in his approach. As the first (or one of the first) to sense the frame of a new kind of approach, it's entirely understandable that he wouldn't spring fully formed into street photography. But I also think it wasn't really in his nature to make a visceral kind of connection to his subjects; he strikes me as more of a mathematician than a poet (knowing full well that in there is poetry in the mind-workings of the best mathematicians).
  56. I think Friedlander would not take kindly to your "formalist" accusation. Just because he doesn't have one big thing in the middle of the frame doesn't mean he's a formalist. He just sees the whole field when he's working the ball. Same for Levitt or DeCarava, etc.
  57. I think the qualification of visceral or gut approach misses the point in good street photography. I would ascribe more importance to the instinct and intelligence (intelligent preparation and knowledge of the subject, etc.) of the photographer. Instinct, because perception and decision have to be made quickly and opportunities rapidly seized upon before they are no more. As we often say in regard to scientific research (another creative activity that also includes the subset of engineering or applied science and invention), "success favors the prepared mind". Good street photography is like good fishing. You have to know where the fish are, what they do (behaviour) and how best to bring them in (fly or spoon, worm or whatever). Just going out and hoping the fish will discover you because you have a gut feeling they will is not going to be very successful in the long run.
    Photojournalism and documentary theme photography are not unlike street photography in that regard. Instinct and intelligent preparation (which can include preparing by knowing your subject or milieu, even though you cannot predict what will occur within those boundaries at any one time) are more important I think than a romantic evocation of visceral or gut approach, which are sometimes important but much behind instinct and intelligence in my opinion.
  58. As if this thread were not already lengthy enough – I thought I would go through the work of some of the posters who have contributed to this thread and see if I could come up with the aesthetics I find in their work. Not all of them would likely be categorized as a documentary or street photographer, but I tried to describe some of the aesthetic elements I see in their full body of work, in a limited series of their photographs, or the aesthetic elements that I might perceive in a single photograph.
    (Quick aside to acknowledge Julie H poking me with the social aspect of street photography: I could see where a strong case could be made that ALL street photographs or photographers are social. I'm just not sure that I can think of any particular aesthetic which is unique ONLY to street photography, and which cannot be found in any other genre.)
    Phil S. : Street Painting. There's the early influence of photography in Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day.​
    Yes! I have always thought that this painting by Caillebotte had a strong street photography feeling. (It is in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute, but has been off display for a few years while it undergoes some type of cataloging and restoration. As an aside, a few years ago I met up with PN photographer Louis Meluso who is/was employed by the Chicago Art Institute. He very kindly gave me a sort of behind the scenes tour of the CAI. In one of the photography studios used by the institute, I was startled to see this very painting as it was being photographed for restoration. )
    Louis Meluso's work seems mostly portrait oriented, but he also does some fine street work. This overhead photo shows a different view of one of my favorite Chicago haunts, Adams St.:
    I was interested to see that Phil S has some Chicago based street photos on his website. Another interesting overhead view of a different Chicago St, Grand Ave, as seen, I believe, from the Michigan Ave overpass where Grand crosses underneath it. Sadly, the lovely old Reagle Beagle restaurant (sign at left in Phil's photograph) is no longer there.
    You should take a look at some other examples of Phil's work. There seems to be a slightly uneasy (in terms of its reflective, hazy, and sometimes amorphous nature) dreamlike, “otherness” quality to his work, expressed via reflections, haziness, and sometimes a certain graininess.
    Julie H – I could be completely off here because I am out of my element in terms of trying to categorize or fully understand Julie's work. But I do sometimes sense a sort of playful, tongue-in-cheek, surreal approach to geometric spatial relationships as expressed via a faux naturalism. In this particular work, I get a strong sense of both foreboding and anticipation (in a “slouching toward Bethlehem” kind of way). The birds...
    Anders Hingel – I learned something new about Anders, that he is also an accomplished painter/sculptor! (After all these years on PN you'd think I would have known that, alas). I find a strong relationship of color, geometry, and patterns, between his paintings and some of his street work.
    Lannie – Although he doesn't exclusively do street work, I find his photographs to be imbued with a certain emotional, wistful Romanticism. A lot of his night work (which he has said he favors) has a Hopperesque alienation and sadness to it.
    Brad – Strong street portraiture, and frequently clean, sharp delineations of city life and energy, often with a strong sense of spatial relationships between urban subjects and their environment (particularly his more recent work).
    Sandy Vongries – Not all his work is like this particular series of photographs, but to me this imparts a kind of Walker Evans sensibility with a dash of Hopper and Edgar Allan Poe:
    Arthur Plumpton – One of my favorite Plumpton photos would not be categorized as street, but I have always liked this image for its unique quality, as well as the depth (no pun intended) of its possible multiplicity of meanings beyond that which is simply seen. Elegant in its simplicity:
    I had not seen this photo of Arthur's before, but to me it's a gem of geometry and humanism...certainly a strong potential narrative here:
    Fred G – I find Fred's body of work an interesting admixture of portraiture, documentary, with some examples that could fall into the category of street photography (though I am not sure whether he would agree or not):
    This portrait of Andy is certainly not street photography, but in his great use of light and empathic interpretation, the character of Andy (or maybe a viewer's perception of Andy) comes through very forcefully:
    Now that I have used the word “empathic” (would empathetic be more grammatically correct?), I just realized that I would use it to describe something that could be considered a salient feature of Fred's “aesthetic” because I find it in various places. Examples being a portrait of his father (link 1) and his documentary work on Plowshare (link 2)
    Jack McRitchie – Abstracts and Osaka street life. Jack's abstracts of inanimate objects often have a comical anthropomorphic quality to them. As if Jack's photography (particularly his abstracts) have been infused with a strong dose of surreal anime'.
    Although this photograph does not express that anime' quality that Jack does so well, it certainly qualifies as a strong “street” example, and is an interesting echo of Walker Evans' surreptitious subway series photographs.
    Carlos H – An underrated PN photographer, I feel (based upon the lack of deserving mentions he seems to get in discussions like this one). Some of his work possesses a Robert Frank/Lee Friedlander, On The Road sensibility. One of my all time favorites:
    Drew Bayless (!!!) -- Another photographer who I don't think is mentioned anywhere near as much as he deserves. His abstracts have a different quality than Jack McRitchie's, but they have a quirky, surprise quality to them. Showing us juxtapositions which, as we walk by them, we rarely take photographic notice of. This particular photo also puts me in mind of Lee Friedlander.
    I'm running out of time, but there are a number of other PN photographers (some who participate in threads like this one, and many who do not) whose street work is worthy of consideration and mention. (John Crosley, a long time street and documentary veteran, has already been mentioned in this thread.) I'm not trying to make this an all-inclusive survey, and I can't possibly cover every single one, so if there is someone I have missed (there are many, I am sure) it is not because their work does not deserve mention.
    Not all of these might be considered strictly “street” but they all have certain aesthetic qualities I appreciate. (In no particular order...)
    Lex Jenkins –
    Jeff Spirer –
    Donna Pallotta –
    Wouter Willems –
    Marjolien M. –
    Mario Azevedo –
    Wolfgang Arnold –
    Allan Herbert –
    Marie H. –
    Marc Todd –
    Bulent Celasun –
    Jane Cave –
    Barry Fisher –
    Sanford Edelstein –
    Lastly, to Julie H (who, along with Anders, started us down this road): The quick, drop in blurbs of quotes that you put into this thread (and have put in other threads) are always helpful and stimulating to me. I don't know how, exactly, but you seem to know which quotes will resonate with me, with which I will be simpatico, and they sometimes help me formulate and give direction to my musings. So, thank you.
  59. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Steve G.-- Far too generous -- many think of me as a P.I.T.A. You seem to be a nice guy who got stuck with the job of herding cats. My newest street stuff would be in Reading Mkt, One face, and some yet to come. Thanks for your efforts! S.
  60. Julie H. Street shooting comes more from the gut and the gonads than the mind. And that, in my opinion, is exactly from where/why it gets its particular visceral power and flavor. The shoot brings in the raw ore; the mind then mines for the gold (in the edit, later).
    The pig finds the truffles; the farmer gets to eat them. (Steve, I'm calling you a pig!)
    No pig; no truffles.

    Phil S HCB's aesthetic is that of the formalist. He considered himself a surrealist also, more than a documentary photographer. Many of the large format new color photographers like Joel Meyorowitz can be seen as having a formalist aesthetic in their street work ( I'd also consider Lee Friedlander a formalist, his photographs being largely about photography itself ). On the other side of the spectrum there's the expressionist aesthetic, Daido Moriyama for example.
    It doesn't have to be either / or. There can be a blend between the two modes. My older street work is more expressionistic than my recent street work. I moved away from too much expressionism, so as to make myself as the photographer everywhere felt, but nowhere to be seen in the image ( the Walker Evans approach ).

    Arthur Plumpton I think the qualification of visceral or gut approach misses the point in good street photography. I would ascribe more importance to the instinct and intelligence (intelligent preparation and knowledge of the subject, etc.) of the photographer. Instinct, because perception and decision have to be made quickly and opportunities rapidly seized upon before they are no more.

    You have to know where the fish are, what they do (behaviour) and how best to bring them in (fly or spoon, worm or whatever). Just going out and hoping the fish will discover you because you have a gut feeling they will is not going to be very successful in the long run.
    I am not sure I could make a clear distinction between visceral/gut and instinct. Are they not the same, or certainly very similar? “This feels right” is visceral, it is gut, and it is instinct. They all require the mind to take action (in selecting the particular photograph which “feels” right), but they do not come from the conscious, rational part of the mind. Intelligence (“knowing where the fish are”) would allow for such things as: waiting in front of a large window display to obtain one of those “little human/large display” juxtapositions, or knowing where, and at what time of day, the sun reflects down from skyscraper windows and into the street so one can obtain one of those “subject illuminated but surrounded by shadows” type of image. The internet is filled with these sorts of street photographs and they are considered by some to be of a more accomplished nature because of these very qualities. They are striking on the surface, but after a while they become terribly cliché. Intelligence, used in this manner, most often yields predictable results. Predictability is all well and good for science, but it is the road to mediocrity for the street photographer.
    Julie speaks of pigs and truffles. I agree that the “gold” comes in the edit. And sometimes the gold should be a surprise. Intelligence (and I may be misinterpreting how Arthur intended that term to be understood in the context of street photography) in one sense implies that the photographer visualizes and knows what they are going to come away with, or at least what they would like to come away with. (“This is a salmon stream, it is late May, and so I am going to use an X lb test leader, and a Y fly, and cast into Z locations. This will give me the best chances of catching a salmon.”) I am not going to speak for all street photographers, but I never know what I'm going to come away with. Certainly I have to apply some intelligence (I'm going to go into a populated part of Chicago, not a two lane country road 10 miles outside of Rockford.) And I may even apply some intelligence to my choice of a specific location (Macy's on State St has a big fashion poster in the window this month, or the light coming through the El tracks on Wabash will create some interesting lighting after 4 pm in the spring, etc.), but that's about as far as it goes. I know that it runs counter to the school of photographic thought which highly prizes pre-visualization, but I want to come home and be surprised by at least one or two photographs. Sure, there are photo outings where I know at the time of taking a particular photograph that I probably have a good one, but it is often the “surprises”, the truffles I do not know I am taking at the time, which yield the greatest personal artistic and aesthetic satisfaction. What Fred G. referred to as an “accident” as opposed to a mistake (I like Fred's distinction in this context).
    What I mean by a “surprise” in street photography is also roughly related to Garry Winogrand's oft quoted remark: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” I used to take this comment with a large grain of salt and figured Winogrand was probably being a bit of a smart ass and having some fun with his listeners. But now I think it actually makes a lot of sense, at least in terms of street photography.
    Besides location and time of day, intelligence can also come into play in terms of technical knowledge. Different situations require different techniques. Will I raise the camera to my eye and use auto-focus and aperture priority with a shallow or deep depth of field? Will I use a hip-shot technique and manually preset a 1/320 shutter speed and zone focus for a certain distance at a more forgiving DOF of f11? Knowing what to use and when to use it comes with experience and the application of rational intelligence. The rest, for me at least, is almost all “guts and gonads”: using my pig nose to seek out those truffles for the farmer I become when I get home and begin the editing process. The act of depressing the shutter button is mindful only in the sense of an awareness that “this might be interesting...shoot...NOW!”, but it is primarily a “no mind” state which takes over in such moments. It owes more to zen than it does to orthodox pre-visualization or application of conscious intelligence.
    In this sense, like Julie, I find HCB to be “clinical” and a “mathematician”. Bresson is a veritable god to many, and this evaluation of his aesthetic would be found heretical or “sour grapes” in some street photography circles. There's no way of knowing how he worked, but the “look” of his work appears clinical to me. Absent of the “raw gut look and feel” that Phil S referred to. But this comes down to preference and taste, does it not? As a general rule, I derive more aesthetic pleasure and satisfaction from the likes of Klein, Winogrand, and Moriyama than I do from Bresson. But my preference does not invalidate a more cerebral approach to street photography, nor make such an approach inferior.
  61. Steve, I'd add a place where intelligence comes in that is in addition to setting up the shot in advance, in addition to knowing where the light will be good, in addition to waiting in front of a billboard or window display, in addition to knowing what you're going to come away with, in addition to choosing location, in addition to knowing your camera and how to use it. You allude to it in your emphasis on the editing process but it doesn't limit itself to only that part of the process. And you're experiencing it right here in this thread. When you edit, when you go through your photos and decide what is right or intuit what is right, your intelligence is at work or at least also at work, choosing certain things, rejecting certain things, finding out what works for you. You don't only DO the editing. You LEARN FROM the editing. Same here in this thread. You're learning right now. This will affect your instincts and what you are open to being surprised by in the future. Same when you created your book. You used intelligence in writing your introduction, in putting together the pages, in re-cropping the images to fit those pages, in deciding what would work together side by side. All this helped hone those shooting instincts you will use at a future date and it was a great use of your intelligence to do that. Intelligence and instinct or gut or feeling seem to me to work together and don't seem at all at odds.
    But this comes down to preference and taste, does it not?​
    No, I don't think it does. Preference and taste determine whether or not you like HCB and whether or not you think he's a god. But that he's more formal than other street shooters is not a matter of preference or taste. It's an intelligently deduced description and it's right there in the photos. Referring to it as "clinical" probably puts a value judgment on it with which I happen to agree and if you're trying to describe his work more neutrally I think referring to it as formal and often geometrically-oriented is perhaps a little less of a value judgment and more a non-preferential and non-taste-oriented observation. While there will, of course, be some people who will disagree with describing HCB as formal, I don't think seeing it as formal is a matter of preference and taste.
  62. Steve, some very good points that illustrate differing approaches to street photography and by inference also to documentary and photojournalism that are for me the siblings of street photography. By mentioning instinct and intelligence and also the fish analogy I was not referring as you give by example of conditions of light or time of day or particular angles or the capture a popular store advertisement, reflections and so on, in the predictable scenarios you refer to. The instinct and intelligence (information, how it is treated, creative ability) of the photographer that I refer to is mostly related to the subject or subjects of street photography. If you think of instinct and intelligence as being related to the ability of the photographer to react to a situation and his knowledge of what he is photographing (that type of intelligence) you would be closer to what I was suggesting.
    I am more familiar with Klein and Winogrand and Gibson than with Moriyama, but also have seen a bit of Sam Tata and John Max (a from the gut photographer), two street photographers from my own area and from about the same period as the former two. They are all unique photographers in their own way. I have seen some Winogrand at an exhibition (I think it was in Paris but not sure. it was 5 or 10 years ago) that left me cold (photos of a group quite heavily into drugs), primarily because the photographs were all too similar in type and for me just skated the surface of an interesting subject. My eyes glazed over a bit after seeing ten or so images. They may not have been typical of his overall work and, happily, they were not frames from a roll that he had not seen himself (which seems to be a risk of the selection of images from the many undeveloped films).
    As for Bresson, I don't think of him as king and not at all mathematical and cold and find that he was as human in his subject matter interpretation as any other, and more so than many. He was as anchored to his own society and what he perceived was no doubt partly influenced by those characteristic everyday values of his time and place (although he photographed extensively around the world) as also was Gary Winogrand. His instincts and ability to analyze and decide on the the essential of street scenes was of high order, although he did not have the same desire to photograph the stark, edgier or darker sides of humanity as did Brassai, or the directorial or staging nature of some of Doisneau's work. I understand he was often like a fly on the wall but a restless one and also moved about the scene continuously without the subjects being fully aware. His photos of people in China undergoing the change from Kuomintang to Mao's regime made an informative and likely avant garde booof the time (but with less than great photo reproduction or I had an inferior copy).
    I guess Julie would find the gentle Edouard Boubat and his human outlook a bit ho-hum, but if there is a thing like lyricism in street photography he and perhaps Bresson and Frank probably define it as well as any others. From that I mean that it is not essential that street photography be simply edgy, mildly shocking, stark or a sort of reality-in-your-face to have an effect. Like good photojournalism, it really needs to inform us, to show us a part of our world that we know little of, or that we pass by without really seeing in our everyday life. There is beauty in that, I think.
  63. Regrets for an orthographic anomaly, 6 lines from the end of my post:
    "....avant garde booof the time..." should have read ...avant garde book of the time...
  64. Cartier-Bresson might not have considered printing as an essential act of him as photographer, although I doubt the accuracy of the telling, but he most certainly cared about preserving the legacy of his original prints and expositions made under his direction.
    The scandal of the destruction of some 551 original prints of Cartier-Bresson tells a story of a photographer who consider his prints as national treasures. All these original prints were lost by water and incompetence of the French National Library and the National Centre of Contemporary Art (CNAC) who only in the 80s began to consider photographies as works of art. These many lost original prints were all the prints of his first exposition in Louvre in 1955 and of another exposition, "En France".
    In 1970. Cartier-Bresson created his own foundation, La Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson together with his wife Martine Franc, a Belgian photographer from Magnum and his second wife, in order to protect what was left of his original prints and promote photography.

    See article in French here.
  65. A mix-up above; The Cartier-Bresson Foundation opened in 2003 and the "En France" exposition took place in 1970...
    Sorry !
  66. Anders, Phil, Steve and others: it is interesting how photography was not considered by many as an art before about the 1980s and how in France the state or state subsidised agencies were cavalier in regard to the photo collections that were donated to them in the prior years, inciting Cartier-Bresson and his second wife to create a private foundation in 2003, a year before his death, in order to preserve what was left.
    Photography has come a long way since then and we can be thankful that many of the works of world photographers, street photographers and others, have been preserved. When did that become important? Does that awareness stem from the actions of photographic societies (like the RPS in UK), of Alfred Stieglitz, of the post Great Depression documentation in the US, of MOMA (probably later), of the pressure from art collectors, or what? HCB printed only at the start of his career. I wonder what happened to HCB's negatives such as those from the two exhibitions in 1955 and 1970? He would no doubt be amazed that one of his early 1930s photos (that with the bicycle at Hyères) sold more recently for more than a quarter of a million dollars. And the CNAC threw his later around the world exhibition photos into a garbage can.
  67. It is a fact that Cartier-Bresson only during his very early days he made the effort of printing his photos, mostly with bad results. Very rapidly he left it to professionals to prints his photos, not because the act of printing was not important, but because he admitted simply not to master the printing process.
    Concerning his negatives, although he had the bad habit often to destroy the films after having selcted the keepers, they were considered the main capital of photographers. When the Magnum Photo agency was created by him, Capa and Seymour in 1947, negatives were considered the real personal property of photographers and only printing rights were transferred to the agency one by one or by series.
  68. Thanks Anders. I'll have to return to Montparnasse and his gallery sometime as the last time I was there and at a B&B nearby the work was travelling. Nearby, there is a fine museum (gallery and memorial) to the resistance fighters of WW2, specifically Jean Moulin and General Leclerc (23, allée de la 2e D.B. - Jardin Atlantique - Above Montparnasse Train Station) and the images are probably also of interest to street photographers visiting Paris.
  69. You learn something new every day. Considering the contribution of French photographers to the rough genre of Documentary/Street (to say nothing of French contributions to the visual arts in general, from painting to cinema!), I am stunned that they could both jettison photographs, and not consider photography an art until the 1980's. Szarkowski's "New Documents" was at MOMA in 1967. It just surprises me.
    And Arthur, sorry if I misunderstood your use of "intelligence". I should have asked for more clarification, rather than gone off on an assumption.
    Fred -- Thanks. Yes, I understand what you are saying. And I have, in fact, learned a lot, just from this thread alone. This is one of PN's greatest attractions for me -- the exchange of ideas and knowledge that goes beyond the technical, and the inspiration I sometimes derive from deeper consideration of my own work, and of the work of other photographers.
  70. Well Steve the 1955 exposition in Louvre museum does in fact show that photos of Cartier-Bresson were taken serious as art and documentary. However, yes the prints were not considered as important to preserve as other forms of art works. This also, I would think, why Magnum worked on printing rights and the photographers kept property of the negatives. In the 80's original prints began to be preserved as art works to be preserved.
    Arthur, you are right, that the Foundation and the Jean Moulin museum are certainly worth coming back to (5 minutes walk between the two). Especially the Foundation has frequently changing expositions. An exposition of photos of the Italian photographer Ugo Mulas has just opened. See here (even in English).
  71. You have put a lot of time and effort in this post, Steve. Your photographs, and links, to my mind are classic examples of the best of street/documentry.
    You obviously have a deep understanding of your craft; and these few thoughts are just a thank you for your post.
  72. Thoughtful.
  73. I second that thanks to Steve, Arthur, Fred, among others.
    It turned out to be a very good initiative to discuss aesthetics of street photographer here in the Casual forum. I learned a lot and got to known some PN photographers I had not had an eye on until now. Thanks

Share This Page