I have been reading a lot of photography books, especially street photography books, with an intention to discover my street photography style, by osmosis. Last week, I read three photography books that showcased a wide gamut of classical and contemporary street photographers with very different styles — Magnum Streetwise edited by Stephen McLaren, Street Photography Now edited by Sophie Hogwarts and Stephen McLaren and Street Photography by Valerie Jardin. As I looked at each photographer’s work, in the books and sometimes on their websites or Instagram profiles, I asked myself if it resonated with me.
I’m discovering that I’m attracted to a very specific style of street photography, characterized by — classical compositions with geometrical lines, real or imagined; strong shapes created by the interplay of light and shadow; repeating patterns of shapes and colors that resolve into an overarching organizing principle; a minimal composition made dynamic by a surprising human silhouette, a found object, or a pop of color; and an abstract beauty achieved by a shallow depth of field, or a panning motion, or the use of reflective or translucent surfaces.
I’m also discovering that this description doesn’t apply to the work of most of the street photographers I am studying, for two reasons.
First, a lot of street photography is shot at f8, with almost an infinite depth of field, which means that almost everything in the frame is in focus. That in itself isn’t a problem, except that most photographs have a lot in the frame — people, animals, cars, bicycles, billboards, storefronts, buildings, road signs — very often without an obvious focal point or organizing principle. The challenge with less than perfect composition is aggravated by the insistence of many street photographers to not crop their photographs or not remove any distractions in editing. The result is layer upon layer upon layer of visual information, which, at least to my eyes, looks like chaotic noise.
Second, in many of the photographs, the aim seems to be to capture the banality and the absurdity of modern city life, almost in a photo-journalistic documentary style. Many street photographers tend to hunt for unusual subjects in often unflattering situations, and some photographers even provoke a surprised, even angry, reaction by getting into the face of the subject, sometimes with a flash. The result is a gritty, almost ugly-by-design, aesthetic that aims to be the counterbalance to airbrushed Instagram selfies and highly Photoshopped studio photography, but often negates the possibility of finding beauty in everyday moments.
The classical photographers I find the most inspiring sought out playfulness, beauty and vitality in the streets, architecture and inhabitants of their cities — often Paris and New York — using the minimalist, classical, artistic style I have described above.
On the top of my list is Elliott Erwitt, for his candid photographs of ironic and absurd situations in everyday settings, but also for his whimsical photographs of dogs.
Henry Cartier-Bresson is an obvious inspiration, for the classical geometry of his street photography compositions, and his ‘fishing’ style of waiting for a subject to enter a perfectly composed frame to capture the ‘decisive moment’.
Fan Ho is a big inspiration, because of how he ‘painted’ his photographs with geometrical light and shadow, and because he photographed the streets of one of my favorite cities — Hong Kong.
I find Saul Leiter inspiring, because of his creative range — his personal work photographing the streets of New York in a somewhat abstract painterly style is very different from his professional fashion photography work.
My number one inspiration, though, is not a photographer, but a painter. I love the stark high-contrast cityscapes in Edward Hopper’s paintings and the sense of loneliness of his subjects, even when they are in public places.
Of the contemporary photographers, I like the work of Sean Tucker, Jonas Rask, Alan Schaller, Christopher Anderson and Dotan Saguy, for very different reasons, but I need to explore more. So, let me end with a question for you: if these are the photographers I like, who else should I look at?