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Business / Philosophy of Photography Taking pics is one thing, but understanding why we take them, what they mean, what they are best used for, how they effect our reality -- all of these and more are important issues of the Philosophy of Photography. One of the best authors on the subject is Susan Sontag in her book "On Photography."

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"Just snappin' some pics?": What street photography is for me
Old 11-20-2007   #1
Rafael
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"Just snappin' some pics?": What street photography is for me

After spending many days couped up in the house working at the computer, I finally found a couple of hours today to head out onto the streets to take some photographs. I hadn't made it two blocks when I ran into two guys I know but have never really liked all that much. Still, I felt obligated to stop and say hello. One of the guys looked at the camera hanging around my neck and asked, "so, just snappin' some pics?" I responded with a nod and quickly found an excuse to move on. But his question got me thinking. In fact, I spent most of the next couple of hours thinking about what, exactly, I was doing out there on the street with my camera. I concluded that I was, in fact, doing a whole lot more than "snappin' pics."

Now I know that different people hold competing conceptions of street photography. The narrowest definitions of the term seem to limit it to the taking of un-posed black and white photographs of people, usually strangers, on the street. Others include under the rubric of street photography any photographs that were taken in an urban setting. I have come to understand that I fall into the second category and that I define street photography not by gear or film or subject matter but by the possibilities that it holds for the communication of emotions and ideas through visiual imagery.

What sets street photography apart from the other types of photography that I do is that, unlike all of the others, my street photography is guided exclusively by what I want to communicate. Whenever I shoot an event or a portrait or a dog sport, the subject matter is dictated to me. Even when I shoot a family gathering, the subject matter is already there. Sure, whenever I am taking photographs I am presenting the subject in my own way. But the degree to which I am expressing myself through these types of photographs pales in comparison to the personal expression that is in (or that I strive for in) my street photography.

It is often said or written that photography is the art form for those who have little or no talent for painting or drawing. I disagree wholeheartedly. Through photography we can do something that is impossible for a painter or a sketcher: we can capture a moment in time that, while unique, can evoke or communicate human emotions that are universal. Certainly a realist artist can achieve a similar result. But he or she always has the option to exclude or include aspects of the scene that he or she is reproducing. And, no matter how good he or she is, the realist artist is always drawing or painting the scene over time. So, discounting photo manipulation for the time being, we can say that only the photographer communicates by composing images exclusively from the subject matter of his or her environment as it is at any given moment.

Now, I know that some street photographers think of their enterprise as one of simply following their nose in order to find whatever is presented to them on the streets. I don't think that this is a full description of street photography, at least not in the way that I have come to understand it. I agree that street photography necessarily entails wandering in search of photographs. But what are you looking for as you wander? Personally, I am looking for compositions that will communicate whatever it is that I have in my mind. Sometimes it's an emotion. Sometimes I have an idea in mind. But I am never wandering aimlessly.

If you accept or share my understanding of street photography, I believe that you are required to relinquish any firm rules about its definition. It can't be limited to black and white images, or to un-posed photographs, or to photographs of people, or to rf photography. It can only be limited by the vision of the photograher. Film, camera, and subject choices should be determined exclusively by the emotion or the idea that the photographer seeks to communicate.

Documentary photographers often describe their role as that of the medium through which stories are told. Of course, the personal vision and artistry of the photographer come through in his or her photographs. But, the primary objective is the telling of the story. Street photography, as I understand it, is the opposite of documentary photography. The street photographer searches out photographs that will communicate his or her own vision. The ideas or emotions that the photographer seeks to communicate are primary. The story, if indeed there is one, is told in order to communicate them.

So, to come back to the original question, the answer is no. I was not simply snappin' some pics. However good or bad the results of my outing turn out to be, the enterprise was far grander than simply snappin' some pics.
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Last edited by Rafael : 11-20-2007 at 12:56.
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Street Photography
Old 11-20-2007   #2
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Street Photography

Marc,

I agree that the scope of street photography is broader than any one classification. For me, it does involve "wandering around," but may result in anything from un-posed, un-noticed people photography to "found still lifes" (meaning, "I don't know why, but I love the way that street line runs into the median almost in line with that mailbox.")...

On people, I'm about 50/50 on whether or not I interact with the subject(s). If I'm feeling gregarious, I sit and talk with someone (for over an hour sometimes), and then ask if I can make a photo. Other times, I get the shot and put the camera back at a non-threatening level as fast as possible. I must say that the pictures associated with interaction with the subject usually mean more to ME. However, I doubt if they're any more satisfying to other viewers.

Sometimes when I get out, I'm inspired, and I hope it shows. Sometimes I'm not, and it does turn into "snappin' some pics." That, I'm very sure, is obvious in the results.

Right now, I'm living in the ultimate suburban nightmare, and have to travel about an hour to find any interesting street subjects. Or, maybe I'm just being closed minded. Either way, I'm longing for the chance to get out and wander more often.

Nice post. Thanks.

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Old 11-21-2007   #3
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I'll tell you what will be interesting-black friday I work that day and plan on bringing my camera with me should be interesting (my first BF) hopefully shoot a roll or two
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Old 11-24-2007   #4
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I was first introduced to "street photography" in the mid-1980's by one of my photography professors at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I was visiting him at his studio in the old Stroh's brewery when he asked me if I wanted to go out and shoot some. I really didn't know what to make of it at first because up to that point, I had gone out and photographed for class assignments but never really considered it "street photography." This was different. I didn't really have any goals in mind, it was more like exploration looking for something that would grab my eye. Well it stuck with me and I did more of it over the years.

For me, street photography is kind of like foreplay for the creative mind. I say that because when I photograph I usually try to satisfy my minds need to make a compositionally sound image first, then I wait for the moment. Sometime, I think I pay more attention to the composition than I do the moment.

I started photographing when I was about 15, went to photography school so I could understand it better and later began designing graphics and artwork/layout. I wanted to make more of my photos have better composition so I studied graphics and layout to influence and make my photography better if that makes sense.

I haven't really done much street photography for a while so in the last two years, I picked up a Minox DCC Leica M3. I have both 4 and 5mp versions, hoping that this will push me to "catch" a few more moments. I have been working on familiarizing myself with its technical limitations and am now starting to use it without having to think too much about what the camera is doing and pay more attention to what's in the preview screen. http://myfxjournal.vox.com

Last edited by mgilvey : 11-24-2007 at 22:52.
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Old 11-25-2007   #5
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I kinda like the expression of "finding still lifes" and can see how it applies to street photography. I used to believe I was being artistic... until I decided to be a documentarian of sorts. Hence, when I go in the streets, I want to document life as it was lived in my time. After seeing photographs by Atget, for instance, I came to realize the value of shooting what others may consider snapshots. My snapshots of today are the documents of tomorrow... or so I chose to think.

What about you?
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Old 11-25-2007   #6
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i mostly just wander aimlessly...
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Old 11-25-2007   #7
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What Joe said. I wander aimlessly, sort of in a zen mode - not caring, not thinking, not wanting, but somehow alert anyway.

On occasion I'll wander for an hour or two and take merely 4-5 pictures, and that's usually in my town, where I've lived for thirty years and I guess psychologically I feel as if I've already photographed everything.

It's when I go to another city or town, where everything is visually fresh, that I really get cranking.

But then a friend of mine who had never been to Bisbee wandered about and made several outstanding shots - images that had been right in front of me all along. He had done the same thing that I just mentioned in the previous paragraph. Made me mad (how stupid).

Made me aware that I had become stagnant. Now I walk around this small town. Pretend I've never been here before. Try to see it as new.

I have to kick myself in the ass once in awhile.
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Old 11-25-2007   #8
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This same thing happened to a friend of mine. She sold her house in a town she did not really like and then went back sometime later and saw things differently. http://photolee.vox.com/library/post...viewpoint.html

I often wonder what I would photograph in my hometown if I were to return.
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Old 11-26-2007   #9
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Interesting discussion. I would like to comment on something Rafael stated: "Documentary photographers often describe their role as that of the medium through which stories are told."

Up to now I've tended to think that there's a distinction between 'street photography' and 'documentary photography', although the latter can take place in the former. That is, while we may have each spent many hours wandering the streets making interesting compositions, they may not necessarily function as 'documentary' work because an entire series of images may lack the continuity of story-telling.

What I'm thinking now is that perhaps individual 'street' photographs can work as single-image documents; one image that tells a complete story. And a series of such 'street' photographs, rather than containing story-like continuity from one image to the next, each represent a distinct story unto itself.

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Old 05-17-2013   #10
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It seems that there is a fair amount of overlap between street photography and documentary photography. Having done my share of both, they share much common ground in my experience.

You could say that all street photography is documentary in nature but not all documentary photography is street photography. I think that would be a reasonable viewpoint - wouldn't it?
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Old 05-17-2013   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mgilvey View Post
I often wonder what I would photograph in my hometown if I were to return.
I did that once, when I helped my mother move. While the movers were finishing up, I decided to stroll around the block and walk past my old elementary school. I noticed that I was being followed at some point by a police car. I stopped to take a photo of my childhood house, with the court sign across the street, when he let the siren rip and the lights go flashing. He asked what I was doing, I tried to explain, but he wouldn't hear me. My mom saw what was happening. She was 75 at the time and came running across the street. The cop explained that there was a report of man walking around the neighborhood with a camera, who looked suspicious. You should have heard my sweet old mom give him the riot act. My mom actually taught in the school till she retired. Anyway, the cop ran my ID through his computer and I was clean. He gave me a warning, "Be careful". Needless to say, I am ever so happy never to return to my hometown.
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Old 05-17-2013   #12
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Choose a good place.

Stay there until the picture(s) happen(s).

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Old 05-17-2013   #13
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Can 't help but think it is some kind of justified voyeurism.
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Old 05-17-2013   #14
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I agree with Bresson and great street photography is more than just snapshots of people on the street that are without visual rhyme or reason. I think the same visual language applies to make all good visual work. I'm going ot quote Bresson because he says it some much better then I do but I agree and this type of work when done well is very difficult to do consistently.

"What reinforces the content of a photograph is the sense of rhythm – the relationship between shapes and values." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

"Inside movement there is one moment in which the elements are in balance. Photography must seize the importance of this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

"For a subject to be strong enough to be worth photographing, the relationship of its forms must be rigorously established. Composition starts when you situate your camera in space in relation to the object. For me, photography is the exploration in reality of the rhythm of surfaces, lines, or values; the eye carves out its subject, and the camera has only to do its work. That work is simply to print the eye’s decision on film." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

"To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression."-Henry Cartier-Bresson


"For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organisation of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organisation alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organisation can stem only from a developed instinct." - Henri Cartier-Bresson
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Old 05-17-2013   #15
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http://www.amazon.fr/Derrière-lobjec.../dp/2842303709

Possibly the best book ever on the subject -- provided you can read it in French (no English translation available yet).

M. Ronis had the advantage of being a LOT less pompous than HCB.

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Old 05-17-2013   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
http://www.amazon.fr/Derrière-lobjec.../dp/2842303709

Possibly the best book ever on the subject -- provided you can read it in French (no English translation available yet).

M. Ronis had the advantage of being a LOT less pompous than HCB.

Cheers,

R.
Well, HBC could be a bit pompous but his work did show his ability to consistently back up his words and his words are very true.
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Old 05-17-2013   #17
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Well, HBC could be a bit pompous but his work did show his ability to consistently back up his words and his words are very true.
You honestly find that? For me they are nothing but snapshots. Nothing better than random pushing the shutter release.
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Old 05-17-2013   #18
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Can 't help but think it is some kind of justified voyeurism.
You say that like it's a bad thing...
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Old 05-17-2013   #19
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You honestly find that? For me they are nothing but snapshots. Nothing better than random pushing the shutter release.
So you don't see the repeating shapes, leading lines, and geometry that dominates his work?

I can bring up some of his work and show you. Its what his work is all about and what most really good photographs are about. The man knew how to use visual language.
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Old 05-17-2013   #20
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For me they are nothing but snapshots. Nothing better than random pushing the shutter release.
A snap shot is the most carefully shot photograph, as Winogrand used to say, people when they take snaps quite often compose carefully, make sure everyone is smiling and in the frame.


When you say something like that about HCB, unfortunately it reflects more on your own knowledge and visual education.
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Old 05-17-2013   #21
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Wow ... dissing HCB!

Brave thing to do at RFF ... I'm not a huge fan of street photography but when I look at his work I can see what all the fuss was about.
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Old 05-17-2013   #22
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Wow ... dissing HCB?

Brave thing to do at RFF ... I'm not a huge fan of street photography but when I look at his work I can see what all the fuss was about.
Well, there is a reason why HCB is still in the conversation.
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Old 05-17-2013   #23
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A snap shot is the most carefully shot photograph, as Winogrand used to say, people when they take snaps quite often compose carefully, make sure everyone is smiling and in the frame.


When you say something like that about HCB, unfortunately it reflects more on your own knowledge and visual education.
Exactly, I mean you can love or hate or everything thats in between his work but those things are clearly in his work but sometimes you have to look.
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Old 05-17-2013   #24
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Well, there is a reason why HCB is still in the conversation.

True ... and I have to say Winnogrand's work has the same effect on me.

Perhaps I do like street photography ... just can't do it!
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Old 05-17-2013   #25
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True ... and I have to say Winnogrand's work has the same effect on me.

Perhaps I do like street photography ... just can't do it!
I love Winogrands work as much maybe more than Bressons and I really like Robert Frank.
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Old 05-18-2013   #26
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So you don't see the repeating shapes, leading lines, and geometry that dominates his work?

I can bring up some of his work and show you. Its what his work is all about and what most really good photographs are about. The man knew how to use visual language.
Quote:
When you say something like that about HCB, unfortunately it reflects more on your own knowledge and visual education.
All it says is that I don't find his work interesting. Yes, there are returning visual aspects in it. Only to me they spell boredom. I do not see anything in it that catches my attention.

If you cannot appreciate some work without knowledge it failed in my opinion.
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Old 05-18-2013   #27
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Well, HBC could be a bit pompous but his work did show his ability to consistently back up his words and his words are very true.
Sure. But he liked to create a mystique (which his followers have magnified) whereas Ronis was far more down to earth. If you want to learn how a great photographer worked, with verbal explanations and clear analysis, Ronis can teach you far more.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 05-18-2013   #28
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. . . If you cannot appreciate some work without knowledge it failed in my opinion.
Substantially true, I think. But I don't think you do need special knowledge to appreciate HCB. Either you get it or you don't.

There's also the truth that the 'greats' -- people like Ansel Adams and HCB -- tend to attract the 'young gunslinger' mentality: "No, they ain't so great." Overfamiliarity and overanalysis can also drag down their standing in the eyes of some.

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Old 05-18-2013   #29
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All it says is that I don't find his work interesting. Yes, there are returning visual aspects in it. Only to me they spell boredom. I do not see anything in it that catches my attention.

If you cannot appreciate some work without knowledge it failed in my opinion.
We can't all like the same thing and thats very cool.

But to say this "Nothing better than random pushing the shutter release" is just not at all what his work was about.

See if you can see all the repeating shapes in this image? Can you see the arrow formed by other visual elements? The perfect timing?
http://erickimphotography.com/blog/w...esson-gare.jpg

and the repeating shapes in this image, perfect placement of subject, and the perfect timing?
http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoess...bresson_01.jpg

or the again repeating shapes, strong leading line from the railing to the subject, texture, implied motion and perfect timing.
http://erickimphotography.com/blog/w...on_bicycle.jpg

There is a lot more going on in his work than random shutter pushing. Now whether you like or dislike the work is another conversation but he was not just pushing the shutter randomly. And these are the same visual elements that go into good street photography and thus good photographs period.
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Old 05-18-2013   #30
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I have always found life more interesting in the skid rows where I have lived in Chicago and Los Angeles, the Tenderloin in San Francisco, Mission, the Fillmore district, the Desire projects in New Orleans.
Something about the mindset, consciousness, reality as opposed to where shoppers congregate or financial areas where the bankers hang out, places where I don't belong and am not invisible.
I think the key to invisibility is being around people like myself. I wander only in places I can see where I am going, having been there, I always feel welcome again.
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Old 05-18-2013   #31
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All it says is that I don't find his work interesting.
The decisive moment tactic has become so common that photos of HCB don't look that fresh and interesting as it used to.

There is a flicker group called hardcore street photography, I'm not a member, but if you check their pool, the number of decisive moment shots are almost nauseating. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
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Old 05-19-2013   #32
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Seeing is not tactic. It's what photography is all about. Much of the work I see today being shot today is just candids of people on the street. No thought at all of design, geometry. line, texture, shape, content and ultimately form. I don't see this work thats void of the visual elements I just mentioned in many places other than on line and in say sites like flicker. Flicker is not a barometer of quality.

Seeing these those visual elements, being able to use them and put them in your work is what all of this is about and these are the basic elements of what a good photograph, no matter what label you put on it, street, landscape, portrait, etc is all about.
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Old 05-19-2013   #33
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The decisive moment tactic has become so common that photos of HCB don't look that fresh and interesting as it used to.

There is a flicker group called hardcore street photography, I'm not a member, but if you check their pool, the number of decisive moment shots are almost nauseating. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
hardcore street photography is just another of those self-congratulatory flickr groups that folk use to drive up their comment-count ... it has little to do with Henri's aesthetic
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Old 06-08-2013   #34
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how can people insult bresson??
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Old 06-08-2013   #35
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Through photography we can do something that is impossible for a painter or a sketcher: we can capture a moment in time that, while unique, can evoke or communicate human emotions that are universal. Certainly a realist artist can achieve a similar result. But he or she always has the option to exclude or include aspects of the scene that he or she is reproducing. And, no matter how good he or she is, the realist artist is always drawing or painting the scene over time. So, discounting photo manipulation for the time being, we can say that only the photographer communicates by composing images exclusively from the subject matter of his or her environment as it is at any given moment.
I interpret your definition as a strive for an objective, universal - scientific if you wish - visual expression. I agree that the photographic medium is the one that lends itself best for this approach, but I don't believe you can edit your own self out of the process. No conscious reproduction of "reality" can be objective since perception is subjective.

So, I'm curious - why is the time aspect important to you? And why is it important not to edit the scene?

You are only half way to a fulfilling justification for your choice of craft.
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Old 06-08-2013   #36
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ah, `street shooting'..a subject that always brings out a Niagara of words
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Old 06-08-2013   #37
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Originally Posted by Spanik View Post
All it says is that I don't find his work interesting. Yes, there are returning visual aspects in it. Only to me they spell boredom. I do not see anything in it that catches my attention.

If you cannot appreciate some work without knowledge it failed in my opinion.
Having studied photography, and photographers, I found 'HCB' to be the least interesting work, but...

We need to understand that *at the time* HCBs work was more unusual. Now, every man with a roll in Tri-X is a street photographer and, in my opinion, has made the genre trite and dull. I'm not saying HCBs work is crap, I'm saying there is SO much derivative work, it's devalued the original stuff, the outstanding stuff will stand the test of time, but I honestly think HCB had maybe a handful of truly outstanding photos, at best.

If 'street photography' simply hadn't taken off, HCBs work would be innovative, and continue to be interesting.

Ansel Adams is in a similar position, I love his stuff, but you can go on 500px and find 100 equally outstanding landscapes, actually Margus on this forum has equally or more stunning nature images.

HCB seems to be beyond criticism to some people, which is ridiculous, but then, I feel similarly about The Beatles, they may have been interesting at the time, but they wouldn't get a record contract now.
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Old 06-08-2013   #38
Joakim Målare
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sejanus.Aelianus View Post
It is unfortunate that some people believe that those who do not share their enthusiasms are in some way deficient.
I agree with you.

As for Henri Cartier-Bresson's photography, I suspect it may be the dominance of visual construction and near impossible feats that is sometimes a bit overwhelming. His pictures often come through as a bit 'cold' to me.

But to say his pictures aren't good isn't very clever. Just as it would be to say that they are, without giving arguments. There is no such thing as good or bad art - different images serve different purposes.
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Old 06-08-2013   #39
DominikDUK
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Willy Ronis and Werner Bischof are imo better photographers and much more human meaning more down to earth than HCB who is a great photographer in his own right but I always felt that something was missing in HCB work, which is quiet visible in Ronis' work and I believe it's humanity. Still love HCB but prefer the other two.

Street photography for me is part of documentary photography. Street photography can be dull but doesn't have to be. Willy Ronis is for me the eye whereas HCB is more the calculator. Both produce stunning work but I believe with a very different mindset.
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