Confessions of a Street Walker

Featured in Rangefinder Magazine (January 2007)

Why Street Photography?

Willie Sutton, when asked why he robbed banks, famously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” If asked why he or she wanders the streets of the world’s cities, today’s street photographer might paraphrase Sutton by saying, “Because that’s where life is.” But the street photographer “takes” images from the streets for higher purposes. He documents his world, and in the process, often creates art.

Ever since the world’s first city was founded, the cities of the world have been where civilization is made visible. From the Roman Forum to the modern soapbox, artists, poets, writers and others have tried to explain the charms of the world’s cities and explore their arcana. It is only natural that photographers are drawn to city streets in an attempt to define them with their cameras.

We Americans, rushing along, see the street as a transportation resource that supports the tread of feet or the whir of wheels, gets us to our destinations, or perhaps serves as a jogging venue. But in Paris and other European cities in the mid-19th century, the streets were the theater and the sidewalk the stage on which life’s daily dramas were enacted. The audiences were actors in the human comedy, and the actors were the audience, who came to see—and be seen.

The newly minted middle classes, often living in cramped, dark apartments shared with rodents and insects, found escape and recreation in the egalitarian streets. All that was needed was clean clothes, and one could pose as whatever one wanted. A Parisian could enjoy a bag of hot roasted nuts, browse a bookstall, linger over an aperitif or savor a cup of steaming coffee at the innumerable cafés along the boulevards and watch the world go by. Thus was born the boulevardier, or flâneur, who was not only an observer of the passing parade, but also an integral part of it. Street life, with its kaleidoscopic energy, was on display day and night.

After the inventions of Louis Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce, c. 1826, it was only a matter of time before photographers began appearing on the streets. Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Caillebotte and other artists were deeply influenced by how the camera saw reality and eagerly incorporated photographic vision into their art. Contemporary artists, such as Ben Shahn, used photographs to record a scene and later turned it into a painting. Today, Shahn’s photographs have been rediscovered and are considered another expression of the artist’s creativity.

The Challenge

What is more unnerving for a new street photographer than walking up to a total stranger and snapping his or her photograph? Will the subject resent the act of photography? Will there be unpleasant consequences? How should one behave while approaching the subject? Should one boldly snap the shutter, or try to take the picture without the subject’s awareness of it? Street photography forces the photographer to define who he is, what he is made of and how he presents himself to a potentially hostile world.

The challenge is never overcome and repeats itself each time one goes out into the street. By controlling emotions, developing efficient techniques and learning to deal with the unexpected, a photographer builds character on the foundation of experience. Learning to master the confusing, chaotic street makes one a better person and induces an awareness of the street’s drama, order, disorder, beauty and ugliness, and of the poignancy of everyday life. Street photography offers much beyond an opportunity to take pictures. If you are timid, it will embolden you; if you are a follower by inclination, it will bring out leadership potential; if you are a cynic, it will show you the positive side of everyday life; if you are an optimist, it will show your lens sadness. “All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare, and you, the photographer, are privileged to take its picture in all its moods.

The street photographer captures subjects in the process of living their lives, unaware (if possible) that their picture is being taken. Once a subject realizes you are taking a picture, there is a shift in attitude. Ego and emotions kick in and influence the subject’s posture, expression, train of thought and action, changing the scene’s dynamic. That is why the lights are turned off over the theater’s audience when the play begins: The actors know the audience is there, but they don’t interact with them, as they might if the lights were left on. The audience feels as if they are eavesdropping on what is happening onstage. The same phenomenon applies to street photography.

Technology to the Rescue

When I got my first twin-lens reflex camera, I committed a flagrant act against the machine. Swallowing hard, I painted all of its shiny metal a dull black. When I finished, my brand-new camera looked like an old, beat-up box that couldn’t be taken seriously. Just the look I wanted! Thus my first rule of street photography was created: Don’t be conspicuous with your equipment or how you dress. Photography vests, bristling with straps, flaps and pockets, are handy to have, but they announce that “A photographer is here!” as loudly as if you were wearing a sign around your neck. The street photographer should be invisible—or, at least, inconspicuous. When you go out to photograph in the streets, leave your ego in the darkroom.

A twin-lens reflex, as I quickly found out, has an important advantage. The shutter emits a modest “click” and not the explosion of noise that characterizes many of today’s technological wonder boxes. A rapid crank of the handle, and you are ready for the next shot. Only being afforded 12 shots before reloading, a seeming disadvantage, also has its benefits: It makes you concentrate on quality over quantity. Certainly, if you take hundreds of pictures, the odds of getting some good ones go up. But with 12 shots per roll, you are forced to think of what you are doing and edit out the unnecessary images within your mind before you click. The act of changing rolls of film after 12 exposures gives you a mental break, a “time-out” opportunity to think things over a bit.

An interesting circular logic is at work here. If you “edit” the pictures in your brain before you snap the shutter, your critical sense is constantly engaged and the number of good shots will rise. On the other hand, if you shoot willy-nilly— dozens of pictures to ensure that you get some good ones—you are relying on the machine, not your own judgment, and gambling that the odds will work in your favor and produce a few good shots. Your photographs will suffer accordingly. What’s the point of producing technically brilliant photographs with weak and boring content?

The twin-lens reflex typically uses 120 film, which is 2¼-inch square, as compared with the 35mm (1×11/2 inches) size. The larger format produces negatives rich in detail and has the further advantage of allowing you to crop creatively without losing much of the image. With a twin-lens reflex, you can use the camera as another set of eyes in a dynamic street environment. You walk along, peering down into the groundglass and navigate around obstacles—people, fire hydrants, etc.—as you maneuver for the next shot, all the while looking through the lens, letting the camera function as an extension of your eyes. After a bit of practice, a Zen-like phenomenon occurs. You become an extension of the camera instead of vice versa. Your mind begins to see reality as the camera does, and it becomes easier to determine when to press the shutter. The more you train your eye to see like a camera, the more good pictures you will get. Slowly, you learn to ignore the scenes that make poor photographs; when you do, the number of good pictures goes up. You will have slanted the odds in your favor.

The Psychology of Camera Types

The type of camera used can affect how your subjects perceive you. A 35mm camera boldly announces your intent, because you have to hold the camera to your eye and peer through the viewfinder. Using a twin-lens reflex presents a different posture. You are bent over the camera peering down into the finder. Most people realize you are taking pictures, but your body language is that of someone bowing. You seem to be showing respect in a non-threatening way.

Because you are not looking directly at them, many subjects often do not realize you are taking their pictures, which works in your favor, at least for a while. The perversity of human nature does not guarantee you will always be welcome, but the odds of acceptance go up a notch. What I am articulating here is what works for me. There are thousands of photographers who use 35mm and get marvelous images. I own a Minolta 35mm and have used it extensively for street photography, as well as my twin-lens Rolleiflex. To some degree, personal habit determines the kind of camera you use. But recent advances in technology make it desirable to experiment with different camera types.

For example, a Fujifilm GA645Zi looks like an overgrown 35mm camera, and in many ways behaves like one. Its larger film size (120), however, puts it on a par with the twin-lens family, providing the advantage of a large negative that offers finer picture quality. And it squeezes 16 exposures into a roll, four more than the Rollei.

Stealth Photography

Because the GA645Zi is fully automatic, it is usually not necessary to use a meter or even look at the camera’s controls while shooting. This permits you to take pictures without seeming to. It is desirable to look through the viewfinder to accurately frame your picture, but if you are trying to take a picture without disturbing the subject, it is not always necessary. To do this, drape the camera around your neck with the strap, keep your finger on the shutter button and point the camera in the general direction of the person you want to photograph. When you take the picture, don’t forget to hold the shutter button down halfway for a split second before pressing it down all the way, to allow the camera to autofocus and adjust the lens setting for the correct exposure. The GA645Zi’s exceptional wide-angle lens will take in most scenes handily. With a little practice, you can wander through a crowd of people, taking pictures left and right, and to the casual observer you don’t appear to be using the camera at all. In many cases, you don’t even have to look at the subject when you are taking the picture. With a little practice, you will be able to walk right up to a subject, stand within a few feet of him or her, shoot from the hip and take the picture without the subject ever being aware of it.

Why “Stealth Photography?”

Stealth photography is just a hip way of saying candid photography. Its hipness derives from the stealth bomber, said to be invisible to the bombee, and therefore more effective. Allen Funt, whose hilarious television show Candid Camera entertained a generation, unfortunately made the word “candid” unpopular with art photographers, as it became equatable to the ordinary, mundane, and often amusing man-in-the-street. Funt, a genius of sorts, took advantage of the inherent gullibility of many people, or tricked people into saying or doing things they might not say or do normally, to the vast enjoyment of the television audience.

Game over! Stealth implies doing something illegal, while candid implies being truthful. Which one do you prefer? It’s time to take back the word candid and restore its original meaning. Street photography is about being truthful by taking pictures of life as it is lived each day. It is poetry of the lens and deserves the respect and honor that it brings to its subjects and practitioners.

Martin Elkort has been a photographer since age 10. He is a former member of the Photo League, and his photographs are in the collections of the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Elkort resides in Los Angeles, CA, where he continues to refine his craft.

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