Fujifilm street photography workshop -the Christchurch Masterchef challenge
But you just don’t know whether you’re doing it for the right reasons
It’s cold for the season down in the street below
~ The Divine Comedy
Kia ora tatou/hi everybody:
Just before Christmas (last year!), we held the second Fujifilm Street photography workshop in Christchurch. The aim of the workshops is to teach the rudiments of documentary and street photography, demonstrating techniques to do with approach, composition and technique, then let the participants loose for two hours with an X-series camera, to shoot an image good enough to win an XF-1 compact camera (and the colour of the winner’s choice!). We were somewhat overwhelmed by the number of entries for the 12 places available, with applications coming from as far away as Auckland and Wellington. All in all, nearly 50 people put their hats in the ring to learn about what is fast becoming one of the most popular photography genres today.
Each of the participants was given seven days to edit, process and submit their contenders for the Masterchef challenge. They were to label them with only their name and a sequence number. The picture had to speak for itself, so no cutesy titles or elaborate accompanying essays were allowed. And in they came.
While I attempt to be as objective as possible when assessing somebody else’s work, I have my own biases and preferences, and for that reason I co-opted the help of a couple of friends whose opinion I respect immensely, to look at the work, give their own comments and then help me to a decision. We debated it quite some length until eventually the top five images emerged, along with the winner.
Those of you coming to this post for the first time might do well to read my observations and comments from the last workshop in Auckland, since much of that applies. If you’ve already read it, you may want to do so again before going any further.
As many of you know, Christchurch isn’t quite the town it used to be, and many of the wonderful opportunities for Street photography in the CBD have been swept away by the earthquake. Much of the wonderful grunge and graffiti and all the seedy back alleys are now just holes in the sky waiting for new buildings to fill them. It was a stroke of luck that the day we were holding the workshop happened to coincide with Christchurch’s annual Santa Parade, which would be literally passing on the other side of the carpark from where we were doing the tuition. Participants were free to go whereever they liked within the two-hour shooting period, but most opted to work with the parade and the people lining the streets on either side.
It was intriguing to see the work coming in, and to see people’s different interpretations of what they understood by street photography. It is worth pointing out here that for some people a street photograph must contain people, to my mind a rather narrow interpretation, while for others it can be much broader. The best street photographs, to my mind, inhabit a space between time and place and intention. Remembering that a photograph is an aide-memoire, a graphic representation of a point in space and time, then it stands to reason that everybody will come to it with their own experience and memories. It seems to me that the great street photographs remain eternal, because their message is universal, and day offer a universal statement to a wide variety of viewers. It is all too easy to talk to the elite and select few, who speak the language anyway, but it takes a special kind of genius to produce a photograph which is both long-lasting and which speaks to people of all levels and all walks of life.
As I expected, the competition submissions were extremely variable in content, message and quality. Again I found a couple of entries which could have been taken anywhere, and were closer to formal studio portraits in the camera club mode than expressions of life on the street. Remember that a photograph of life on the street does not have to contain human beings, only a reference to the human experience of life on the street, which is not the same thing at all.
So without further ado (drum roll) here are the top five, with the winner saved (of course) until last. The others are in no particular order.
In this image, a powerfully-constructed woman in a striped miniskirt occupies the foreground, while an apparently bemused Brad Pitt looks on from the background. Seeing this picture had me laughing somewhat guiltily for days. The choice of angle and moment is such that two relatively disparate elements combine to make a statement which is at once sharp but at the same time highly amusing. The fact that the poster of Brad Pitt in the background is so judiciously placed creates a narrative which can be interpreted in a number of ways, ranging from the sympathetic to the unkind. This photograph provokes a response in the viewer, and the deliciousness of the image is that the viewer’s response paints a portrait of the viewer him/herself and further heightens the humour. Genius.
The next image is a street-level photograph of a small toddler apparently separated from his or her parents, looking around, while legs in camouflage trousers stride by. Making assumptions we would assume that these are soldiers, and based on what we can see, they are relatively unaware of the small child. This is a classic positioning, where the photographer has got down at ground level to see the world through the child’s eyes, and in doing so created a narrative which speaks about the strangeness and wonder of the world when seen through a toddler’s eyes. This is a photograph in the classic documentary tradition, where important elements of the picture are held outside the frame, and allow us to read beyond the frame, if we so choose. The camouflage-clad trousers are in dark tones, in complete contrast to the diaphanous softness of the child’s dress. We can take this photograph in any one of a number of ways, and in doing so, generate our own narrative from it, the mark of a strong photograph which has legs on it (pun intended).
Shoes and people walking, and the moment intrinsic in foot position can often help establish a sense of space and time. In this photograph the photographer went to the trouble of lying on the ground and waiting for the moment to occur. A well-known approach for many documentary photographers is to first of all establish the framing and composition, and then wait for something to happen. Great documentary/street photographers like Burt Glinn fully understood the power of this kind of approach. A study of their proof sheets will quickly reveal how they take this approach. The photographer in this entry, while lying on the ground, framed up the window of the shoe shop in the background and then waited for somebody suitable to come along. The moment has been captured with precision, evidenced by the fact that one of the shoes of the woman walking past is sharp and at rest, while the other is in motion and blurred, in distinct contrast. Desaturating the image to the point where it is neither a colour nor a black-and-white image further heightens the sense of dichotomy in it.
If the street is a reflection of our own perception of it, then it stands to reason that photographing the street in reflection adds another layer of understanding, and the option to further develop our own relationship with the narrative. In what is essentially a black-and-white photograph, a mannequin wearing a straw hat and sunglasses stares out upon the street. The sunglasses would suggest that her thoughts and expression are carefully guarded, and that she is keeping her opinions to yourself. However the splash of colour applied in postproduction by the photographer, a kind of digital lipstick, implies that her thoughts may not necessarily be kind or favourable. Is she blowing a kiss of approval or one of derision (a raspberry)? The man in the check shirt looking on appears to be interested in the mannequin, and potentially working up his best pickup line. His body positioning makes him at once part of life in the street and life behind the shop window. The ambiguity is further heightened by the interaction of the woven fabric in the shop window with the checked pattern on his shirt. This picture in many ways echoes Lee Friedlander and Robert Doisneau.
It is very easy to become set in our photographic ways, to know what we know, to know what we like and to close our minds to what is outside and consider it as having its own life and validity. Often it is the pictures which irritate us which teach us the most and open our minds to new ways and new possibilities.
There are a lot of things about this photograph which irritate me, for example the Bill Brandt soot-end-whitewash look of this photograph. The technical purist in me shudders at the blown highlights and over ripe blacks and the relative absence of midtones. Extraneous subject material protrudes into the frame, adding little of anything to the narrative, and somehow the framing seems haphazard and a little naive. Significant parts of the photograph attempt to glue themselves to the frame edge and defy all the carefully-wrought axioms of good composition.
And yet, and yet…
Sometimes a photograph is so strong, is so challenging, and so downright… annoying… that it acquires the status of pure genius. My first response to this photograph was to say WOTF and dismiss it out of hand. But, rather like a Barry Manilow song, which gets in your head, and rolls around and around and refuses to leave, I couldn’t put this image down, and the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to look at it. It is chaotic, disorganised by conventional standards, and yet it is so strong, I keep coming back to it again and again. This is a picture I would love to own, to frame and put on the wall. This is a picture which forces me to confront my own photographic prejudices and to acknowledge that there is another way. This is a photograph which contains echoes: in it I see Ans Westra and Marty Friedlander and Robin Morrison. Gary Winogrand would approve of this image.
Take time to study the young girl leaning against the window, the way she is dressed and her body position. The former suggests someone yearning for adulthood and sophistication, but the body position, the angle of the legs and knees and hands suggests a child attempting to cope with a body which is growing faster than she can keep up with. The sunglasses, artfully pushed back on her herd suggest Marilyn Monroe, but the jandals say something altogether different. She makes eye contact with the photographer (and hence us), and her expression is a curious mixture of innocence and guardedness. It’s no fun being a child at that age, caught in the no man’s land between childhood and adulthood, with puberty beginning to rage like a forest fire and no fire extinguisher at hand. The narrative in this photograph is complex and powerful, and yet the photographers approach is one of sympathy and sensitivity, a delicate insight contrasted with a rough, loosely drawn approach.
Astonishing. Simply astonishing.
If this is got your attention, and the style of photography is something which interests you, then you may want to chuck your hat in the ring for our next Street photography workshop, in Wellington on January 27, 2013. As we do these workshops, we are really beginning to learn. Wellington will have only 15 places, allocated on a strictly first come, first served basis.
You can chuck your hat in the ring by emailing mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org