8.27.2010

Street Shooting. Part One. Why the hell would you want to do that?


    Just hanging out at the Vatican soaking up the ambiance.


For a  generation of old codgers, raised on the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and that new upstart, Josef Koudelka, street photography is photography.  Those artists fostered two or three generations of Leica M toting,  Nikon F toting, Tri-X shooting fanatics.  What were these guys thinking?  I guess they were thinking that the world around them was going through tremendous upheavals caused by wars, human migration, the conflict of generations, the smell of the new,  the evolution of fashion and so much more.  And all of it was playing out right there on the streets.

Well, guess what?  The world, right now, is going thru tremendous upheavals caused by wars, human migration, the collapse of the world economy and the move from post industrial service economies to a future we're not sure about yet.  Gee.  It all sounds very familiar.  Except now it's playing out for the most part in front of big screen televisions in the service of endless video games, shopping and social excursions to ubiquitous and homogenous malls and in the sealed, air conditioned cars streaking back and forth from home to mall to quasi-fast food restaurants and back again.  Makes it a lot harder to be a visual "cultural anthropologist" on the street and yet photographers are reconnecting with the old tradition of trying to get a handle on what is "now" by documenting the evidence of their eyes.  Or maybe the thrill of street shooting never left us.........it was just napping through the Flickr age of endless cat whiskers, chunky girls lit by off camera flashes at dusk, and ninja's with smoke machines.

    People at the Termini train station in Rome.

I've absorbed books like, "Why People Photograph" by Robert Adams and I have a huge collection of photo books by Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyons and many, many more.  All of them shot in the streets.  Many of their images are stunning and provocative.  I appreciate them on two levels.  The first is as a time machine to the immediate past.  The descriptive content of these fractions of seconds shows me a time that seems so foreign now and yet it was occuring during my early childhood.  But I appreciate more the well seen graphic images of humanity as a visceral force of emotion and motion.  Flux and decay.

Street photographs are so different than set up photographs.  For some reason I get the impression that millions of "enthusiasts" who, in our father's day, would have been roaming the street and putting in time hoping to become informed observers of the human interplay have abdicated the exterior life in preference for trying to "create" art in their basements and living rooms.  Everything has become so self-referential as though we, as a culture, have lost our ability to attach to things outside our selves or to people outside our isolated, one degree of separation spheres.  We seem to have lost the feeling that we are all part of an interconnected bio system that's interwoven and interdependent, not just physically but also spiritually.  We've become a generation afraid to travel.  Even if it's just travel across town.  Or even fifty feet from our cars.

And so, in some ways, we, the new generation of street photographers, are like explorers out to show the mall and house trapped people what the world outside looks like.  We're trying to show how people exist without cars or credit cards or iPhones or Blackberries or large bank accounts in order, I think, to find the common intersections that will allow us to have renewed faith in the intentions of all the people who seem less like us.  Shooting in the streets gives us access to characters we wouldn't meet in the halls of our normal jobs in white collar America.  It shows an existence without the intangible safety nets of privilege that most of us have hovering below us.  But these images can show the same desire for fun, joy, love, affection and potential that drive us as well.  And by finding the common touchstones of being human we can understand more about ourselves.  

That's the big, philosophical point of view but it's not exactly why I photograph in the street.  I do it because there is some energy there that I'm trying to capture, like a lightning bug in a jar, to take back to an audience I'll never know and show them things in the way in which only I can see things.  I want them to acknowledge that I've looked at things from my very unique perspective and, by showing them, I can help people better understand me.  What my mind must be like. What I think has aesthetic value.  I'm sharing my perspective.  I'm sharing what interest me now.

I don't always photograph people.  Sometimes a Mexican fiesta banner of deep magenta flapping wildly in front of a talkative blue sky is enough to say, "look at what I see."  An altar to Hispanic pop singer, Selena, surrounded by saint candles and flowers allows me to visually shout,  "Do you think this is as weirdly different from my daily life in Austin as I think it is??????"  But the very bottom line,  figured out after years and years of intensive, daily pyscho therapy I've never had is this:  Shooting on the streets gives me a chance, an excuse to walk around and just stare at interesting stuff without having to have a real reason.  And it gives me something to share.

I think the best fiction writers and the best street photographers are the same.  We love to tell stories.  But we don't need to tell the whole story right away.  Sometimes it's better to just tease our audience (and I include myself in my audience) with a snippet that tells a little part of a story but tells it in a way that's so poignant that it's worth savoring in it's unanchored and compartmentalized whole.

Can I tell you a story about "the one that got away" and how it has haunted me ever since?  I was in Russia for a few cold weeks in February of 1995.  The country was in tremendous distress at the time and no one was sure where the next food or money would come from.  Times were very desperate.  But just typing these words makes the scene so banal.  What does desperate really mean?  Everyone's mind and their own history create a subjective mental story when we use words to describe despair.....So let me tell you what I saw.

I left my hotel on Nevsky Prospekt one afternoon with the intention to walk the streets of St. Petersburg and take photographs.  It was so cold you could see the breathe you exhaled ten minutes ago as it formed into snow and gently settled toward the earth.  I was out of place in my western, technical, cold weather gear.  My Contax camera dangling from its neckstrap.  And as I walked down the street the light was fading and becoming a dark and dusky rose color.  Street lights were flickering on and the cars crunched by on hard snow with their little headlights flickering.  

And then I came upon him.  Huddled against the stone wall of one of the ancient gray buildings was an old man.  He was wearing bits and pieces of an old uniform.  I could see a bit of newspaper tucked in around the tops of his worn shoes, put there as extra insulation from the biting cold.  He was worn just like a photos of every sun damaged homeless person living on the streets past a certain age.  His face had deep clefts and his eyes were worn, sad and vague.  Battered by the chill wind of hopelessness. 

He'd lost one arm.  His coat sleeve was pinned up to his shoulder.   This wasn't some faux display to evoke sympathy from tourists because I'll tell you that in the dead of winter in 1995 there weren't any.  At least none that would leave their hotels without chauffeurs, body guards and cars.....And he stood there in the freezing cold.

In front of the man was a very small and delicate wooden table, painted a fading french blue, faded away by time.  On the table was a glass case.  The glass itself was old and filled with romantic imperfections and bubbles.  The seams of the glass case were soldered bronze.  All crude handwork.  The glass case was the size of fairly typical home aquarium.  Inside the case were three littles vases of flowers.  Just two or three stems in two of the vases.  The third held a small bouquet of flowers and the smallest sprig of baby's breath.  In each corner of the case were small, white candles which gave off a peculiar, warm glow.  

I say it was peculiar because the slight warmth of the inside of the case caused just enough condensation to diffuse the candle light as it would be diffused through the living room's winter window of my house back home. The job of the candles was to keep the flowers, and the water they sat in, from freezing.  And as I stood there, riveted by this site the ambient light continued to drop until the streetlights, the daylight and the candles seemed to provide even amounts of illumination and the points of candle flame seemed so much warmer in the purple blanket that was slowly falling through the sky to cover the quiet city.

It was hauntingly beautiful and sad all at once. Deeply sad.  And I couldn't figure out how to include all the pieces of the scene in a frame of film without impinging on the dignity of the old man.  This was his life.  He knew it was his life.  It was all he had.  To photograph it seemed wrong.  It seemed exploitive.  It seemed like trophy hunting.  I left my camera dangling around my neck and I walked over and, in broken Russian, bad French and pantomimed English I bought the small bouquet of flowers.  I paid the man much more than he asked.  He gave me a memory that would haunt me for the rest of my life.  What was that really worth?  What can we ask from others except to make us kinder, more empathetic and more grateful?

What happened to the flowers?  I was out shooting.  I didn't want to carry around flowers.  I walked several more blocks and then turned a corner and gave the flowers to the first young couple I saw.  It was a beautiful day of street shooting and I returned to the hotel without having fired a frame.......



    Detail of the entry lobby at the Alexander Palace in 
    Pushkin, Russia.  1995.