Jean-François Cléroux | Flâneur & Lens Creative
Different Lens, Different Story!

Class Notes for Part-01 – Required Reading 2

The article brings up a lot of points for discussion. Many of these points are what I would consider the subject of the Philosophy of Street Photography, or even just the Philosophy of Photography. These are my Class Notes on:

• Part-1.2 – Eric Kim: What is Street Photography?

I have been researching this topic and will write a lengthy explanation on not only my thoughts of what “Street Photography” is, but also on why there is confusion and disagreement on the subject. I think that when you look at the reading material given to us by Eric Kim and specifically some of his points in his article “What is Street Photography?” you can see that his statements just don’t add up. For now, I will not get into too many details, but I will point out what I think are errors or misreading on Eric Kim’s part.

I think his comment about what Street Photography isn’t is off the mark:

“I believe that often the best way to define something is by defining what something isn’t.”

And based on his two examples of it’s not Landscape Photography and it’s not Studio Photography?? He concludes with the statement:

“Therefore, I feel that street photography needs an element of spontaneity and uncertainty rather than the predictable/manipulative nature of studio photography.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement. How he concludes this based on Landscape and Studio not being Street Photography is beyond me. But yes, Street Photography needs to be spontaneous and uncertain.

Then he goes on to say:

“I personally don’t think that street photography has to be candid.”

Candid photography is spontaneous and uncertain. Photography with permission, or directed, or posed is “predictable” and “manipulative.” I have countless examples, and we all know and have our own examples, that once a subject makes eye contact with a camera, that the expression changes. What you capture in front of the camera is almost never the subject’s true self once they have seen the camera or worse, have interacted with the photographer.

In his example of William Klein’s ‘Kid with Gun’ he states correctly that Klein himself stated the image was ‘directed.’ The kid was asked to ‘look tough.’ Klein’s paraphrased response of:

“although it was he who provoked his subjects to play up a certain reaction or expression– it was his subjects who ultimately reacted the way they did.”

That’s the point isn’t it? It was the subjects who ultimately reacted the way they did to his interactions, to his direction, to his involvement. Without his provocation, the kid would NOT have reacted. What if you faked a robbery and ‘captured’ images of scared bank customers? Is that life as it really is? What if you just followed a woman along closely and scared the bejesus out of her? Is that real life on the street?

Another thing we must look at is the context of the image. There are several points to be made here. Klein was a Vogue Fashion Photographer. He had been commissioned to photograph New York, specifically to document New York post war. NOT commissioned to Photograph as a Street Photographer but to capture the essence of New York. His documentation included still life and buildings. His still life images and urban landscapes are not street photography in this case. They are a part of the documentation of the city, two very different things.

He later moved to Paris partly because of his dislike of New York and went on to say that those New York images showed everything he hated about New York. He went in with a specific ‘mindset’ and photographed to make a point. This is also NOT street photography. Street Photography is supposed to be politically neutral in motive. The reason for the image should be the artistic value of the image. If it happens to capture a ‘political statement’ that is an aside. Shooting to capture a ‘political statement’ is by definition, Documentary Photography.

As a Street Photographer you are there to observe and capture what you see. It’s why Paul Martin, who is considered a pioneer of Street Photography, making candid un-posed photographs of people in London and at the seaside in the late 19th and early 20th century to record life AS-IT-WAS. Martin is the first recorded photographer to do so in London with a disguised camera because he saw the need for, and the importance of the images to be candid. He noticed that people changed, their expressions changed, and that they behaved differently when confronted by a camera. To that point Paul Martin was a Street Photographer. William Klein was NOT a Street Photographer. Although he is highly regarded as such because of the abundance of excellent images that do qualify as Street Photography, however, he was not a Street Photographer. Can a Fashion Photographer on the streets capture candid Street Photography images, of course he can? Does that mean ALL his images are Street Photography? No. Should we not consider ALL his images to be “Fashion Photography?” Of course not.

And more importantly, do you trust his images to be real? How many are posed, or guided? Do his images give you a real view of the hardships, the emotions, the faces? Or, are they fake? Where is the integrity? What of the truth in Street Photography?

Eric Kim goes on to say:

“I care less if a photograph is staged or not– but whether it elicits some sort of reaction in my gut and heart. Who cares if a street photograph is posed or candid– if it doesn’t stir something in my soul?”

Wait what, staged images are OK? So, I could hire a couple as models and have them kiss with fake glycerin tears in their eyes and as long as I shoot on the streets, it’s Street Photography?

I think that capturing images that stir emotions is a great goal, and one that we should all aspire to in Street Photography. But, it should not be at the cost of the Truth.

Eric talks about another Klein image and then a Diane Arbus image. When you look at these images and know the stories behind them you clearly see that they are staged or at the very least guided and that the subjects are willing participants. Again, it is not recording life as it is and would quickly fit into the category of Street Portraiture. And again, by definition, they are not even Street Portraiture when you consider what a ‘portrait’ is.

In both Klein’s and Arbus’ images and attached contact sheets you can clearly see they shot multiple images and poses until they had something they wanted. Life doesn’t work that way.

We can save the indoors/outdoors argument for another time but my general comment here is that in Street Photography images, the street should be implied. It does not need to feature in the image, but it needs to be implied. When Eric claims that his

“belief is that street photography can really be shot anywhere as long as it is open to the public to enter and leave as they please.”

I think he is missing the “street” component of Street Photography. There are countless silly examples of what would clearly NOT be street photography that would fit this description. Is a photo of two climbers atop the Half Dome Summit, Street Photography? Or you walk off the street into a NY Islanders hockey game and shoot the hockey players on the ice. Is that Street Photography? Or would it be called Sports Photography? Enough said.

Lastly, Eric uses Eugene Atget’s image of a building with no people in it to suggest that it’s a street photograph because Atget is a Street Photographer. Again, by trade Atget photographed storefronts for the local papers for advertisements, that was his job. Atget was a commercial photographer. Because of his work on the streets over many years he photographed many candid’s, people in posed portraits, some urban photography and even some still life street photography. He shot it all. But, it’s not all Street Photography. He even photographed some street prostitutes he was intimate with. Are those images “Street Photography?”

The lesson to take from this, as with most photography related materials found on the net, is to not just take everything in as gospel. I have the greatest respect for Eric Kim, his work, and what he has done to further Street Photography. But, read it all, take it all in, analyze it as best you can with your current knowledge, scrutinize what you read or ideas that are passed on to you. Do some historical research. And after giving it some thought, what makes sense to you? Does it fit your definitions, your ideas, your purpose?

And, don’t be stubborn, have an open mind. As you do more street photography, as you grow and develop as a photographer, as you learn the language of Street Photography, know that you can change your definition and, at the very least, don’t just take my word for it.

As I mentioned above, I will write more on this very shortly (After I finish Part-1 of the Free On-Line Street Photography Class). After all, what is a Street Photography website/blog, if it doesn’t define what Street Photography is?

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