Tag Archives: Street photography

What you can learn from candid photography

Groom • Candid photography :: getting the shot is a pressure.

• Groom •
Candid photography – getting the shot is a pressure. Weddings are times when you need to work particularly fast and accurately. •

Responding is a skill.

When starting on the path to disciplined photography we’re told to slow down. Take careful, measured and pre-visualised shots. We are told to stop trying to frantically pepper the scene with shots. Take time. Take stock. Think everything through. The aim is to get the shot under control.

A good photographer often needs to respond rapidly. The careful, measured approach still applies. They still have to get the picture. However, the pace of a situation demands swift shots. The practised photog can respond with speed and accuracy. Practice at candid photography is a great way to realise those skills for yourself.

Candid photography and practice

The aim is to make a clean, sharp, well composed image. The nature of a candid shot makes that difficult. While trying to make a success of your candid photography some conditions may apply. Some of those may contradict each other…

  • The subject may not know you are going to take a picture.
  • The subject could know you are going to take a picture.
  • The subject may be unpredictable.
  • You will need to be very quick.
  • You will need to be able to get a sharp image despite speedy working.
  • You may have to take several shots (eg. not dozens).
  • Your subject should be in an interesting position.
  • The subject needs to to be in an interesting context in the scene.
  • You should anticipate the shot (rather than getting lucky).
  • You will have your camera ready and settings correct for the shot.
  • You will have only a microsecond to compose the shot.

You just do not know what you are going to encounter until you have to deal with it.

Dealing with all that may seem a tall order. Especially if you are told not to machine-gun the scene with shots. Haste and frantic bursts rarely lead to good luck. Actually, it is not about doing all that at super speed. Like everything you do in photography, candid photography requires preparation, practice and control.

Equipment – knowing what you can do

NO! Do not go out and buy yourself a micro-weight, super-camera. Up-to-date bells and whistles are not the point. Instead, look for simplicity. Sometimes the best camera is an old and familiar one. What we want for this exercise is knowledge.

The best possible way to get fast with a camera is to know what it can do. The lens too. If you are familiar and well versed in using your equipment you will automatically respond to the scene. Here is an example.

In candid photography control of depth of field is essential

• Impish grin •
Keep the subject in focus but the background is frosted out.
In candid photography control of depth of field is essential
(Click to view large)

This shot was captured as this lovely man turned from a conversation. He was talking to someone on his right. I was ready for his turn toward me. His impish grin as he saw me really made the shot.

I wanted a depth of field that had his head and face sharp. I also wanted the background indistinct. Notice the sharpness is lost just on the far shoulder. My lens was set up to have a depth of field of about 400mm (about 15in to 16in). But there was no measurement involved. This was an estimate. It involved knowing the depth of field at my distance from the man, and using the right aperture. This capture is the result of knowing the lens and camera combo really well. It was a practised shot using very familiar equipment. The successful candid photography came out of the practice and familiarity.

Equally, it is easy to get the shot wrong. Depth of field, especially at close range, is fickle. It is easy to get the tip of the nose out of focus, the eyes and face in focus, and the hair out of focus. It is important to look at the variables involved. The aperture size and distance-from-subject control the depth of field. So, try the exercise below using manual settings.

Take a bright coloured builders tape measure. Place a small object beside a mid-point on the measure. Take a photo of the object down the measures’ length. Use a wide aperture. Check out the depth of field by looking at the measurements that are sharp. Now by varying your distance from the object see how much you change the depth of field. Do this for a wide range of apertures. With experience you will get a feel for controlling the depth of field. With twenty or thirty variations you should get a feel for the depth of field.

Settings

Aperture is one setting. ISO and shutter speed are important too. Getting a feel for your equipment means getting familiar with how these settings work.

Candid photography often involves working in darker lighting. Parties and indoor sessions, weddings in churches and in evening light all require wide apertures. You might use flash. But in a lot of situations that may not be practical or desirable. So using a high ISO setting (more sensitive sensor) will allow you to work effectively in lower light. So, lower the light where you are working with the tape measure. Raise the ISO and repeat the exercises. Get a feel for how you can vary the exposure by changing the ISO.

Needless to say you can vary the shutter speed in similar ways. Try the exercise again. This time keep the aperture and ISO fixed and change the shutter speed up and down through a range of shots. [More on varying shutter speed].

Learning to use your settings manually takes more than one session. That is important. You can gain a lot by training yourself to be sensitive to the settings. Working toward good quality candid photography can really help you gain that sensitivity. Poor photographs of faces and people are immediately obvious! You get great feedback from the experience of poor shots.

Composition – seizing the moment

Candid photography is about seizing the moment. You need to use good settings. You also need some understanding of composition. This means working to get your subject in the right environment. They will have an appropriate pose and possibly the right context or behaviour too. Without all these coming together the moment is lost. Setting it all up takes some thought.

Normally people do candid photography with some idea of what they want to achieve. Random wanderings are normally unproductive. Luck follows more often from preparation and forethought than stumbling upon a notable event.

So, have a good think about your scene composition….

  • Set yourself up in a viable position ahead of the shot.
  • Think about how the light is placed in the scene overall.
  • Place yourself for the right background on the far side of the shot.
  • Fix the camera settings for the composition ahead of the shot.

In other words be prepared. Then, when the right moment comes along, you will have the minimum to do. A little composition, framing the shot, is essential. A tweak of the focus possibly… But essentially – you should be ready.

Now you stand the best possible chance of getting the shot.

Candid photography is successful when it all comes together

All this preparation and practice is about getting you to the moment when you take the shot. Making a success of your candid photography is about three things…

  • Knowing your settings.
  • Practice with and knowing your equipment.
  • Forethought about the scene.

Having everything ready is the key. Then when all the elements of the scene come together all you do is frame it and capture. If you succeed in that, you will also make a swift shot. Because, in fact, you have little to do. Speed and accuracy is about being ready with everything and having the minimum to do when the right events pull the shot together.

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Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photographer and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.

Everybody Street… a new documentary about street photography

Video

Video

Documentary released for Film Festival.

Released at the “Hot Docs International Film Festival”, Everybody Street is about the street photography art of New York. Focusing on a range of street photogs it opens up the everyday reality of street photography.

The trailer for the documentary has been released and provides an insight to what may be in the documentary. It shows some stunning shots and some powerful insights. However, it also takes a rather voyeuristic and antagonistic view of street photography. While I personally don’t aspire to that approach there are others that do.

I believe that to act as an antagonist on the street is both dangerous and unnecessary. Personally I believe in respect, contact and participation in the street scene. But I do acknowledge that there are some people that take a different view.

I think it is worth seeing this documentary and I hope that one day it will be widely available. For now I leave you with the trailer. See what you think. The video is just over two minutes.

EVERYBODY STREET – New York City

Everybody Street Trailer from ALLDAYEVERYDAY on Vimeo.

Visit the website for the documentary at: http://everybodystreet.com/  External link - opens new tab/page

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Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.

Do you know what street photography is? A look behind the scenes

• Lady in black •

Click image to view large
• Lady in black • By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page
The street photographer looks to expose life as it is on our streets and much more…

What do we really mean by street photography?

The concept of street photography covers a lot of ground and means many different things to the people who do it. Simple descriptions of street photography might include things like:

  • Candid photographs taken in public places
  • Portraits and depictions of ordinary people out and about
  • Pictures telling the stories of people living their lives
  • The normal behaviour of individuals seen in public
  • Extraordinary scenes in ordinary places
  • The street environment with or without people
  • Things which catch the eye photographed in public places
  • Extraordinary sights amid people going about their daily lives
  • A micro-social documentary through a still photograph
  • The drama of an event in the every day lives of people on the street

Street photography is a broad spectrum subject. Mostly, street photography is about the sights and significant micro-events that attract the eye of the photographer in urban places or other popular places. The idea of “street” means where people can be seen. Or, where they “may” be seen. It is not absolutely necessary to have people in the scene. Although people usually provide the focus of interest.

In fact, beyond these simple descriptions of the craft there are other things. The need to have sympathetic framing, simple backgrounds, good composition and excellent timing go without saying – these are a part of photography in general. Beyond those there are other themes underlying the term “street photography”…

The environment

The ‘street” environment is as important as the people themselves in that it provides a context. The environment and the people together makes the scene interesting. Background provides the cultural context for the shot and so it is important to include it. Nevertheless, many street photographers will work to minimise the impact of the surrounding scene so they can focus the viewers eye on the behaviour of the people of interest. The choice to show the wider scene or to focus right in is both an aesthetic one and a contextual one. You have to consider what would make the picture as visually pleasing as possible and at the same time make sure you are able to show the subject in the best possible environmental context. Difficult choice – but an essential part of working the street scene.

Because the environment is important street photographers often prefer to work with lenses that give a wider angle than other DSLR users favour. A wider view captures the scene as well as the subject person. A common lens for street photogs would be a 35mm or 50mm fixed prime. These lenses tend to give you a more immediate correspondence with the scene you are in. They are close to the focal range and angle of view that the eye sees. They reduce distortion and give the impression of the scene through the photographers eyes. Street photography is a unique and real experience for the photographer. The best of them try to convey that experience in a very real way to the viewer too.

Black and white or colour

Most of the well known names in street photography worked with black and white film. Perhaps for this reason today’s street photographers tend to work in black and white too. It emulates an era of the past with a stark reality and a retro-cultural look about it.

Some street photographers dispute the (cynical) view that black and white is the medium of choice because it promotes a ‘retro’ atmosphere and see that as an insult, a cheapening view of their work. Instead they’d argue B&W street pictures have more impact.

It has often been argued that when you take colour out of a photograph it almost purifies the picture. Certainly much of the distraction is taken out. Colour does draw the eye. A Canadian photojournalist was once quoted saying…

“When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”
Ted Grant

There is much to be said for removing colour to see the inner person. However, it is not obligatory to work in black and white for street photographers. Your choice is part of the way you present the scene you are photographing. There are merits in colour and in B&W media. Making the right choice for your picture is a part of the success of your final image.

• Green girls •

• Green girls •
Click image to view large
• Green girls • By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page
Sometimes pictures simply don’t work in black and white. You have to make the choice. There are no rules that say you must do street photography in monochrome.

Cultural context

Street photography is a worldwide phenomenon. However, there are undoubtedly cultural contexts that tend to make certain places more interesting. That is especially the case when the viewer is seeing something they consider exotic or out of the ordinary. Street photographers take pride in finding the ‘unusual’ in otherwise ‘everyday’ places. So where possible street photographers will search out the poorer environments, the degenerating places and the places that their viewers would not go themselves. On the other hand they may find interest in the very essence of modern culture and how that actually contrasts with local way of life there. In this way they can help their viewers see another culture, observe different behaviours, see another way of life or shock their viewers about how others live.

Seeing other cultures and other places in the world is part of the wider scope of the art. You may choose to travel to far away places. However, street photography is found everywhere. In your local town, urban area or event space you can find interesting and captivating scenes everyday. Watching your fellow citizens is great sport. It’s funny, serious, interesting, frightening and enlightening. Showing your culture in all its facets is interesting. It requires a strong sense of place, character and understanding of your subjects and where they are.

It is often the deep contrasts that make a street photograph successful. The ordinary and unremarkable are the things that are not celebrated because of our familiarity with them. After all they are in our daily view. Strange or culturally contrasting situations draw the eye. It is a part of the street photographers observational skill to isolate and therefore to highlight these inconsistencies in our view of the world. It is not about travel, getting around the world, but seeing into our own locality and monitoring the differences between each of us and the others who share our streets.

Taking this alternative look at our own cultural space is one of the really difficult things about street photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson, sometimes referred to as the father of street photography, once said…

To interest people on far away places… to shock them, to delight them… it’s not too difficult. It’s in your own country – you know too much when it’s on your own block. It’s such a routine… it’s quite difficult… in places I am in all the time, I know too much and not enough. To be lucid about it is most difficult… But your mind must be open. Open-aware. Aware.
Henri Cartier-Bresson

In his strong French accent, he was trying to express the difficulty of overcoming the ‘ordinary’ view and seeing the extraordinary things about our culture that are in plain sight.

Street photographers are the ultimate people watchers and observers. They look for the extraordinary in the ordinary. They are able to articulate culture through the medium of the very people they sit next to on the bus. They are in the scene and a part of the picture they are creating with others around them. At the same time they are documenting it and living it, but bringing out the things that other people miss.

Origins

Much of the body of street photography was generated in the 20th century. During the 19th century the film speeds were low and exposures too long for effective fast capture of people going about their everyday lives.

There is currently a huge resurgence of interest in street photography. It has come about partly as a response to a renewed interest in photography. It is also partly due to recent significant collections of work from street photography artists being published around the world. A whole genre has developed from the interest of key individuals from photographic history. Some of the great street photographers we recognise today worked in the years from around 1900 through to the 1980s. Some of the well known names are…

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • Diane Arbus
  • Vivian Maier
  • Alfred Eisenstaedt

There are many more (See: Category: Street photographers  External link - opens new tab/page). These bodies of work are of key interest today to many people. Academics, street photographers themselves and ordinary people all have an active interest in the past and particularly of places they know. Their photographs offer a unique insight to both the time and place – but also of the photographer themselves.

Today’s street photographers are providing an insight for future generations into the way we live now. It is the ordinary and extraordinary things that happen in ordinary lives that street photographers want to search out. Diane Arbus, working in the middle of last century, is famously quoted as saying…

I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.
Diane Arbus

Her interest and focus was on people who were different. She called them freaks. Often they were on the fringes of society as well as hidden from the eyes of the ordinary person. Today we are slightly more tolerant of the type of people she photographed. Nevertheless, we still label people who live differently by describing them in a “politically correct” manner. In effect that is a euphemism that is more damning than a direct label. Street photographers can open up the difficult lives that some people live – help them to become a part of a wider scene, a more tolerant world.

• All Smiles •

• All Smiles •
Click image to view large
• All Smiles • By Netkonnexion on Flickr  External link - opens new tab/page
Truly candid street photography is about bringing out the inner essence of the people you photograph.

Celebrating the rich diversity of people and the things they do is important. It makes human beings so different to the animals. We can and do respond so differently to each other and the situations we find ourselves in. It’s a cultural cliché that almost defines us.

Successfully seeking the essence of the person being photographed is an expression of the photographers vision and an exposure of a culture. It is another tiny revelation about ourselves as humans and as members of society at large.

Respect and communication, doing and being

One of the hallmarks of street photography is to be excited and invigorated. The situation may even make you nervous. This is right and proper. Representing people in a photograph makes you a conduit for who they are. You must respect them. Holding a camera is a responsibility and a communication. You are saying something to the people who see you working the scene. So don’t ‘do’ street photography as if there is a bad smell under your nose. Be a street person who happens to be engaging with people while holding a camera. Then you will be a part of the scene. With respect, and contact with the people you photograph, you become a part of the life you are depicting. Not only an observer, but a participant. Then you will see more clearly, the spirit of the people you want to document.

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.

Seeking the light – the essence of photography through the eyes of a war photographer

Don McCullin - Seeking The Light

Don McCullin – Seeking The Light • Video

Great equipment does not create great images.

Photographic insight is not in the equipment but the vision of the photographer. This is never more true than can be seen in this video. Don McCullin was a war photographer for more than 30 years. He saw some of the most appalling atrocities and covered some of the worlds most horrific wars – conflicts that would sear the sole. Yet in all that time he has retained a human and gentle perspective that provides a delicate insight but which also covers a dark vision too.

Transition

In this video Don McCullin is confronted, in his 70’s, with using a brand new digital camera for the first time. After more than 50 years of film and darkroom work as a professional photographer he abruptly makes the transition to digital. This film charts the progress of his first week. It is a transition which anyone who has started to learn digital photography has gone through. For Don it is a shock and revelation as well as a considerable learning curve. Many of you will empathise with his self-questioning and re-evaluation of his own skills and knowledge.

Canon CPS | Don McCullin Feature “Seeking the light”


Frank Algermissen

Iconic

Despite his gentle and unassuming approach in the video Don McCullin has demonstrated an amazingly insightful photographic vision. His war photography, and his street photography is eye-catching and beautiful. His control of dark tones and wide variations in light is his signature – one that made his war photography iconic.

In a previous article I covered a BBC programme Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?  External link - opens new tab/page in the Series “imagine – Summer 2013”. There is now also a wonderful programme on Don McCullin. You can see the recently broadcast BBC programme on the BBC iPlayer if you have access. The programme has some upsetting images and some extraordinary photography covering the ugly truth of war photography in the face of grave personal, life threatening danger. It is an amazing film. “McCullin”  External link - opens new tab/page will be available for another few weeks (published 11/07/2013).

Insights into an extraordinary life

For an insight into a very dark path through war photography, as well as some of his amazing photographs, watch this interview on a Canadian television programme. Don McCullin tells of his extraordinary life, some of the horrific things he has seen and explains who he is today. Well worth watching.
The Agenda with Steve Paikin  External link - opens new tab/page

Comments, additions, amendments or ideas on this article? Contact Us

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.

Three great tips for travel and street photography

Three 'Ain't a Crowd

Three ‘Ain’t a Crowd – Taken in Lisbon, Portugal
By Paul Donohoe – Street photographer
• Click image to view large •
By Paul Donohoe on Flickr  External link - opens new tab/page

Travel and street photography are a natural fit.

All street photography involves travel. Whether you are travelling round the world, or just across town, this article is for you. It all involves travel. Adventure awaits the traveller and street photographer.

Finding the location

How do you go about finding the best location for street photography in a new place? I am going to cover three tips to help any street photographer, wherever they are travelling, and regardless of the time they have. Each tip will require a little tinkering depending on your needs and preferences, and on the place you’re travelling in.

1. Explore with or without your camera – Play the Tourist

Yes, that’s right: with or without your camera. Surely, you are asking, a good street photographer always carries a camera? Well, sometimes, no. You can carry one as you explore if you insist, but it’ll work better without!

What do people say about tourists? They are so busy trying to get pictures of the things they are looking at that they end up seeing hardly anything at all. Here is tip one: play tourist but without the camera. Just wander around, looking at — and seeing — the sights. Soak up the atmosphere.

If you’re in a new place for a week or so, take more time to wander around. Of course, if you’re visiting for only a day then you might only take an hour.

Following this plan has advantages for the street photographer. Just looking at the sights gets the sightseeing part of the deal out of your system. It’s important for a photographer to spend time without a camera, just using their eyes. In a new place there are always new sights to see. This can be really distracting when you are trying to focus on the lives of the people carrying on amid the other eye candy.

As you explore, you will discover places that appeal to you. You will find where the crowds are, the interesting backdrops – the places you just know you will come back to.

Lisbon Wall

Lisbon Wall • After Escher
By Paul Donohoe – Street photographer
• Click image to view large •
Pauls-Pictures, on Flickr  External link - opens new tab/page

I saw this wall and climbed those stairs once or twice as I explored. I saw this image in my mind’s eye. Then when I came back with my camera, it was there waiting for me!

2. Research: the where, the what, the who and the when

It’s not hard to spend an hour on the internet looking at maps and other information. A lot of people will be content to conduct this research after they arrive at their travel destination, and that’s fine. For me, I like to prepare ahead. The planning, for me, is half the fun!

Are there events, festivals or other activities happening? Where do people gather? What about shopping areas where people stroll? Knowing these things ahead of time, will not only get you excited about your visit, but will start the creative juices flowing.

Check online for the work of other street photographers in the place you’re visiting. Read their blogs, think about their experiences. This isn’t so you can “copy” what they’ve done. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about where and what to photograph — and sometimes where and what not to!

Flea Market Stall Holders

• Flea Market Stall Holders •
By Paul Donohoe – Street photographer
• Click image to view large •
Pauls-Pictures, on Flickr  External link - opens new tab/page

Having heard there was a huge flea market twice a week, I headed there at the first available opportunity. I sometimes think markets were invented for street photography)

3. In street photographer mode…

Keep walking and exploring or focus on a favoured place you’ve found and stay there. You’ve explored and you’ve done your research. Now it’s time to get on with it and get some street photos! The crucial factor in being able to make good street photographs is to be in street photographer mode.

You will read that some people are always in that mode. Perhaps. However, here’s what I mean… To make good street photographs you have to be truly in the space and in the moment. You need to be in tune with the environment and with the people you encounter. In other words, you have to become “of the street” – you belong there, it is your space but it’s also a space you are sharing, even if only temporarily, with other people around you.

Keep walking. Go back to the places you discovered in your exploration and research.

So much of street photography is about feelings, intuition. If, by chance, you come across a space you feel is just right for you, sit awhile and watch the people go by. It might be a park, a town square, or even a train station entrance.

Walking or staying put: there’s no right or wrong. And you can switch between the two; sit for a while till you just feel it’s time to move on.

The picture at the top of the page is one of my all time favourites. It happened after I’d spent an hour just hanging around a small square five minutes from where I’m staying in Lisbon. You really do become invisible if you hang around in one spot long enough.

Three tips… plus!

So, there you have it – three tips for finding the best street photographs when you arrive somewhere new. Actually, there are a couple moew things… Have some fun while you’re at it. Whether you’re there for a day or a couple of months, take your time. There’s no rush – you’ll get the photos you’re meant to!


Paul Donohoe is a Social Documentary and Street Photographer currently travelling to random places as the fancy takes him and his partner. He is passionate about his art and takes his role as a photographer very seriously. He believes that there are no ordinary moments and there are no ordinary people and he has a simple but profound philosophy which informs his work: “Love, Compassion and Empathy are my guides”. At present Paul sells his work through his own Pauls Pictures  External link - opens new tab/page, and a number of fine art and stock agencies.

Pauls Websites

Instants Out of Time (blog)  External link - opens new tab/page
Pauls Pictures – Showcase and sales of Pictures by Paul Donohoe  External link - opens new tab/page
Pauls Pictures on Flickr  External link - opens new tab/page


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The street photographer who showed no pictures

Vivian Maier - Outstanding street photographer

Vivian Maier – Outstanding street photographer 1926-2009

A new documentary reveals Vivian Maier.

A new documentary has been shown on British television. It tells the tale of Vivian Maier. A lonely nanny, she spent most of her career photographically documenting the streets of Chicago in her spare time. She was unsung as a photographer, unknown to almost everyone, unrecognised as an artist. She died as a virtual pauper in 2009.

Within a short time of her death the most astonishing hoard of photographs was revealed. Her belongings had been sold off at an auction. The chance find by a keen photographer revealed the work and fortunately made the find public. With the most detailed care and exquisite vision she pictured her subjects with both passion and journalistic fervour. She pictured some of the most painful poverty and opulent richness of Chicago in the 1960’s and 1970’s as well other places in her travels.

Now her photographs are selling for thousands of dollars a piece. This new BBC documentary showcases her insight and some of the more interesting photographs from her fascinating body of work. It also tries to get an in side look at her life – a secretive and largely unknown story which few people were involved in.

With over one hundred thousand photographs in the collection it is an incredible find. Almost a complete record of her work is available. She showed her work to very few people. Most of the shots were never printed.

The enigma that Vivian Maier represented is almost the same clichéd story of the pauper artist of previous centuries. Unrecognised until long decades after their deaths these artists often represented important interpretations of their eras. And so it has proven to be with the work of Vivian Maier.

She had little family, very few friends and only the contacts made through the jobs she held as a nanny. She was largely unschooled and a European immigrant to the USA. Yet with extraordinary wit and dedication she taught herself English apparently through going to the movies and the theatre and mixing with people. She also appears to have taught herself photography – there is no record of a photographic education.

The amazing thing about Vivian Maier was her dedication to the task. The BBC documentary chronicles her life – what’s known of it. But it also raises a lot of questions about what motivated her. Clearly she was a lonely person. Obviously she loved photography and the streets of Chicago where she spent most of her life. Beyond that we know little.

She had the most incisive skill with a camera and great insight as an observer of people. She went everywhere with her equipment, obsessively capturing everything in which she saw meaning. Her main interest was in the people she met – her qualifications for undertaking the work were non-existent. Yet over the period of fourty years she proved herself to be a great artist.

Hit rate

Many of todays digital photographers don’t realise what really lies behind a body of work. According to the academics examining Maier’s work she had an excellent hit rate. One very famous photographer once said…

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.

Ansel Adams

…yet Vivian Maier apparently managed many, many thousands of high quality pictures on her large format Rolliflex  External link - opens new tab/page camera.

There is something interesting about Maiers hit rate, dedication to photography and the detail of her work. It says a lot about her as an artist. Artists spend years learning, experimenting and often apprenticed to other artists before their work begins to mature. But their dedication is by necessity, absolute. And, their progress and interests can be charted by the type of work they produce and how it varies and changes focus during their careers.

The character of an amateur body of work

Amateurs by contrast to professional artists have much more spotty bodies of work. They do not have time to dedicate to devoted study and development. Years of experimentation and concentration on particular aspects of their work is not possible. Family life, work, the simple needs of normal life reduce the amount of work a typical amateur can put into developing as an artist. Typically amateurs tend to be more erratic in their interests, or they concentrate most of their work on one focal interest.

Vivian Maier apparently dedicated pretty much all her personal time and a good proportion of her work time as a nanny to her photography. As a result her achievement is similar to a professional artist. Her work is of a similar standard too. Her work appears to exhibit a gradual and focused experimentation and development much like a professional artist.

Dedication and concentration

A large proportion of Vivian Maiers work is still unprinted. Most of it is still unseen by the public at large. We clearly have a lot more to see and to learn about her. Most of her life is a mystery, much of her story untold.

One thing is clear. For someone who was clearly a very talented street photographer she had a lot to teach photography learners about concentrated dedication to the things that interest us. If we really want to get to the bottom of what interests us as artists, we photographers need to be pretty single minded.

Have fun with your photography, but remember, the way to reveal real truths, like street photography, requires some pretty deep interpretation.

How to see the documentary

For those of you who have access to the BBC iPlayer you can still see the full Vivian Maier documentary for the next few weeks from the Home page for the “imagine” series of arts documentaries  External link - opens new tab/page (posted 05/07/2013).
Update: This documentary has now been taken down from the BBC site. However the link above now goes to the “Imagine” series website so you can see what is coming up and some past episodes are sometimes available on BBC iPlayer.

Other useful Vivian Maier resources

Here is a link to the BBC website where there are two clips about this documentary…
Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures? Clips and other information.  External link - opens new tab/page

Want more on Vivian Maiers work on video? Here’s a Google search for YouTube videos about her…
Search YouTube for Vivian Maier Videos  External link - opens new tab/page

Vivian Maier on Wikipedia  External link - opens new tab/page
Vivian Maier – Her Discovered Work  External link - opens new tab/page

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Three street photography tips – a moment of history

Moment out of time - a thread of history - Bring out the historical context of street photography

• Moment out of time – a thread of history •
There’s so much history on the streets. Yet, we walk past it apparently oblivious. Bring out the historical context of street photography to add interest to your shots.
Click image to view large
• Moment out of time – a thread of history • By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

Sometimes you just have to shoot.

It is what street photography is about. Getting out on the street, watching the street scene and capturing the moment. Sometimes it doesn’t happen the way you want. I went to Abingdon, UK, to collect some photography equipment. As the town centre is steeped in history I thought I’d capture some street scenes while there.

Three tips for capturing the moment – consider the historical context of street photography

While in Abingdon, I had several important insights…
1. It is not just about the moment: In the historic town centre of Abingdon on a very hot weekday lunchtime not much happens. It occurred to me that there is an important principle about street photography… everything is part of the environment. If you cut out your human subjects in Photoshop you would lose the essence of the street scene. An important component of the scene is in the environment itself. Think of the historical context of street photography when you consider your scene.

Don’t lose sight of the environment. A shot is interesting because of the people… and it’s interesting because of where they are. There is an inextricable link between a street moment and the street itself. Abingdon town centre has some wonderful historic buildings. The character of the history brings out the moments as effectively as the hustle and bustle in the down-town area of a big city. When Englishmen venture out in the mid-day sun, there is not much to smile about – but it makes for a scene in a historical context. View image above large.

2. An important part of the moment: Capturing expressions is essential. It speaks character and mood. It is a general point about street scenes and something to seek out in your pictures. However, not all street photographers are forgiving about all expressions.

I know of one street photographer that will tell you…

Make sure people aren’t smiling. Otherwise you end up with a snapshot
Martin Parr – Documentary Photographer

Hmmm! Maybe Martin Parr is right. But not always. Years ago in France I saw two elderly guys playing dominoes in an old town square. They were having a whale of a time – they did not stop laughing the whole time I was there. They laughed more when I photographed their mirth.

For me it was a defining moment. My shot, taken on an old Pentax (back in the days of film), became my first really successful street scene. It spurred me on. I was young, and I can’t even find that picture now. Actually the moment was so vivid in my mind I remember its detail many years later. The lesson? Capture the moment in all its glory, not just the moment you think is right. Martin Parr would have missed a great moment in a street game. I was the lucky one! I got a great set of expressions in the wonderful, historical context of street photography. That old French square came alive with that laughter.

3. The environment and historical context of street photography Street photography is about the people you meet, but never let a moment of interest slip away. Here is a picture of an old stone gateway into the market square in Abingdon…

Hidden Human History Revealed - the historical context of street photography

• Hidden Human History Revealed •
The damage on the columns of the gate reveal the historical context of street photography.
• Click image to view large •
Stone arch by Neven Guy.

The essence of street photography is about the character of the people you see. But here is a unique moment in human history that is so much a part of the street scene. Look at the deep gouges and scratches in the sides of the gate columns. Those marks have been made over centuries of use. Carts, trucks and all sorts of other objects and implements have banged off those stone columns and left an historical imprint.

I felt privileged to walk around those columns feeling the stonework and letting the history wash over me. As I did so I could see in my minds eye the busy street scene of a market square bustling with peasants and farmers of three or four hundred years ago.

Street photography is not just about pictures, its about you too

The moment you get out and into the street you are revealing yourself and discovering your boundaries. I did not engage with the people of Abingdon as I had hoped. But I did engage with their history. The historical context of street photography helped me gain some important insights into the history of the town. I also had some interesting thoughts about street photography. A powerful day of learning! It has made me want to go back and witness a busy Saturday market there. Those pockmarked columns would be a great backdrop to a busy street scene.

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.