As you walk the streets of your local city or town be on the watch for a nondescript, innocuous person with a camera. That photographer is looking for you and neither of you may even know it. The camera will likely be hard to spot, probably small, compact, possibly digital, maybe that mobile phone pointed in your direction right now. It will be hard to find this shadowy agent of art; he or she will deftly, adroitly, clandestinely have the camera out and the picture – your picture – captured before you can register the movement.
If this sounds ambiguous and mysterious and cool, well, it is.
I didn’t even know “street photography” was a thing. However, it is, and is replete with its own tricks and disciples and superstars. Gordon Lewis, a photographer with some forty years of experience, has written a clear primer on the subject with his recent book, Street Photography: The Art of Capturing the Candid Moment.
The philosophy of this candid photography intrigues me. In the first few chapters, Lewis repeatedly states that some find these candid pictures immoral, unethical, some photographers are sketchy about doing them. As I tried my hand at this genre I came to understand the reticence of this kind of photography. Even clandestinely holding my iPhone up, pretending to text or read email whilst really taking pictures in Burst mode was nerve racking. The paranoia took me. Suppose I were to photograph a serial killer? A stalked ex-spouse? A secret agent who’s trying to be invisible? My candid photo now allows a shadowy government agency or a lunatic to find and track the subject. Does he come after me for vengeance? Will an action hero arrive to help me out? What would he do to my camera?
Lewis’ goal with the book is not to advocate either way, simply to equip you with the tools and skills to do it. So is that tacit advocacy? I can’t stop thinking about it now. Do I want some jerk snapping pics of me and slathering the Internet with them? To be sure, it doesn’t bother me if a candid pic gets out there. I mean, let me quote Ron Burgundy, “hey everybody, come see how good I look.” (Insert smarmy smile). Ah, well, you can see what kind of metaphotography you will be able to contemplate with this book, even if it was unintentional.
All that aside, Lewis displays and discusses some of his own work and that of other street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter. He reviews photo composition – how to frame a shot, how to consider colors, keeping to a them in your work. He goes over the tools and techniques you’ll need to become a proficient street photographer. Becoming a brilliant photographer is all up to you.
In the second chapter he talks about choosing a camera. Street photography requires that you be quick with your camera, so you may not want to have bulky or conspicuous equipment. Do you want digital or analog? Lewis also addresses that. In fact, I also found that enlightening. It made be think of a common question in home brewing beer. Lewis talks about developing your own film (actual film) as opposed to using just digital images. He says: “If you’re using black-and-white film and doing your own developing, you have full control over how you process your film and print the results (print in this case refers to JPEGs for viewing on the Internet as well as literal prints).”
When brewing beer, the brewer must decide whether or not to use a pre-packaged extract (a syrupy mix of sugars already extracted from brewing grains) or whole grain, which entails boiling those grains for an extra hour or so and making your own wort from that boil. Essentially, using whole grains gives you more control over the final product. So, anyway, this simply reminded me that some artists need lots of control, some do not, both can make a superb finished piece.
He also said this: “A camera that allows you only 12, 24, or 36 exposures at a time, all of which you have to pay to process, encourages you to be more thoughtful about when to release the shutter button.” (Italics added) A disposable, instantaneous society such as ours needs reminders like that.
Lewis provides some strong technical guidelines, some principles about style and finding your own and a smattering of photographs that can inspire and direct. As he says, he “won’t tell you what to do and how to do it; instead, I intend to open your eyes and your mind to possibilities.”
Street photography is a visual documentation of life as it happens. Lewis’ book will prepare you to locate the moment and let it speak to everyone.