Street with Permission

Portraits of  Strangers by Danny Santos

Here is a beautiful flip side to my previous rant post about aggressive street photography techniques. Danny Santos makes portraits of strangers he meets on the streets of Singapore. Always asking permission, and after two years of practicing this technique, still feeling the anxiety and fear of approaching a stranger before each encounter. But the results are surely worth the effort. Look at the intimacy of subject he achieves with each portrait. These are people who are engaged with the lens, not shocked and oppressed by it. Let me add that several people reacted to the discussion of aggressive street photography by saying they loved the work of Bruce Gilden and Thomas Leuthard. I agree with them. Both Gilden and Leuthard have made outstanding photographs, and obviously don't always use the obnoxious techniques featured in their respective videos (flash photography in the faces of unsuspecting strangers). It is purely this technique that offends and embarrasses me as a photographer, and I don't think good results ever justify a disreputable approach to the medium.

Stranger #9  Danny Santos

Stranger #57  Danny Santos

Stranger #100  Danny Santos

How To Shoot Street Portraits With Permission

Danny Santos

More Street 'sploitation

Back in June I posted a video of Bruce Gilden being an obnoxious jackass on the streets of New York City in the name of Street Photography. Now here is a new one floating around of some guy named Thomas Leuthard walking the streets of Istanbul at night...

And Leuthard writes about his process here... 85mm Street Blog

Susan Sontag wrote about the implicit aggression in every use of the camera and of the camera being a tool of power. For most photographers there is always a struggle to counter the aggression and power of the lens with techniques of disarmament. Being mindful of the camera's intrusive nature and the ability to transcend it to make a picture of someone who appears to be oblivious to the presence of the lens is the benchmark of a great photographer. The best photography allows the viewer to forget about the medium and the messenger entirely. We feel we are the lens itself.That is the gift a master of photography gives to us. The images taken by Gilden and Leuthard are all about the camera and therefore, all about the photographer. The people in these images become secondary to their reactions to the photographer. The photographer as narcissist who willfully exploits strangers on the streets for self gratification. The look of disdain and contempt on the overwhelming majority of these street subjects confirms the level of aggression they are experiencing. The resulting images are so meaningless as to approach absurdity... nothing but a collection of deer-in-the-headlights photographs. Makes me ashamed for the craft of photography.

A Photographer's Journal

In the tradition of the photographer's day book, this newly published journal for 2012 is the first in a series of annual Photographer's Journals. Use it to record a year's worth of project notes, road trip details, and assorted accomplishments and failures. The journal is divided into twelve monthly sections, with four weeks of double page note space per month. You can see the entire book in the preview below. Less than ten dollars in paperback!


Observing the subtle and not-so-subtle changes taking place in my daily drives...I was really sorry to see the old Value City Department Store facade got transformed into another big box office superstore...

Value City  (2009)
Staples   (2011)

... and I noticed several weeks ago that the curtains had been changed on Rhawn Street...

Curtains, Rhawn Street  (2010)
Curtains, Rhawn Street  (2011)

Influence & Originality... cont'd

As a quick follow up to last weekend's post on Influence & Originality in Photography, consider these pairs of paintings. In both cases here the similarities in subject matter are quite deliberate. Monet and Renoir setting up their canvases side by side, and Picasso and Braque synthetically working through the issues of Cubism. Makes me wonder if a similar example of cooperation and collaboration exists today among the major names of Photography? Would love to hear of any you know of.

Renoir  La Grenouillere 1869

Monet   La Grenouillere   1869

Picasso  Girl With Mandolin  1910

Braque  Girl With Mandolin   1910

Thoughts on Influence & Originality in Photography

95 Degrees in the Shade

A bit of a people photography breakthrough for me yesterday... I passed this group of construction workers trying to catch some lunch time relief in the shade on a sweltering 100 degree day and it reminded me of my first job back in the late-70's working on a road crew digging up gas lines for a utility. I also worked many years in the remodeling industry and have spent more days than I can remember working during oppressive heat waves. Working up on roofs where your tools would get too hot to pick up if you left them in the sun. A 30 minute break in the shade for lunch always seemed like it lasted 5 minutes.

There is nothing tremendous about this image... the contrast from bright sun where I was standing is too strong in relation to the shade where the men are resting... but the breakthrough for me is that I knew I couldn't just get out of my car and stand in front of them to take a picture. I drove past them the first time and knew I wanted to make the picture so I turned around and went back to where they were. I got out with my camera and walked up to them and just asked... Anyone mind if I take a photo? ... Simple. And yet why is that so hard to do? None of them cared and they all just smiled. Except for the guy who was sleeping in the foreground. He never moved.

It is so important to me that images be taken with the acknowledgment of, and engagement with, the people in the image. I know that is not always possible and some of the greatest street photography in history was taken surreptitiously, but on a personal level I do not want to push the exploitation boundaries so my credo is for personal engagement. I want the subject of my photography to retain the control to say no. And yet it is so hard for me to engage with strangers, so I struggle with this. The desire to make images of people versus the difficulty in engaging and asking for the permission. I'm working on it, and that's why yesterday was important.

La Lettre de la Photographie

Avalon, NJ  (2007)

seen on La Lettre de la Photographie

False Mountains.... cont'd

False Drumlin  Yardley, Pa  (2011)

I continue to be intrigued by the appearance of false mountain-scapes along the roadsides.They often appear out of nowhere, driving around a bend in the road my eye is suddenly drawn to the shape of a mountain in my peripheral vision. There is always a brief sense of letdown at the realization that what I am seeing is only a man made pile of dirt or structural object and not part of the natural landscape. But as I study these more carefully I find that many are acting as little geographic emulations. What starts out as just a huge pile of soil created next to a large construction site fairly quickly erodes via rain and wind into a similar shape and form that a natural mountain range would take a million years to transform into. The soil pile shown above has eroded into what looks to me like a drumlin, the glacial formed mounds seen across Wisconsin and north to Ontario.

Drumlins  Ontario, Canada (2010)

I'm trying to capture images that conjure up the traditional travelscape... images taken by the hundreds of thousands at scenic overview pull-offs along alpine highways. Get out and stretch the legs and submit to the overwhelming compulsion to capture the majestic scenery. A satirical play on photographic cliche, these images also probably represent a partial escape from the banalities I so often favor in my images.Scenic alpine views don't exist for me on the urban and suburban roadways of Philadelphia, so I have to build them from my imagination...

from False Mountains series
Christopher Paquette (2010-2011)

Previous discussion of False Mountains is here

Signed by the Artist

I am forever torn between the marvel of the digital age and it's facility to present me with a choice of billions of photographic images at the click of a mouse, versus the intimate viewing of an actual photographic document printed and signed by the artist. Without the internet, my knowledge and appreciation of photography would be a small fraction of what it is today. Without galleries and museums, that knowledge would be dry and purely academic. I am not trying to stir debate between the internet art world and the virtual art world, that discussion is moot. Like most people though, my pendulum swings from one side to the other. Too much time viewing art on the computer gets me itching to visit some galleries or go hear an artist present a lecture to a live audience. Too many days trudging through museum halls have me wishing for the comfort of a nice chair and a warm mug of tea in front of my internet bookmarks. So I need and love both the digital and the virtual sides of the art world, but there are still a few elements of the virtual side that the digital world can not compete with. Books are one. (The tactile experience of turning a page will never be replaced by the tablet.) And the artist's signature on a print or the inside cover of a photobook is another. I love all of my books, but I treasure most the books that have been signed by photographers I know or have met face to face. The act of collecting becomes a personal experience.

I was looking through The Photograph Collector's Guide, by Lee D Witkin and Barbara London (1979 NY Graphic Society) the other day and I became fascinated by the signatures of photographers in the book. I am struck by the beauty and artistic flare in many of these. The personality of the photographer shows through and I almost feel as if I am experiencing something on an intimate level. Will there ever be a digital equivalent to this level of artistic intimacy? I hope you enjoy these as much as I do. I was planning to label each one with a caption to identify them, but decided that would be a distraction from their beauty. Most of these are easily recognizable, if you study them carefully you should be able to figure them all out. If you get stumped, leave a note in comments.

The Photograph Collector's Guide

Pastoral Geometry

Feasterville, Pa  (2011)

In Defense of Film & Flickr

With everyone in a frenzy over Google+ as being the greatest thing to happen for photographers since the invention of instant film, I must say that one thing I have noticed right from the start is very little (if any)  film work being shared there. Maybe I am missing it through the fog of all the HDR Landscape images. Don't get me wrong, I am loving Google+ for many reasons and I think it will only get better. But I am hearing too many predictions about Google+ eventually killing off sites like Facebook and Flickr. Google+ is not the "be all end all"  for photographers, and never will be.

Who knows what the eventual outcome of the so called Google+ vs. Facebook war will look like, but I do not think Google+ will have much of an impact on Flickr and here is why... Google+ and Facebook are very similar platforms competing for similar activity, while Flickr stands well apart from these two as a unique way for photographers to share and collate images.(Twitter is not a photography platform, so excluded from this discussion) As important as it is to post your images on the internet and get feedback, it is just as rewarding to collect favorite images of others, add your images to groups of similar topic and subject matter, and sort out your place in the photo world.  All of the big social networks are great for posting images and getting quick "Gee Whiz" feedback, but only Flickr provides the ability to collect images and become a member of  a few (or hundreds of) specialized groups. Those of us who enjoy the obsessive nature of photography (and isn't that all of us?) love nothing more than following our own particular groups of choice. ( Indian Kitchen, Old Fashioned Ice Cream Stands, & Children of Weegee are just a few of the many groups I follow on Flickr).

Since the beginning of the medium, photographers have been assembling into small groups and camera clubs to socialize, debate, argue, and share their images with like minded photographers, as well as exclude the non-like minded photographers who will then go out and form their own groups. (etc. etc... on down the line). Flickr provides this same group think opportunity for today's internet photographer. Google+ and Facebook do not provide any solution to the desire to share our obsessions and formats in an intimate huddle with others. "Hey, you like images of Retro Kitchens in Aqua, Pink & Yellow?  Me too!"

Which brings me back to film. Lot's of it on Flickr. Tons of film obsessed photographers still posting their work into specialized groups like Film Is Not Dead or I Shoot Film, and a new one I just discovered called Film Dev, a group that is linked to a web site of the same name, which describes itself as a site for linking film developing "recipes" to photos on Flickr. Members of  Film Dev post their results of specific film developing recipes to the Flickr group and everything is linked by tags. Just try to find an equivalent retro/geek based photo community on Google+ (not yet at least)

by Galo
(recipe details)

by  funkaoshi
(recipe details)

Herve Demers

Here in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States we are enduring our hottest weather of the year, so I found it quite refreshing to see these images from photographer/cinematographer Herve Demers , who is currently living in Montreal, Canada. Demers is an award winning filmmaker whose latest work is called Le Grand Sault, a contemporary adaptation of a 200 year old Quebec folk/war story. A cinematic eye is evident in Demers'  photographic images, with the unique twist of  using the narrowed view of square format, which is unexpected coming from a filmmaker. I like this dichotomy of vision. Check out his website for more images and details on his films.

Herve Demers  (2010-11)

Herve Demers (web site)

Thoughts on Influence & Originality in Photography

In light of recent disputes and legal actions between photographers such as last year's Sze Tsung Leong versus David Burdeny (see PHOTO/arts Magazine 3/2010)

Sze Tsung Leong  2006

David Burdeny  2009

and the recent headlines regarding  Janine "Jah Jah" Gordon versus Ryan McGinley (see Did Ryan McGinley rip off Janine Gordon?)

left side...  Janine 'Jah Jah' Gordon
right side...  Ryan McGinley

I thought it would be interesting to show some historical context to the fascinating and thought provoking issues surrounding coincidence, influence and originality in artistic creative practice. I've written about this topic many times and I'm surely not the only photographer who struggles with the fine line between using artistic influence as a creative impetus versus being just another follower of a well known school or style. Ironically, my own Collected Horizon series was directly influenced by the work of Sze Tsung Leong, but no one would ever say that my images look like Leong's. The only similarity is in the presentation of minimal repetitive horizon lines. On the other hand I have an entire body of work that consists of flat planar and contemporary architectural images that a portfolio reviewer once told me looked a lot like the work of Lewis Baltz. At the time I had never seen Baltz's work, but when I looked it up I  felt slightly nauseous , the sense of imitated style seemed so obvious, and yet it was pure coincidence. I've also written previously about what I see as the influence of Walker Evans upon the work of Zoe Strauss, (see Photo/arts Magazine 4/2009) but would we accuse Zoe Strauss of ripping off  Walker Evans? Of course not.

A wonderful book on this subject is Double Take: A Comparative Look at Photographs by Richard Whelan..

Double Take
A Comparative Look at Photographs
by Richard Whelan
forward by Cornell Capa

Whelan writes brilliantly in the introduction to the book, touching on historical context (Monet /Renoir... Picasso/Braque), the subconscious, the relationship between style and subject matter, coincidence and originality...

"Whether or not he has been influenced, every photographer legitimately claims every image he makes as uniquely his own. After all, even the acceptance of certain influences and the rejection of others is determined by- and revealing of- the photographer's background, circumstances, temperament, sensibility, and self awareness. Each viewer must decide for himself exactly how interesting he finds the claim that the photographer has staked, at which point the subjectivity of the viewer's taste and his knowledge of the history of photography come into play.

The choice of subject matter, even if it has already been exploited by someone else, is a statement of personal vision at a given moment, whether the tangible result of that vision strikes the viewer as innocent, calculated, trite, or revelatory. One sure sign of genius is the talent for giving new life to subjects, styles, and ideas that everyone else thought were exhausted. It is, in fact, precisely this revivifying spark that we seek most assiduously when we look at art. Doing something passionately can count for much more than simply doing it first-although real innovation, however crude, is never without a certain passionate brilliance."

The following pairs of images are from the book, and help visualize these issues and questions and put things into perspective. Don't forget about some other iconic repetitions that I have not included simply because I think we can all visualize them in our heads... Canyon de Chelly by Ansel Adams and many others... Flatiron Building by Stieglitz and Steichen... Ranchos de Taos by Paul Strand and Ansel Adams

Atget vs. Kertesz...

Eugene Atget  1907

Andre Kertesz   1928

Laughlin vs. White...

Clarence John Laughlin  1952

Minor White  1958

Sheeler vs. Evans...

Charles Sheeler  1927

Walker Evans  1947

Rodchenko vs. Erwitt...

Alexander Rodchenko  1932

Elliott Erwitt  1977

Weston vs. Ray...

Edward Weston  1920

Man Ray  1923

Shahn vs Lange...

Ben Shahn  1935

Dorothea Lange  1938

Lange vs. Frank...

Dorothea Lange  1938

Robert Frank   1955

Frank vs. Winogrand...

Robert Frank   1955

Garry Winogrand   1959