Faizal Westcott, in his video, “Is Street Photography With No People Still Street Photography?” says: “street photography is capturing the human presence.” With this definition, the answer to the question in the title is, “yes.” Westcott then uses the work of Fred Herzog to substantiate his point. Herzog, Westcott says, expresses the human experience in the time he was documenting without using people in his photos. Because his work reflects the human experience, it’s considered a form of street photography. The value in Herzog’s work is in the documentation of the ordinary and everyday.
Years ago I had a project idea in mind: I was going to document the mundane. It started with filming the just the second hand moving for one minute around a faceless clock. The next video was filming a subwoofer speaker for one minute. The title of the project was probably something like, “The Mundane Minute.”
There were only ever two videos made and they’ve been lost.
While watching Westcott’s video this afternoon, I thought about the project I had all those years ago and how my current foray into street/urban photography is likely just an extension of that.
Just over a week ago, an article titled, “4 Painful Signs You’re Void of Confidence in Street Photography,” (careful with this link, as I’m sure it’s just clickbait) popped up in my news feed. After reading it, I felt like I had it all wrong. My photos don’t have a lot of people in them and I am sheepish about taking pictures of people. Instead, I try to look at the city like a landscape and choose which features of it to highlight. And sometimes the scene calls for an animal.
I wrestled with these two competing notions as I walked toward a wooded ravine in the middle of the city. I was carrying my camera but not seeing any compositions. When I got to the ravine, it took me a good while to see what I was looking for. I knew that I wanted to take pictures of trees covered with the fresh snowfall. Everywhere I looked, there were trees covered in freshly fallen snow. I couldn’t see a picture worth taking, though.
I took a few snaps of anything, thinking that a false start might trigger something. It didn’t really take.
While walking home after sunset, I found myself standing across the street from a construction site. Posted on the walls protecting pedestrians from the work, I noticed that there were pictures taken during the construction of a building. The pictures were likely not intended to be hung on gallery walls. At the time, they were likely just documentation, a celebration of the process of building something grande.
To look at the pictures now, though, they give some humanity to the construction site. The pictures give passersby a sense that there is something great happening beyond the walls shielding them from the great happenings. What the pictures are really doing is telling a story about an event that once took place. The pictures are great simply because they do only that.
Thinking back to Westcott’s definition of street photography, it’s a good definition because it allows you to take the pictures that you want to take when compiling your version of a story. The only objective when taking pictures should be to capture the moments that tell the story of human existence. The art of photography is simple.