Street photography has a long and rich history that we might say has its genesis with Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson who in the 1930's championed the seminal concept, ‘the decisive moment’ and in so doing set an early precedent for the collective exploration of the street.
While the meaning of street photography has evolved over the decades with new technologies and approaches, I feel personally that it still offers the most profound way to test one’s ability to dance the photographers dance.
What I mean by ‘the dance’ is that one needs to be nimble enough in mind and body to capture a compelling image that is forged out of the turmoil and random chaos that is the street.
Life is disorderly and it plays itself out in the most disorderly ways. Even more so on the street. Stand on any corner in any city and you will witness a flurry of colliding moments. The art of street photography to my mind is capturing those moments in such a way to allocate meaning to them. Giving order to those moments and in so doing, forge your own narrative from them, and in turn hoping to offer visual clues to others so that they might derive some meaning from them too.
Another challenge of the street photographer is to seize those random moments in such a way so as to make them appear like they appeared for you. And you alone. They were given to you by some sort of divine intervention. This is metaphorically speaking of course. We are not literally controlling reality but merely been highly selective and determining within the discipline of the edges of the viewfinder deciding what to include.*** What to leave out. And when to press the shutter. The why, what, where and how questions are ever more relevant to the street photographer. While fashion photographers direct, street photographers can only anticipate and make sure they are exactly where they need to be to get the ‘decisive’ moment. When all the chaos before them gels into one cohesive and ‘complete’ visual structure!!! That is when all the elements within the frame coalesce to form ‘the absolute’ perfect’ combination of pure visual potentiality.
I recall veteran colour street photographer Ernst Haas said something like this; ‘the photographers discipline is the frame of the viewfinder. What you choose to include within and what one chooses to leave out, is what defines you as a photographer’.
The dance then for me is forging my own ‘vision’ out of the randomness of the street. And more recently I have taken an interest in how having a concept in my head, actually influences reality. Yes I want to embellish a little bit on what I mentioned in the previous paragraph.***
I am becoming more fascinated with the strangeness of coincidence and pondering the notion of changing reality by thinking about it differently. For as I experiment it seems to me I can 'persuade' the street to offer up scenes or scenarios that snap into the loosely constructed figments of vision, concepts or themes that float around in my head. I witness the street align itself with my fanciful imaginings and I become increasingly fascinated to see how I can coax from the tapestry of the street what I need to complete my vision simply by willing things to happen!
An example of this therefore I hope is evident in the work I am developing for the Penang Open Artist Exhibition. I needed an excuse to explore Georgetown, but I didn't want to merely wander around and collect random visual vignettes of a postcard picture perfect heritage listed historical town. I wanted to have a theme in my head that would force me to look at GT differently.
I chose 'film noir'. Film noir can mean a lot of different things to different people, but to establish a discourse I present the Wikipedia definition; 'a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace'. With these words in mind, I took to the street. And I let reality dish up what it needed to offer to help me complete my vision. I wanted the resulting images to have a sense of ambiguity mystery and menace.
Street photography. Its not just an activity. Its a philosophy.