David Gibson – The street photographer’s manual

streetAnother book that I’ve been reading recently is David Gibson‘s Street Photography Manual. Gibson is a member of the on-line collective of street photographers called In-Public which has been ‘a pivotal influence’ apparently in the growing popularity of street photography.The book was published in July (2014) by Thames and Hudson, and once it gets going, it is an entertaining, easy read that covers a lot of ground.

Street photography can mean different things to different people but Gibson sets out his ‘non-negotiable’ values in the introduction stating that:

It is usually of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. Street photography’s core value is that it is never set up[…] and […]the guiding spirit of street photography is that it is real.

Gibson goes on:

It is one of the most common misconceptions about street photography, where photographers believe they are practicing street photography even they interact with their subject who might acknowledge and approve of being photographed and even pose for the shot too. This is not street photography, it is taking a staged portrait.

Later, despite the lengthy definition of the opening chapter, doubt seems to creep in when discussing if photographing an agricultural show can be ‘street’, and he concludes by telling us ‘not to get bogged down into what is and what is not street photography. It does not matter.’. The space given to discussing this categorisation is frustrating, and hints at the problem I have with the term ‘street’. It is about the picture, not the keywords or tags. It doesn’t matter if it appears on a street photography blog or in an advertisement.

I don’t really understand why we need to introduce genres to photography and why we would want to pigeonhole ourselves or other photographers into one or another type of work. Similarly, I realise that very few top photographers apply their skills across the many photographic disciplines, but if they did, it is likely that their personal style would show through. If Bruce Gilden were to spend a week in the Lake District photographing landscapes, I’m sure at some point there’d be a sheep with a flash gun in its face!

This rigour and any good photographers’ dedicated, disciplined adherence to their own work is something that I’ve been interested in for a while. Rather than my crude analogy above, in The Photograph, Michael Clarke explains it thus (apologies for the lengthy duplication):

Photographs by major photographers might be said to elicit a certain style in the same way that any author exhibits a style of writing that we come to recognise. In this sense, we can view the photographer and an auteur, and the work as the summation of a visual style in which content and form are the visual reflection of a photographic discourse and grammar, as much as they are in writing or film. Although this is to the fore in relation to the photographer as artist, literally signing, so to speak, each image with the mark of creative authenticity, it equally recalls us to the extent to which every image is part of a self-conscious and determining act of reference to give meaning to things. The image is as much a reflection of the ‘I’ of the photographer as it is to the ‘eye’ of the camera.

This, for me at least, means that this categorisation is unnecessary and wastes time that we should be spending getting better. Anyway, once we’re through the introductory sections which vary between motivational and a little preachy, we’re into the 5 chapters that each contain a series of projects and insights into 20 photographers whose work has been selected to illustrate the various motifs. For example:

Chapter 5/Subjects

  • Children
  • David Solomons
  • Projects
  • Narelle Autio
  • Vertical/Horizontal
  • Oliver Lang
  • Ethics

At the end of each project we are given a list of possible sources of inspiration, areas to research and practical idea to try. This main body of the book is entertaining, informative and encourages the reader to ask questions of how they might approach a particular subject. Gibson is correct in his assertion that this is not a technical manual (despite the title) and explains his aversion to such books. It is instead inspirational and succeeds in encouraging us to get out and take pictures. It gives many good ideas to try, while building an interest in the subject matter, whatever we might refer to it as.

The section that I related to most was #18, Projects. Over the last year that I’ve been on the OCA course, one of the single most important learning points has been the idea of working on projects. It’s something I’ve learned from photographers that I admire, be they friends or professionals that I’ve researched. Where I used to wander about looking for things to photograph, I now go out with a purpose, however tenuous that may be. It might be the latest series of coursework exercises or it could be something from my list of on-going projects.

Gibson calls these the ‘dog that needs walking everyday’; for me they can become the itch that must be scratched. They can range from ideas that I’ve had but haven’t taken a single photograph for, via one day projects relating to a city I might be visiting through to long-term projects. Some will stall along the way, but the fact that I’ve got out and taken the pictures has usually been valuable.

Mudwig/SickboyFor example, while visiting my wife’s family in Poland, I traveled to nearby Wroclaw and to photograph each of the 30 building-sized, street-art murals that I’d discovered on the internet. I spent a long day walking many miles and saw some amazing sites, parts of the city that I’m sure no Englishman had ever visited. I shot each mural on a medium format Bronica that had almost broken my back as I carried it about. As it turned out, I got only a couple of decent pictures, ruining most as I processed them myself for the first time, but the shooting experience was something I won’t forget and it contributed to my photographic learning.

 

Right now, I have various themes that range from fully-formed projects with a collection of pictures towards them, through to vague ideas almost too sketchy to write down:

Concrete – I have a thing for concrete, be it in flyovers or in modernist/brutalist buildings

Billboards – usually blank ones or sometimes the back

Signs from woods – this idea was inspired by one image and so far I have one image towards it, although it isn’t as good as Max Regensberg’s.

Polish cars – that is cars made in Poland. The Polish automotive industry seems to have died completely, but even at its peak was limited to licensed copies of other company’s machines. Many remain on the roads of Poland and all states of disrepair

Cropston – I know no-one in the village in which I live and I have begun photographing the village over the hedges and through the gates that our community hides behind

Bradgate strangers – you may have read about that here or here

Neighbours – I’ll return to this once the nights get darker and I can stand outside people’s houses at a reasonable hour

Bike path signs – again, pretty vague, but whenever I see a bike painted onto a road, I’m tempted to photograph it

My tree – I’ve taken pictures of the tree that featured in my fourth assignment for the Art of Photography course for many years. I’m taking a break from it now having taken so many for the assignment, but I’ll be back

Leicester Forest Cycling Club – the riders and events of the club I belong to

 

But back to the book; I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to people looking to take more pictures of this type. Reading a book might teach technique, but it is impossible to impart the luck required to produce some of the best ‘street’ photographs. However, working systematically though the projects would increase ‘exposure time’ and help to improve the way one looks for photographs and ones understanding of how and why better pictures come about.

 

References

Clarke, G (1997) The photograph. Oxford; Oxford University Press

Gibson, D (2014) The street photographer’s manual. London; Thames and Hudson

Thames & Hudson (2014) The street photographer’s manual (On-Line) Available from:  http://www.thamesandhudson.com/The_Street_Photographer_s_Manual/9780500291306 [Accessed 26 August 2014]

 

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