Street Photography I

What gear is essential for street photography? A camera.

You can stop here if you wish. Part II will be posted next week.

There will be no deep dig into the pluses and minuses of different types of cameras or lenses. Yes, given that you are, generally, trying to be as invisible as possible, a smaller kit in your hand will aid in doing that. But really, that is all that the discussion of gear needs to encompass. And that’s not to say street photography cannot be done with a larger camera, it just may be a bit more difficult to remain undetected. A wider angle lens will require you to get physically closer to your subject, but that is not an imperative for good photography, as we discussed in the Prologue.

Frankly, I don’t give a flying fadoo (have to keep this family-friendly and G-rated) what camera was used to make a particular image. Nor should anyone else. It does not matter one iota whether the camera has 80 bazillion megapixels and super-high-frequency, light-bending, NASA-quality collection lenses on top of those pixels. It is irrelevant that the camera can see a black cat in a coal bin with no ancillary light source because it has X-ray, cyborg ninja-like high ISO, low noise capabilities. No one who matters is going to ask if you used the newest Mk LXXXVII version of your 15-45mm f/whatever lens with the latest megatronic, faster-than-the-speed-of-sound focusing motor and the double-reverse, super-high/low dispersion elements having the ultra-transmissive, high-definition clarity, refraction-stopping coatings; or whether you’re still using the older, and demonstrably worse (.000000001% worse in simulated zero-atmosphere, clean room lab testing) Mk LXXXVI version. Those considerations are for the pixel-peeping measurebators who inhabit the cold, dank recesses under bridges on Internet photography discussion boards and the passel of review sites that cater to them. We are not they.

Fifty year old film rangefinder, mid-level DSLR, the latest and greatest cell phone camera, or the newest, slickest mirrorless camera. It doesn’t matter. All do the same thing. All make a picture by converting light energy projected onto a light-receiving medium into a visible image – the photograph – be it digital or analog.

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian media pioneer and philosopher. His prescience in things media – and communications – related was such that much of the positive disruption, perhaps destruction, we have seen in media and communications with the advent and growth of the Internet can be traced back to his words and writings many years before the Internet even became a thing (to use a decidedly millenialish, 21st Century phrase). McLuhan’s idea of a global village was, in effect, the Internet we use today. He posited the idea of a global village in the early 1960s.

Perhaps the most famous of his many ideas was the quote, “The medium is the message.” Interesting statement, but what did he mean by it.

One interpretation is that the method of transporting or communicating a message can, and should, be the more important order of study and that, without the medium, the message has no meaning. His concept was that the message depended on the medium for transmission and that the medium used could determine how the message is deciphered. The point was that the technology was more important than the message.

What does that mean for us? The answer to that question depends on how we approach it.

If we look at the concept at a very high level and we consider the medium as visual rather than written, or spoken – let’s call these silos of communication – then McLuhan was very much right. But if we drill down within a silo does the concept still hold?

Taking the visual silo as an example since, as photographers, we are visual people, we can compare a drawing, or painting, to a photograph. Is there a difference between a manual reproduction of a scene and a photographic reproduction of the same scene? Certainly there can be. The manual expression is much more open to interpretation on the part of the artist. She can add or remove elements easily. She can alter the viewer’s attention by the use of light and shadow, changing what existed in the actual setting. What about the photographer? Can he do these things? Unquestionably yes, but not without much more effort. If each of the manual and mechanical reproductions are limited to what was done just in the time the scene was recreated then the photographer cannot have the same impact as the manual artist.

Carrying that idea further, it really matters little, then, what type of recording device the photographer uses. Be it analog or digital. Whether it is an ‘old’ 2 megapixel, first generation iPhone, or a 42 megapixel Sony A7 RII, or a Canonet QL17 GIII loaded with film. It does not matter. If each takes the same picture at the same time, while there will be technical differences between the pictures, the message will be the same.

At this level, McLuhan’s theory does not hold up. At this level the medium is photography and the delivery is the same irrespective of the technology used within our silo. The message is determined by you and your skill in conveying the message you see, in convincing your viewer that what you see is relevant and important for them to see.

In our case, the message is the medium.

A number of McLuhan scholars will say this interpretation is bollocks and nothing more than ignorant codswallop. They will say that the idea of the medium is the message is much deeper than that. They will explain that what McLuhan was referring to was a much larger concept. That the message is not the actual content of a spoken, or written, word, or a picture, but rather the message is the impact; specifically the surprise impact, that a method, or invention, has on society over time. And that the medium is not the delivery mechanism of that simple message, but that the medium is the larger set of circumstances that are created by the invention, or new thing. McLuhan himself used the example of a car. Simplistically the medium is the car. To McLuhan, the medium is not the car, it is the set of things that are put into place as a result of the car and how those things impact on society over time. Roads, manufacturing plants, gas stations, oil refineries, those are the medium and the message is how those things impact society in ways not anticipated at the time the car was envisioned. Climate change, as one example.

What does this larger understanding of the medium is the message mean for us as photographers? What are the unanticipated consequences, or results, of the invention of the camera? I would suggest that the best answer to that is the iPhone. The iPhone is the car. The selfie and the practice of posting selfies to social media, even social media itself, is the medium. What is the message? The narcissism and self-absorption that is rife in society today, the growing rudeness to others, particularly among younger people; but also growing among older generations, could be deemed the unforeseen consequences of the selfie and social media. Taking a step back and looking at the medium a bit differently, we can look at the change in the move from analog to digital. What is the medium? The medium may be the growth in factories producing silicon wafers and electronic components. What is the message? The message is the impact the advent of digital photography has had on the world of analog photography. Perhaps the largest icon, certainly the most well-known – Kodak – is no more.

Do these change what photography is at its core; however? I would suggest the answer to that question is no. Over time, now approaching 200 years of time, photography has remained much the same. The unintended, or unforeseen, impacts of photography, or at least the changes in photography, when viewed in a larger context are minimal, I would theorize. The changes in technology, the new inventions related to photography – the gradual reduction in size of cameras and film, the improvements in film technology, the move to digital – have not, when examined from a high level, really changed over time. A camera is a camera is a camera. A photo is a photo is a photo. The technology matters not.

For us, the message is still the medium.

Here is another way to look at it, and I grant that it may seem a bit unfair on cursory examination. It is generally accepted that the birth of photography was in 1839. That was the year the Daguerreotype was introduced as a commercial method of capturing an image. The inception of the digital revolution in photography is a bit more difficult to trace. For our purposes here, I am going to suggest that it is February 2003. That was when the first digital camera that was truly accessible to a wide audience – the Canon 10D – was introduced. Some might put the date at January 2007. The announcement of the iPhone. I will posit that the iPhone broadened the scope of the digital revolution, but that it was well under way already. In the period from 1839 to 2003, we’ll call this B.D. (Before Digital), compared to the period since, which we’ll call A.D. (After Digital, some film adherents may say Death), how many truly important photographs have been made?

‘But you’re comparing a period of 177 years to a period of only 13 years,’ you might be saying. That’s the bit unfair seeming bit. Is it really unfair though? While the periods are quite different in length, the number of photos taken during those periods favors the more current era. There are far more pictures taken today than there were then. It really is not an unfair comparison. On the volume of photos taken, it may actually be unfair to the B.D. period.

Back to the question. How many truly important photos have been taken in the B.D. era compared to the A.D.? I would argue that there have been truly few important images made in the Digitalocene era and that the comparison favors the historical period. Despite all the advances in technology, despite that so many more people are taking pictures today, that getting to see so many more pictures is possible today so we can evaluate – including those taken in the older era thanks to digitization; despite all of the factors favoring the current era of photography, fewer truly great, memorable and important photographs are being made today.

The technology is unimportant. The changes technology have had on photography, both intended and unforeseen, are immaterial. The message is the medium.

What you capture is infinitely more interesting, and important, than what you capture it with.

What gear is essential for street photography? A camera.

Addendum: In November, 2016 TIME Magazine produced a list of what it felt are the 100 most important photos in history. How many are digital?

The Interview

Robert Sadoff, a self-confessed Luddite, has been photographing the streets of Toronto for nearly 40 years. He has been known to resort to binder twine and baling wire; with an occasional light application of aircraft epoxy, to keep his collection of obsolete, nearly-petrified, relic cameras in working condition. He can also often be seen at photo meet-ups standing in a corner muttering, “Help a guy out, spare a roll of E6.” You can see a sampling of his street photography on Photochimps.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Photos are used with permission. Click on the images to access larger versions.

Old folks

Old folks

How do you conceive of, or define, street photography?

For me it’s about the photography of candid human interactions, but not always. The photography of people, but not exclusively. Photography that takes place in urban settings, but not every time. It’s photography that tells stories and makes a point, but again not in all instances.

The best I can do to describe it is to use the analogy of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who in a 1964 opinion on the characterization of pornography wrote, “I know it when I see it.”

Why street photography? Why street over other genres? What is it about street photography that interests you?

I originally bought my first “real” camera back in 1977 to take photos of our first child. Very quickly I found that the majority of my pictures were of our two kids, and their interactions with the children of our friends and neighbours, and this just naturally evolved into an interest in photographing strangers as they went about their daily lives. I also spent a great deal time reading photography books and magazines as well as attending courses on photography, and was exposed to a wide variety of photographic genres. I became a competent photographer of many of the static disciplines such as landscape and nature, but my photos of them seemed to lack soul, likely because they never interested me as any more than academic exercises. “Oh look! Robert took a photo of a tree!”, was a comment from a photobud upon seeing some of my nature pictures, and when dragged kicking and screaming to Lake Superior Provincial Park, or Death Valley California to bask in, and shoot nature’s splendor, I’d usually spend the time taking photographs of my photobuds taking photographs.

For most of the nature and landscape photographers I know their photographic mission seems to be a search for beauty, and a very fine photographer told me that he could never shoot the subjects I do expressly because they weren’t beautiful. I replied that I could never shoot the subjects he did, because all I ever wanted to do was tell stories with pictures.

What do you want viewers of your photography to see? About your subjects? About your vision of your subjects?

Something of their situations and perhaps their lives. And in some cases to think about issues and situations that they may have never considered before.

The muffin

The muffin

What are you trying to convey, or tell, to people about your subjects? About the places you photograph in?

It differs from situation to situation, and while I might have a certain story in mind when I take the shot, it is up to the viewer to decide what the shot means to them. If anything.

The fact that they take the time to look and perhaps think if even for a moment about what I’ve presented to them is really all I’m trying to achieve.

What are your ethical boundaries in your street photography?

“Photograph unto others as you would have them photograph unto you.”

Moses and Jesus (who both used Nikons newer than mine) used to say that.

Tell the stories, but don’t be mean or hurtful.

When expressly asked not to photograph, I always respect those wishes and won’t then covertly or from a distance take the shot. This has happened on a number of occasions during Gay Pride or with homeless people whom I’ve been photographing for over twenty years, and I have always respected those wishes. In cases where the requests were made after the photos were taken, those shots have never been publicly shown. (Ed: Robert shoots with film so the ‘Delete’ option is not available to him)

And while it may be more about self-preservation than ethics, I never photograph children without permission.

What do you look for when you are out shooting? What strikes your eye?

I see a lot of street photography that I don’t appreciate because it seems have no point other than being a record of a moment in time that could easily have been taken five or ten seconds earlier or later without being discernibly different. I try to be more deliberate in what I shoot as I’m trying to tell a story with the photo, so I’m looking for situations with human interactions that will evoke emotional responses in the viewers. If my photos cause the viewer to think, to be mad, sad, glad or bad, then I feel I’ve accomplished my goal.

How has street photography changed in the almost 40 years you have been doing it?

With the advent of the electronic “devices” with built-in digital cameras there are vastly more people taking photos in public than ever before, and to a certain extent the shyness of invading a stranger’s space that was such a large barrier to many photographers trying this genre years ago has been alleviated in part by the drive to document every aspect of life no matter how mundane, as well as the incredible self-absorption of so many persons today.

And of course for those serious street photographers, the tremendous advances in the technology of Digital cameras has made it easier in a technical sense to be better photographers.

You have spent a lot of time documenting the homeless in Toronto. What is it about these people that interests you?

I’ve been photographing Toronto’s Homeless People for about twenty years.

It started because while downtown here in Toronto I noticed a homeless person sitting at busy main intersection begging for change. He was essentially surrounded by a crowd of pedestrians waiting to cross, and as I watched it became apparent that they were all deliberately ignoring him. The light changed and they all walked away without one even so much as glancing down at him. It occurred to me that the homeless were essentially invisible to the rest of us because in most cases it was just easier to look away or ignore them, than to perhaps make eye contact and confront an unpleasant situation.
I decided then to start photographing them and perhaps in some small way make them more visible.

The first time I went out, I drove to a street where I knew a number of homeless persons “lived”, pulled over, rolled down the window, took a shot with a long lens, and quickly drove away.
I stopped a few blocks away and was overcome with shame at what I had just done. Not because I had taken the picture, but because of the manner in which I had taken it.

I realized that to get any meaningful photos I’d have to first get to know the people I was photographing.
So I drove back, parked my car, got out and walked up to the first street person I saw, introduced myself, shook his hand, asked his name and began to talk. We spoke for a long while and with his permission I took some pictures. He was kind enough to give me a lot of insight into his life on the street as well as lessons in street etiquette and even walked back with me to the colony of street people I had first photographed and introduced me to them. For the next couple of years, I spent a great deal of my free time downtown, getting to know many street people and photographing them.

And yes, I often do give them some money, but it is never contingent on permission to shoot. I always make that clear. They’ll get the dollar or two regardless.

I'm a survivor

I’m a survivor

(Ed: This is a woman who Robert and I have both photographed and spoken with. I have bought her meals on multiple occasions. He and I have seen her appearance and demeanour change dramatically; from frightened and ashamed, to much more hardened and, sadly, almost resigned, in the roughly 18 months she has been on the street.)

You don’t just photograph the homeless, you take the time to talk with them and, in some cases, get to know them. Why? What is important to you about that?

You really can’t know a person until you talk to them, and perhaps in some small way walk a mile in their shoes. I learned this many years ago from my first photography mentor, who spent a great deal of time in North Africa, and always had wonderful stories to tell about the people he photographed. He impressed upon me the idea that photos of strangers were always better if you got to know them first, and this became very evident when I began to spend time talking to, and far more important, listening to many of my subjects whether they owned homes or not.

Robert Capa was right when he said “If your pictures aren’t good enough,  you’re not close enough,” both physically and more important, emotionally.

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