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What was the Subject?

April 24th, 2010

Most of us are familiar with the form of street photography but what is its subject? I think most of the respected street photographers I know would suggest that if you go out to make pictures with a subject in mind then you close your mind to opportunities that could have resulted in that revealing unexpected moment we all seek. Having a subject means you are suddenly looking for something specific and your mind gets involved somewhere between the initial stimulus and the making of a picture, that second of hesitant reviewing thought can cost you the shot. Can you maintain that loss of self, that zen like connection with events and happenings around you that so many street photographers report, if you are consciously looking for something that meets the criteria of the subject you have set yourself.

I initially agree with this thesis but then when I look back over my work from the streets, many of my best images have arisen because I was doing a little project I had set myself, images from the City of London that arose because I had been attracted to that environment and had returned there repeatedly over a couple of years or images that I made after 9/11 when I found myself attracted to airline ticket offices.

Street Scene, Financial District, London from 'Trading Life' pic: Nick Turpin

Street Scene, Financial District, London from 'Trading Life' pic: Nick Turpin

Street Scene, Picadilly, London from 'Un-Civil Aircraft' pic: Nick Turpin

Street Scene, Picadilly, London from 'Un-Civil Aircraft' pic: Nick Turpin

Having a ‘loose’ subject can really focus and inspire you as long as it is something that gives you plenty of scope within it to be an observer, clearly there is a huge difference between a project about ‘London’s West End’ and one about ‘Female Circumcision in Africa’….and this is what makes me nervous about this discussion, it has always been the lack of a subject that has in many ways separated the street photographer from the photojournalist or reportage photographer. The main difference is that the street images are much more spontaneous, surprising and unexpected because of the very fact that the photographer was not mentally editing his subject matter as he went along, he was simply reacting to quickly changing circumstances. An example of this that I often site is the picture of the mugger that I took in the City of London while shooting my ‘Trading Life’ series:

Street Scene, Financial District, London from 'Trading Life' pic: Nick Turpin

Street Scene, Financial District, London from 'Trading Life' pic: Nick Turpin

Because my subject/project was very ‘loose’ and only required me to shoot in a certain area of London I remained open to all comers photographically, I allowed the street to show me what it had.
If I had shot the Stock Exchange, Commuters and Champagne bars the pictures would have been very predictable and the ‘Mugger’ would never have been recorded.

The American Street Photographer Jeff Mermelstein produced a book called Twirl/Run which contained two series of images, one of girls twirling their hair and the other of people running in the street, his gallerists web site says of the project

“The genesis of Twirl / Run is simple. It was borne from the periodic review and reorganization of the photographer’s archive of images – a typical exercise for any prolific photographer. Scouring through thousands of negatives, Mermelstein began to see a pattern forming where unconsciously he had been photographing these two gestures for years, beginning in 1995.”

Run #4 2003 pic: Jeff Mermelstein courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art, New York.

Run #4 2003 pic: Jeff Mermelstein courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art, New York.

Twirl #7 pic: Jeff Mermelstein courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art, New York.

Twirl #7 pic: Jeff Mermelstein courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art, New York.

The slow emergence of subjects in your work seems to be the street photographers way, the street reveals itself to you through the act of making pictures and as time goes on themes and patterns often emerge in the resulting pictures and as you become aware of these ‘subjects’ you find yourself seeing them more often and actually looking out for them. You end up with a project you didn’t know you wanted.

The Melbourne based photographer Jesse Marlow has produced a body of work of people in the street with apparent injuries which resulted in the book ‘Wounded’. Jesse’s work is very much street based so I asked him how he arrived at shooting a very specific ‘subject’.

“About 10 years ago I hurt my arm after a game of drunken football with friends and as a result had my arm in a sling for a couple of weeks.

Unable to take photos I kept seeing people in similar situations going about their daily routines. Like when you buy a new car all you see for the next few months on the road is that same model car.

I took a couple of photos of people with arms in slings and slowly the idea came into my head about it being a long term project.

Over the next year or so I shot a few more here and there as I came across them. They weren’t great photos from memory but the idea of it becoming a project wouldn’t go away.

I then showed some colleagues (the in-public discussion board) and was given a lot of encouragement from the other members. It was then that I really started thinking about it as a serious project….

The next 2 years of my life were spent shooting hundreds and hundreds of wounded people out on the streets.

I was hooked and obsessed, it’s all I shot. It became unhealthy to the rest of my street work as everywhere I went all I saw was wounded people.

I became an expert at spotting someone with bandage in a crowd.

The project was all about showing how resilient human beings are. Despite suffering from superficial injuries, most people dust themselves off and get on with life.

The challenge for me photographically was: good looking injury vs good photo, as most of the photos I took were fairly straight forward – man / woman with arm in sling walking down the street.

Finding people in situations that complemented or contradicted their physical position was a fun thing to be looking for out on the street. It was a really disciplined way of shooting

Towards the end I started seeing large scenes with more than one wounded person in it. This was for me the most rewarding part and a great way to finish the project.

It was one of those projects that I could have shot for another 2 – 5 years but for me and my photography I knew I had had enough. Looking for such a specific thing became quite restricting so finishing it off became a relief.”

From 'Wounded' pic: Jesse Marlow

From 'Wounded' pic: Jesse Marlow

From 'Wounded' pic: Jesse Marlow

From 'Wounded' pic: Jesse Marlow

From 'Wounded' pic: Jesse Marlow

From 'Wounded' pic: Jesse Marlow

There are few who would class London based David Solomons as anything other than a Street Photographer and yet he has completed two subject based series of what I would certainly call Street Photographs, I asked him if having a project was an advantage or a disadvantage for a Street Photographer:

“I learned to shoot in a project format from my time at Newport and the ‘Up West’ project evolved out of a desire to do something about London at street level after I had shot a similar project on the Underground. London seemed too broad a subject matter for me to tackle easily and as I often found myself drawn to shooting in the west end, the term ‘Up West’ resonated with me and I decided that that would make a good title for a project/book, so I subsequently concentrated on that area.

I personally find it is an advantage to shoot specifically for a project for a number of reasons. Firstly it gives me a goal to aim at, a finishing line so to speak. This provides me with a motivation to shoot at something specific, maybe this has something to do with my personality about wanting some sort of order to it, who knows. But I also feel I want to learn as a photographer, so trying to figure out how to develop and complete a project is always for me the greatest challenge. It also gives me a sense of perspective of how I’m maturing as a photographer as well as a person and how good I am at coming up with new ideas and trying out new ways of working. I personally don’t feel that working on a particular project blinkers you from shooting other things, though if like me, you tend to use lots of different cameras, the equipment you’re using may have some influence as to what other pictures I might be given to taking.

I personally feel it is an advantage to present your work in such a way that it has a clear objective. Publishers and exhibitors are mostly only going to be interested in unconnected images from an individual artist if they’re seen as some form of retrospective.

The great thing about photography is that we can enjoy an individual image as much as a larger body of work, they are like two different animals. The first would look great framed nicely on the wall, whereas the second would be experienced better in a book format. It’s rather like yeah I love ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ but it’s not the only great song Nirvana ever did and after a while you’ll want to listen to the rest of ‘Nevermind’ along with their other albums. So it’s about having a more comprehensive viewing experience, which is why I don’t feel any one of my images could communicate everything I wanted to say about the West End and that it works better as a larger project as it gives me more scope to do this.”

Coventry Street from Up West by David Solomons

Coventry Street from Up West by David Solomons

Duncannon Street from Up West by David Solomons

Duncannon Street from Up West by David Solomons

Oxford Street from Up West by David Solomons

Oxford Street from Up West by David Solomons

In the same way that trying to photograph NYC is overwhelming whilst trying to photograph the corner of 42nd and 5th can be quite productive, having a focus, a hook to hang your picture making on, can make your street shooting more productive. If you find yourself pausing to decide if a picture is going to fit into your project then you’ve got a big problem as a Street Photographer.

In many ways the general lack of specific subject matter in Street Photography has hindered its dissemination and acceptance by galleries and publishers who like to know what the pictures are ‘about’, There are very few books of Street Photographs that don’t have a strong theme holding them together and yet they rank among my absolute favorites…Jeff Mermelsteins Sidewalk, Martin Kollars Nothing Special, Trent Parkes Dream/Life, Gus Powells The Company of Strangers and Jun Abe’s Citizens contain some of the best street images of the last decade. I find it significant of some slight change in attitude that this year a large publisher, Thames and Hudson will release their survey of the contemporary scene, Street Photography Now and my own small publishing company will release ’10’ containing 200 mostly un-themed images from the in-public group. Neither of us would invest in these publications unless we thought their was now an audience for this work that is largely about nothing and, of course, about everything.

9 Responses to “What was the Subject?”

  1. Christian

    I think working on projects within Street Photography makes things easier in many ways. as written in your article it’s always better to communicate to publishers, gallerists and – most important – to your audience if you have a clear “headline” to your work. but i think there is still one special thing in those projects in street photography: even if you limit yourself to a clear subject you won’t be able to “calculate” your images, it still all depends on accidents and the fascination on street photography. that’s an essential difference to concept projects where artists visualize the pictures they already have in mind.

    When I worked on my ALEX project (all taken on Alexanderplatz in Berlin – ) I decided to work with a diffent camera to the one I regularly use, a different format, no upright format and consequently wide angle. in addition to the limitation of the area where I took the pictures, the limitation of the technique was an essential key to an own point of view within my own photography. speaking for myself, projects like these can help a lot to develop your photographic style and save you from taking the same kind of picures over and over again.

  2. jacques philippe

    Interesting thoughts indeed.

    As far as i am concerned I find it hard to focus on a specific subject when I’m out for photography (i.e. to “pre-edit” subject), not only because I feel it tears me apart from other situations with potential, but also because it just corrupts the way I would approach the subject itself. Unless there is a specific event from with sub- or side- subjects that benefit from the overall mood I find that being focused on specific subject or idea is mentally (and even physically) exhausting and finally counter-productive. So yes, the ‘loose’ approach is a good one IMO at least for single street-photo session.

    So: “it has always been the lack of a subject that has in many ways separated the street photographer from the photojournalist or reportage photographer (…)” makes sense indeed.

    I have realized that most of my favorite pics were the very instinctive ones. You know: the kind of shot that you did not think about few seconds before but that came out with that heady feeling that time slows down just for you to do the capture, and you realize afterwards that all happened in such a tiny fraction of time that you wonder how you managed to coordinate eye, brain and hands together. Though I believe the resulting images tells more about the author than what it is “really” about in the capture, it seems that those shots appear to be retrospectively pivotal in the way you assess subject-matters i.e. how you are drove to recurring situations, motifs and patterns.

    So finally you find consistent subject-matter and enough material to assess a specific topic, but in the long run and by editing your PF retrospectively – as it is explained here. I guess some of the historical street-photog would work that way when they had a book project.

  3. Blake

    Good post. I think an interesting comparison is Alec Soth’s latest California project ( Before going out looking for photos, he has a very specific list of subjects in mind. And in fact he’s used this method for all his projects. Not that Soth is a street photographer but if you look just at his photos with no explanation it would be hard to guess they’re made from a checklist. They seem much more found and unplanned. So there are probably many ways of getting to a similar place. For me personally, I try to avoid any specific subject matter although I do find myself attracted to the same things continually.

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  7. arenas

    – I want to say that I love looking at pictures. So my frustration is that when looking at a photo, picture, image it’s hard to say who took what. Sure they’re famous recognizable images, but largely due to the fact that they’re printed in various places with some frequency. But it’s hard to determine style with photography. An image can be good, because the photographer caught an interesting action, or light an angle or/and a facial gesture or the environment came together in such a way that the photo holds up with the people around, right, we get that. But who took it? In painting we can determine this is Cezanne, or this is Dix, or Beckmann, or Guston, Or Kirchner, we can see style in forms, colors, shapes, marks, etc…etc…. Than we can go further and say this is so and so who was influenced by so and so…. We can see these influence but in street (outdoor spontaneous) photography in general, it’s harder to determine this. We have to deal with a camera, outdoors, and people…It’s largely the same everyday. So there is intrinsic challenge not just to find a moment (if you believe in moments), but how can you make a picture that it’s more than just the moment.

    It seems that nowadays so many pictures are taken that a photographer must develop a style, a way to shoot…I think they’re still boundaries to be broken in photography or at least a way to shoot…danny arenas

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