It is not just the fading romance of something that is about to disappear that he gives us, but rather a new statement now framed within his photograph that transcends the evocative beauty of the gardens themselves.
Jacqueline Kennedy, speaking about Eugène Atget
A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb but eloquent.
By 1900 ‘the injuries of time’ had made it a mirage of history that can hardly be believed.
Jacqueline Kennedy, referencing William Henry Fox Talbot in discussing Atget’s photography
The above quotes highlights the simplicity of Atget’s approach to photography. Eugène Atget was a French photographer in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Little known during his lifetime, after his death his photography has been celebrated for its restraint and its purity. Viewing his photographs is not like trying to find meaning in a Kandinsky, or de Kooning, or Picasso painting. Agtet’s imagery is simple yet has great meaning and presents the message in an understated and persuasive manner. He understood well that a simple picture could convey a strong message.
Atget is, probably, the standard-bearer for the idea that street photography does not have to include people. Some of his work did, but much of it did not. What Atget tried to capture was the essence of French culture and attitudes through its architecture and edifices. What Atget was trying to show, even without people in his pictures, was the interaction between the people and the city and the influence that interaction had on the material elements of the city. An early example of a similar approach in North American photography may be Edward Steichen’s famous Milk Bottle image. In addition to photographing in the middle of the city, he went outside to the poorer areas to show the dichotomy that existed in Paris. His preferred working time; early in the morning before the city began to stir, helped ensure a dearth of human presence in his imagery. In addition, owing to his early morning wanders, he needed to use longer exposure times which, in some instances, would simply blur moving people into invisibility, or sometimes render them as ethereal, ghost-like presences.
Much of Atget’s work in documenting the Paris of the time is now invaluable because so much of what he photographed no longer exists, buildings having been razed and replaced as France modernized and rebuilt after World War II. Berenice Abbott acquired a significant amount of Atget’s work upon his death, and in March of 2015 the Ryerson Image Centre of Ryerson University in Toronto acquired the entirety of Abbott’s collection which includes the Atget negatives and prints she had.
The important point is that street photography does not have to include people. The essence, then, is to illustrate the impact people have on their surroundings or that the environment has on the people. How do our actions affect the surroundings we live in? How do we accommodate those surroundings? How do we force those surroundings to accommodate us? How does the passage of time, and the imposition of, at the time, unforeseen technologies impact on the physical fixtures of our society. These are the kinds of questions to consider when you are working to make street photos that are devoid of obvious human presence. Showing the impact of past human presence on the place. It can be something very simple. A wooden door handle worn over decades of use. A hard, granite staircase with indentations from generations of people climbing up and going down. We can see the thousands, perhaps millions, of hands that have grabbed the handle and feet that have trod on the steps. We impact our environment in imperceptible ways as individuals, but collectively, we make a significant impression. Over time, our environs seem to sag under our weight. Those are small scale examples of the interaction between our environment and us. What are some larger ones? On a very large scale, Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes may be considered. Though simply by virtue of the scale of the images, they would generally be considered to fall outside the realm of street photography. That concept could be applied on a smaller scale; however, such as the two images below. How does a building get constructed with a door like this? Why is such a great load of garbage simply left to accumulate over an obviously extended period of time? It is still there five years after this was taken in 2011. Others? How can we illustrate some of the endless ways humans impact their world and vice versa? Can we show part of the passage of time in a place through photos?
The concept of our impact on the world around us can be obvious, or subtle. It can be dramatic, or not. Here is an example. This column dates back to the 1880s. It was made of limestone, which is a very soft, porous rock. There used to be a workers’ union hall in the building and, as legend has it, the workers used to touch the column as they came and went from meetings. Over the years, pedestrians would touch the column as well. Over the decades, the column became so degraded that it had to buttressed with jack posts to keep the front overhang of the building from falling down.
In 2015, the owner of the building repaired the column. The repair is also illustrative and instructive. It makes no attempt to replicate the original. It is simply a cement column with a slap-dash attempt at some decorative flourishes. It acts as a metaphor for the modern idea that good enough is good enough.
Henry Fox Talbot called this type of thing the “injuries of time”. Similar types of images can be found in pretty much any place with a long history and old architecture. His book The Pencil of Nature was a collection showing many such injuries of time.
Graffiti might qualify too. But that’s too easy. We do not want easy. Easy is not challenging as a photographer. Easy does not challenge or engage your viewer. To co-opt the late U.S. President John Kennedy, we choose to photograph the less obvious things not because they are easy, but because they are hard and because in so doing it will help to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that is the challenge we are willing to accept and not postpone.
Not to compare photography with landing a man on the moon, but you get the point.
Street photography does not have to include people, but it can include animals.
Walking in the Chinatown area of Toronto one morning I came across the outdoor common area of a mall. It’s a fairly large, inner city mall yet, whenever I pass by, there are rarely people going in, or coming out of, these lower doors. Almost all the patrons use the street-level entries. On this particular day, two dogs were laying quietly outside the doors. I watched for several minutes. No one went in or came out. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Were these strays that had made their way down into this area for a rest and shelter? Had someone left them there and gone in the mall? If so, why not tether them? I was actually about to call animal control when a man came out of the mall and the dogs got up to follow him. It was clear they were his dogs. The shot of the two dogs looking lonely and forgotten, nuzzled together, keeping each other company tugged at my emotions. To say I was displeased with the owner of the dogs and wondered how well he looked after them would be an understatement. Moral judgments aside, it makes for an interesting photo.
Another approach that is often used in street photography is the visual pun or visual irony. This too can be overly simplistic, lack creativity and vision. The homeless person laying or sitting in front of a bank, as an example. The attempt at social commentary through street photography has been done so many times and is so obvious that the message is rendered mute. The panhandler standing on Rodeo Drive is another example of the glaringly obvious attempt at visual irony. These are thoughtless attempts, lacking in creativity. Also falling into the realm of being exploitative or taking advantage. Remember, think don’t just do. Find a way to tell your story that is not something that has been repeated many times in the past.
Still the visual pun can work. It can work when it is more subtle. Subtlety takes, once again, the ability to see and not just look. It may take a few seconds to ‘click’. That lack of obviousness is an indication that you may be seeing a successful piece of visual irony. Good street photography is slow photography. It is layered and takes time for the viewer to see all that is there. It is not just ‘oh, pretty flower’ photography.
I was walking in an area of Toronto that has, for many years, been less desirable. It is starting to gentrify but there are still remnants of the former neighbourhood around. A number of stores had windows covered and lease signs hanging. A ‘For Lease’ sign in a window was not unusual, nor was it particularly interesting. Then this store came into view. It had the ubiquitous For Rent sign in the window, the inside had been cleaned out. Looking higher to see what the store was, the visual irony became clear. The liquidation outlet that had, itself, been liquidated. There are many messages that this image provides even though people are not the central focus. Aside from the visual irony, there is the indication of a neighbourhood in flux. The people and demographic are changing. The area is becoming more affluent which will impact how existing residents are able to continue to stay in the area. If they are not, where will they go? Gentrification is gradually pushing further outward from the center of the city. Will there be conflict between the new and the old? How will any such conflict resolve? More time and further study will be necessary to see if the rewnewal movement truly takes hold or is stalled along the way.
Advocating an avoidance of the obvious is not to try to suggest, or prove, that we are smarter, or cleverer, or better than anyone else. Really, it is just a matter of suggesting ways to try and elevate the art of street photography back to what it used to be and to tell more interesting stories. The obvious is easy. But the more difficult, the less obvious, provides the valuable insight into how we, as people, interact with each other and with our surroundings. How we affect the world we live in and how that world affects us as it changes over time. It gives us the context and back-story to events and the unfolding of history that we may otherwise not have. It is the record of time and not all of that record is readily apparent. We need the bigger picture to understand the whole. This is what street photography was and can be again.
This points to another, perhaps, larger definition of street photography than was discussed in the prologue. Street photography as an examination of the human condition, both positive and negative. What is the ‘human condition’? That is the beauty of keeping definitions fairly vague. They become open to interpretation, which means that each photographer decides for him- or herself what the human condition is and how s/he wants to describe it through their street photography. Back to the individuality of the expression that was mentioned in the prologue.
Immanuel Kant and John Rawls both discussed the idea of our interaction with the world and how it could become so bad, under certain conditions, that humans may not be willing or able to inhabit the world any longer. Certainly that is one, fairly morose, view. Perhaps the ultimate in nihilism. There is also the positive, which is often ignored or relegated to also-ran status. The feats of human achievement, even on a small level, are wondrous and deserve to be seen and those stories told. What are those positive stories in your life? How can you bring those to others through your street photography?
Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m trying to express. It is titled Metaphor for Life. I had stopped for a coffee and was sitting on the back patio of the café. It was a cold, February morning and most of the accessories that are normally on this patio had been ‘put away’ for the winter. Looking around, I saw this haphazard collection of ‘stuff’ pushed, seemingly, without care into a corner. We push things, and people, into a corner and hope that no one notices. The concept is enhanced by the three figures painted on the wall where the eyes have been cut off as if metaphorically blinded.
‘Nature Wins’ is an idea that I have been playing with for many years. What it is, is a visual representation of the resilience of nature over our attempts to control it. It is another example of how we interact with our environment. The concept can take many forms. Some obvious, some less so. Vegetation growing through a crack in a sidewalk is obvious, and generally not overly visually appealing. A tree branch or trunk growing through and around a fence is obvious but can also be visually quite compelling. The damage a vine can do to a building over many years of growing is less obvious and can also be interesting visually. We interpret the presence of people in these kinds of photos but we do not see people explicitly. Frost-heaved and damaged pavement. Rain that washes out a bridge. Sinkholes in the middle of a road. And many others. Individually these can be interesting photos. Put several of them together and you begin to weave a narrative. We will explore the idea of the narrative further in a future essay. Atget also captured this idea of nature wins in some of his imagery. The image below shows how nature is taking over a building that has been abandoned.
I mentioned earlier the possibility of showing the passage of time of a place. The picture below is an illustration of that concept and it, I think, fits nicely with Atget’s principle of street photography. It encompasses many decades, perhaps more than a century, of time in a single picture. The old cobblestone streets with the remaining tracks of a long shuttered trolley system. More modern concrete and asphalt that have been broken and patched over time. What does this tell us about a city? Many things. It gives us a history of transit. It tells us that older methods of road construction are more durable than newer. It tells us about the financial straits many cities are in today, being unable to properly attend to needed upkeep and the resultant degradation of infrastructure that many cities are now facing. In some cities, such as Detroit, the dystopia Kant and Rawls described may actually be playing out in reality.
Another way to use photography to measure the passage of time and change, or not, is, of course, as an historical record. Street photography is particularly useful for tracking history because it encompasses so much of human life.
The two pictures below show us that, in some ways, while much does change over time, other things do not. The first is an Atget photo taken in the early 1900s. The second was taken in 2014. In some respects, time changes little.
We even come full circle, in the case of Detroit, to McLuhan’s specific example of the car in explaining the medium and the message and to the message that Atget worked to convey. The downfall of the North American automotive industry could be an unintended consequence of the increase in global trade which resulted in the mass exodus from parts of Detroit and surrounding cities with the commensurate drop in tax revenues and dilapidated, ghost-town-like appearance of parts of the area. The impact of the people on a city, the economy on a people and a city are played out for the world to see. There are pockets of Detroit that are undergoing renewal and revitalization too. A triumph of humanity’s greater predisposition for optimism and resilience than Kantian nihilism. As careful, thoughtful, deliberate street photographers, settings like this present powerful, modern messages of what Atget was doing a century and more ago. For us, the message remains the medium and the stories that are able to be told through that medium. I have begun a long term project to try to document the renewal that is happening in Detroit.
How do the footsteps of time impact our environment?
A photographer of more than 40 years, Bob Estremera started with film, working with 35mm, medium and large format cameras. Since making the transition to digital, Bob’s love for black and white photography has continued and is evidenced in urban photography that encompasses subject matter from the street, architectural, nighttime and portrait photography. More of his photography can be seen on his website, on his blog, and in his Flickr stream.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Photos are used with permission. Click on the images for larger versions.
How do you conceive or, or define, street photography?
I have a pretty minimalist definition of street photography. If it’s out there in the streets and I shoot it, it’s street photography. But I also think there needs to be something said in the photograph, something intrinsic to where you are. People are more often a suggestion or a complement to my subject than they are the subject itself.
What are your ethical boundaries?
I’m not comfortable sticking my camera into people’s face and I try not to gratuitously shoot the obvious homeless person. But I have done a series of street portraits with a long zoom so that I can capture faces and expressions, ‘the face, unaware of itself’ as I like to call it. Some photographers would scoff and say that that is somehow cheating or taking the easy way out. But I often see people the same way a nature photographer sees wildlife and capture them the same way.
If London & Paris were the birthplaces of street photography, today NYC is its epicentre and spiritual home. How do you set yourself apart in a city with so many street photographers?
My overriding goal is to make a photographically sound image with strong tonal and structural contrasts and balances. In that sense, composition is everything. Just look HCB. Putting his ‘decisive moment’ aside for a moment, his compositions are pure art regardless of the subject and scene. I strive to achieve that to the best of my ability. Another aspect of the photograph I look for is a convergence of either dissimilar or complimentary subjects that create a unifying image.
What do you want people to take away from your photography? What are you trying to show people about NYC?
I’m a traditionalist at heart so I often look to display the essence of New York City by combining visual elements that define this great metropolis in interesting ways. I also want people to appreciate the simplicity and ageless power of the black and white image.
Your New Orleans series is the only one that’s in colour. Why colour for that one and nothing else?
I lived in New Orleans for eight years and have come to love the people and culture. And one of the things those people love is color. As much as anything else, New Orleanians define themselves with a Caribbean flair and that means color. On the last trip I made there in 2015, I was just so taken with the geometry of color that I felt it was the best way to honor the city and have some visual fun.
Much of your photography either does not include people, or people appear to be secondary. Why? Is there anything specific you are trying to convey to viewers about the presence of people in the urban landscape?
No matter which city in the world I’m in, I notice people being most interested in the ‘built objects’ they see. And I’m the same way. The ‘built environment’ has always fascinated me so my eyes are naturally drawn to organically occurring natural compositions that seek me out. But I will often include the suggestion of people to provide scale or another layer of visual context because the built environment is, after all, for the benefit of people.
Powered by Facebook Comments