You may or may not have heard of the 5 stages of photography? If not, they are the recognised developmental steps (most) photographers go through from beginning, accumulating, adapting and finally settling on their gear and technique. I cannot say it is bunkum as I recognise myself, sometimes repetitively in these steps.
Street photography, I feel has a similar set of recognisable stages.
Stage 1. Recognition.
The first is often the step that creates interest for the budding street photographer. Full of the desire to experiment, but lacking direction, the enthusiastic and increasingly competent early shooter may be aware of all sorts of things on a purely photographic, compositional level and may naturally find human interactions, observed normality or urban detritus draws them. The moment they recognise this as a recognised form, they have started their journey as a street photographer. This may come early or late in the photographers journey, depending on their interests.
Stage 2. Luck and effort.
Once recognised, more concentrated effort is directed at fast accumulation of images. The new adherent now has to decide what style of street photography they are going to subscribe to. This is often subconscious, maybe an extension of what has worked before, but if they have also become a deep researcher on the subject, then maybe more deliberate. The reality is though, at this early stage, luck and dedication will determine the volume and then the overall look and feel will come from habit. This constant practice will come easily as long as the feeling of excitement and exploration lasts. Often the most satisfying images at this stage are the “coincidental” or clever ones, which often come down to saturation of the subject coughing up the odd perfect image.
Stage 3 The divergence.
As the practitioner gains confidence and accumulates a library of images (including a reasonable set of favourites), they pair down their gear to just what is needed rather than what they may need (street shooters usually find simplicity and self discipline their best friends, not a heavy bag full of options), they start to gravitate to a clearer path, often in contrast to other styles that also fall under the banner of “street”. Unfortunately this where many become judgemental of others work citing theirs as the only true form. For those I feel their journey often ends here.
The Portraitist will approach their subject, taking candid, but fully cooperative environmental (or not) portraits, often with a short introduction or story to provide context. This is a modern style that is so recognisable with movements like “Occupy Wall Street” or the work of Robin Wong or Eric Kim. Their style is inclusive and completely overt, more about community than documentation. The photographer needs to built confidence (courage) and good communication skills. They may find language their biggest barrier, but they have the advantage of time. This also includes the documentary shooter, who will include other images to fully flesh out the story, but their anchor will be the portrait. Of course the biggest problem portraitists face is one of variety. People come in all shapes and sizes, but portrait image tend not to, so unless they rely on gimmicks, the portraitist must always find relevance for their work.
The Watcher on the other hand will try to stay invisible. Choosing not to intervene or interrupt their subject, the watcher is trying to capture fleeting moments of life without their presence influencing it. To this practitioner, the unadorned, natural and intimate moment with emotions stripped bare, is like gold. This style has it’s roots very much in the dawn of street photography and went all but unnoticed, for most of the 1950’s to 2000’s, classed loosely as documentary photography. Among my favourites here are Kenneth Tanaka, David H Wells (especially his early mono work), Hiroki Fujitani, Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas (most of the early colourists), Vivian Maier, Helen Levitt, Alex Webb just to name a few. Although each very different from the next, all share the same desire to see, capture and move on invisibly, non-destructively. The detached nature of this style runs the risk of alienating the viewer, relying on composition, clever message and technique rather than an engaged subject to anchor it, and it can be seen as invasive or sneaky by the subject. Personally I love it. I want to see the natural way of life people live.
The Rule breaker who carves out a style alien to some (often shunned by the “purer” forms above), but adhere to the basic, broader precepts of street shooting. Kate Kirkwood, substituting streets for country lanes and cityscapes for hills and cow spines or Phil Borges making the landscape look like a studio for his thrid world portrait subjects and even Jan Meissner making New York streets look like carefully managed stage productions are all exceptions to the rule. These photographers are hard to categorise and often do not even get included under the broad umbrella of street photography. Strict rules are contradictory to the street shooting ethos which since day one has been filled with rule breakers.
Stage 4. The Deep Connector is the fully developed street photographer. No longer relying on luck, coincidence, nervous approaches or subterfuge, this photographer is style agnostic and very adaptable. They are now fully immersed in their subject and embrace any and all styles. Their guiding force is to connect on a level they have not reached before and continue to develop that connection. Peter Turnley is a good example of the fully developed, mixed style street shooter as is Eugene Smith. This also includes the bulk of National Geographic travel-doc photographers such as Sam Abel, David Alan Harvey or Steve McCurry.
The journey may be shorter or longer with each photographer, but for many this is the shape of a street photographers development.
Personally I feel I am at a transition point between stage 2 and a stage 3 watcher with a dash of rule breaker. My “Kensho”* is stage 4. I can only hope.
*Kensho is a buddhist term meaning roughly the initial “seeing” or understanding of one’s true nature, but not yet reaching the perfect form of it.