Photography Changes Everything

Sometimes a photo can change the world. Can change the way we see and think about the world we live in. And sometimes a photographer comes along with a body of work that is a radical departure from what we are accustomed to seeing and we stop in awe. Maybe we even hold our breath.

One such photographer passed yesterday at the age of 94. Robert Frank was a Swiss born American photographer who documented American life on a road trip across the country in the 1950s. The book was appropriately titled, The Americans.

The Americans is not a pretty picture book. It reveals many of the injustices that took place at the time. On the surface that was a rather bold statement to make. To turn a mirror on our society and reveal things that one didn’t discuss in polite company. But his photographic style was also very different from the standards of the time.

Robert Frank, New York City, May 27, 2019

Something that I quite appreciate about Frank’s photography is how he dared to photograph America as he saw it and also his dislike of the so-called rules of photography that were made popular by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

For many, Cartier-Bresson is seen as the godfather of street photography. Perhaps more importantly, he was a founder of the elite Magnum group. Frank was not to become a Magnum member. Likely because of his disregard for the rules.

The fact remains that neither Frank nor Cartier-Bresson called themselves street photographers. These are labels that were given to their work after-the-fact. Labels are not always helpful.

I am fortunate to have met and photographed Robert Frank in front of his apartment in New York City in May of this year. I thanked him for his contribution to the world of photography. Somehow I wish I had said more. Frank may be departed but his photography is still as relevant as it ever was. And The Americans is still in print.

Photography is a partial truth

Photography is a partial truth. It is not the whole truth. And certainly not truth with a capital T. It is always subjective. When we take a photo we are translating a situation into our own way of seeing and believing. It is a version of reality.

A photo is always past tense and the subject is taken out of context. This is especially true in street photography and photos that are candid, that are taken without the subject being aware of their photo being taken.

Memory, New York City, June 2010

The opposite is also true. When you take a photo of someone and they know that you are taking it, they may smile when they aren’t actually happy. They respond to the presence of the camera.

There are a number of different examples. But perhaps more importantly, people are always more than what a single image is capable of revealing. We are always a composite of many images.

It does however happen that we attach one image in our memory to represent a person or event. Photography has provided bookmarks for the memory to utilize when recalling the past. And they are even capable of deception. (That is another topic that I will be writing about in the near future.)

I wonder what happens to the minds of people who are constantly taking selfies everywhere they go and if all these photos that they amass of themselves actually become meaningful to them? Or perhaps it’s a form of self-deception.

Sex Sells

It should come as no surprise to anyone that sex sells. There’s nothing new about that. But for some strange reason it continues to grab our attention. All the products and companies in the world that are vying for your attention and ultimately your cash are using this in some form or other.

The invention of photography has certainly helped to create and perpetuate the sex sells method of appealing to consumers. I’m not writing about nudity or pornography. That is an entirely different subject.

Urban Bliss Two #15, August 2017

Whether it’s about fitness, fashion or cultural norms to mention just a few possible areas, people are expected to live up to certain standards that are typically influenced by campaigns that utilize sex appeal. Your life will be marvelous if you buy or do whatever it is that’s being advertised.

It would perhaps be inaccurate to label it as subliminal. However, the more that we see images that utilize sex as a method of appealing to us, the more it seems normal. We no longer stop and question it.

I don’t know how we escape this or if it’s entirely possible to do so. But perhaps taking a little time to have a look at the messages that you’re being fed on a daily basis and questioning their claims is a good start.

A Creative Approach

So much emphasis is placed on the technical aspects of shooting street photography by the so-called leaders in the industry. It’s as if there are the 3 most important this or the 7 most important that and also that you have to shoot with a specific camera or brand.

It’s rather funny to see how many photographers only shoot film with a Leica or only shoot digital with Sony or whatever the choice is of the person promoting it. Actually I say that it’s ridiculous. A camera is always a personal choice just as a brush is to a painter. Whatever works for you is the best. Cheap cameras included.

The over emphasis on the tool rather than the individual process gets lost in this. My approach to photography is a creative one rather than a technical one. Set your camera up for the conditions of the day and forget about it. More of the actual process has to do with your vision and response to what’s going on around you.

My father was a very technical photographer. He took some fabulous photos. But for my taste they lacked an emotional content. I’m not saying that one style is right and the other wrong. Or that one is better and the other worse. Only that as a creative photographer I am less concerned with a certain kind of perfection that technical photographers strive for.

White Tag, New York City, July 2019

Art is always subjective and there are multiple methods for achieving it. Perfection has a way of discounting the emotional. For art to be successful it must draw the viewer into it. Whether we’re talking about the camera mode that you choose or even the style of photography that you are shooting, there is no one correct method to achieve the desired results.

The problem with following a particular style of photography that relies on a consistent approach is like painting by number or being in a cover band. There are groups of photographers that have a very consistent approach to street photography. While there are some photos that really stand out. There are others in which it would be difficult to name the photographer.

I know that in my life as a street photographer I have paid a price for not following in a style that is so common with many others. It was never a conscious decision to do so. I have always worked in my own way of being influenced by some photographers while still making my work my own.

I did not have any formal training in photography for better or for worse. That would be for the viewer to determine. I always encourage the people that I work with to follow their own feelings about what works and what doesn’t. I talk about the things that influence me. I do hope that I am able to encourage you to follow your own path and find your passion. Happy shooting!

The Age of Narcissism

This is, if you haven’t noticed, the age of narcissism. I fail to understand why it is that so many people feel a need to be constantly photographing themselves everywhere they go and everything they do.

I mostly witness this on the streets in New York City. Certainly a number of them are tourists. That’s not an excuse. But it is also just as many people who live here. Everywhere, no exaggeration, there’s someone doing their selfie.

People dress and style themselves for their selfies. Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has perhaps been taken too literally. What do you do with hundreds of selfies? Yes, you share them on social media. And yes, it is with the expectation that it will receives thousands of likes.

Self-portrait with Rauschenberg, The Museum of Modern Art, 2017

I’ve never really liked photos of myself. I prefer to be behind the camera. Not in front of it. However, I do take the occasional self-portrait. That is to say that they are creative.

I ask myself and you, what is the purpose of all these selfies? It was said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Certainly, that is better than a thousand likes.

But now it seems a photo’s worth is in hashtags. Can you manage to get the attention of others in the age of selfies and attention deficient disorder?

Don’t even get me started on all the people who have died attempting to get their perfect selfie. Narcissus has competition. You won’t find me in that demographic.

An artist works with what’s available

Some people will say that there’s nothing new under the sun in the world of art. While my view of the state of art is not so bleak, all art is somehow influenced by what came before. Some more than others.

In the music world it’s called sampling. In the world of art it’s called appropriation. Andy Warhol is perhaps the most famous appropriator in the art world.

When it comes to photography and especially street photography, many moan about the inability to achieve the same kind of classic photos that were produced in the past. Some even go so far as to focus on creating only work that looks like the past.

Winogrand Doubles – Brides, New York City, August 2019

It’s as if they could imitate the past and live in another place and time. Rather sad if you ask me. An artist works with what’s available.

I sample the work of artists and photographers in my work. It’s about creating something new from something from the past. You could say it’s a form of recycling.

In the world of philosophy, all philosophy is a dialogue with the ideas from the past. In my multiple exposures I utilize the works of others to create something new and current. As in the photo above where I sample photos by Garry Winogrand.

The Process is the Art

I’ve been doing extensive work on organizing my photo library. I have approximately 200,00 digital files. So it is quite a process! I do this when my creative energy slows down a bit.

I take the time to review my older work and ironically it often reignites my creativity. It helps me to gain some perspective on where my photography is going and where it’s been. It’s an opportunity for me to critique my work.

Recently I’ve heard some photographers being rather critical or frustrated with their work. It is really good to want to be a better photographer! That’s something that I always want from myself.

West 33rd Street, New York City, January 2016

But be careful. Being too self-critical about your photography can be counterproductive. For me, progress has always been slow. It’s really one step at a time. Shoot, review and shoot more. Then all the sudden change becomes evident. Then repeat the process. There is no end to it!

Patience is important. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook how much really goes into achieving those results. When we look at the photos of others and wish we could take photos like that.

Art always looks easier than it really is. When you have a passion for photography, the rest follows. Just do it and keep doing it. I don’t always take great photos. You have to move on to the next day of shooting. I have always suggested experimenting, not being afraid to make so- called mistakes and not giving up! The process is the art.