Those Impromptu Street Portraits: Valid or Not?

Like most street photographers I occasionally take impromptu street portraits. They’re hard to resist.

For example, one day I was walking along a street in London when I spotted a man smoking a cigarette. I managed to get a shot of him before there was any conversation between us, but because he was looking directly at the camera I felt I had to say something afterwards.

We had a brief chat and he kindly let me take another photo. I asked him to look away from the camera. The resulting image (shown above) is very close, super-sharp, and technically more accurate than most street photos. I like it, but it’s not at all the kind of image I normally seek. Let me explain why not.

Why Candid Is Better
As soon as the subject becomes aware of the camera the spell is broken and something is lost. I’m sorry if this sounds a bit obscure, but if you feel the same way you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

I want to show the world as it really is, not as it wants to be seen. Most people begin to act as soon as they know they’re “on camera,” smiling, posing, putting on their “best face,” raising a rabbit-ears salute or making some other gesture. There’s no end to the contortions performed by the public when they think they’ll end up on Facebook or Flickr.

Of course, you may be lucky (as I was with the shot above) in finding someone who “gets it,” who sees you taking candid pictures and knows the kind of shot you want. But it’s better to maintain the convention of “the invisible camera,” taking candid, unposed shots whenever possible.

When a subject looks directly at the camera lens a peculiar process is set in motion. After the image has been processed and displayed, the subject appears to be looking at the viewer. But in no sense can the helpless subject make true eye contact with those who view the image. When it comes to scrutiny, it’s a one-way street: the gaze is from viewer to subject, not vice versa. For this reason I find that the people depicted in most street photos often project a kind of defensive, accusatory stare which they seldom use in other circumstances.

The Specialists
Many photographers specialise in street portraits, often gaining considerable critical and commercial success. Brandon Stanton’s series “Humans of New York” is a notable example, a remarkable collection of faces that leaves you marvelling at the variety and beauty of the human race.

Stanton has now divided his collection into various series: “Intimate Stories,” “Refugee Stories,” “Invisible Wounds,” and so on, his project morphing into literary territory, beyond the purely photographic. He writes: “Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them. And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives.”

I like Stanton’s approach. It works, especially with the addition of text. I wouldn’t call it “street photography” in the classic sense, but it’s perfectly valid, if not entirely original.

Many photographers have attempted to meld biography and portraits into a new artform. For example, British photographer Adrian Clarke, a former civil liberties lawyer, took the same road, moving from visual images to a combination of words and image. He made an initial impact with his series “Framed” — depicting subjects who had served long prison sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. In later series such as “South Bank is Shrinking” (2008) and “The Road to Low Newton” (2009) he accompanied his images with biographical stories told in the subjects’ own words.

I’m not wholly convinced by these brave attempts to create a new artform. They seem to involve too many compromises. We never learn the real story of the subject’s life, just a personal, one-sided version of it. Only a well researched biography or novel can present a full account of an individual living in a particular place through a particular period of time. By contrast, a street portrait without accompanying words leaves you guessing and prompts your imagination to provide the backstory.

Beyond Travel Photography
When you travel to a foreign city there’s an added impetutus to take street portraits because you can include both the person and the place in which they live: two for the price of one! Even better, you may be able to photograph them in the actual performance of some unusual occupation that’s unique to the area. Three for the price of one!

Their performance may even involve birds or animals. That’s four for the same price — and by now you’re probably in China, photographing an elderly gentleman engaging in cormorant fishing on the Li River in Yangshuo. It’s OK. I’ve seen it before. Yes, he’s very photogenic and the fishing is genuine, but his main activity is not cormorant fishing at all — it’s having his photograph taken.

I think it’s best to avoid the ersatz image: the synthetic, fake, false, faux, mock, simulated photo which takes you away from the nucleus of street photography towards its outer reaches. Keep it candid. Keep it real — even if the resulting photo is less technically correct.

The Revealing Moment
For example, sometimes you can catch people momentarily lost in thought. Maybe they’re actually lost, which is even better. Either way, they’re likely to be unaware of your presence, at least until you’ve taken the shot.

In Bangkok I took this photo (above) of a gentleman with a wise face, not unlike the Chinese figures you see guarding the Royal Palace. There was no time to worry about the background, which is cluttered almost beyond acceptability, but I like the shot. Why? Because it preserves the integrity of street photography.

The camera remains invisible. The onlooker can enjoy the same privileged viewpoint as that enjoyed by the reader of a novel. The photo lets you enter the world imaginatively and without confrontation. You can put yourself in the man’s place rather than confront him with impersonal scrutiny. In other words, this really is a street photo, not just an impromptu street portrait.

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