The Wellington Fujifilm Street photography workshop-the Masterchef challenge
– Leonard Freed
“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”
― T.S. Eliot
I really love teaching street and documentary photography, because it is something most of us can access, something at our doorstep, and something which can be a real challenge for those who are new to it. I hasten to add that even for those of us who love doing it, and have been doing so for some time, can find it a bit frightening at times. It isn’t always easy mingling on the streets and working with the camera. Inevitably somebody at one of the workshops comes back saying how tough they found it, and what a challenge it was. One of the reasons for this is that when you work with a short lens, you really do have to get in close and personal with your subject, and be prepared to interact. To my mind lurking at a distance with a long lens is a form of voyeurism, and flattened perspectives will tend to suggest that you really didn’t have the courage to engage with your subject.
Each of the participants on the workshop is given an X-series camera, instruction in how to use it, and two hours to roam the streets and come up with the winning image, which will get them a brand-new Fujifilm XF-1 camera. No pressure.
The Wellington workshop was no different. Even though it was a lovely sunny Saturday, and Wellington is naturally a target-rich environment, there is still the pressure to engage. Over the next week, as the entries rolled in to my inbox, I continued to be stunned by the breadth and quality of the images supplied, not to mention the lengths the workshop members had gone to to produce something really special. Perhaps it was my final words before they went out on their mission: go on, surprise me, challenge me, and produce something I haven’t seen before. Produce something which will make me curse and wish I had shot it. Well, all of them did exactly that. All of them produced something which stopped me in my tracks.
Because I want to do my best by the participants, I usually call on extra advice, photographers whom I know and respect, who will give me their opinion and help me to come to a conclusion. Frankly, I couldn’t get it below a top 12, so I really needed their assistance. Eerily, all of us agreed on the winner straight away. However, because there were so many good ones, I would like to share eight of them with you, and offer some thoughts on each of the images. So, in no particular order…
In this image the photographer has found two young guys in what appears to be a rather run-down part of town. One is sitting, while the other is standing (slouching?), giving one of those gang salutes which only mean something if you are in the scene. Their expression, while directed at the camera, is vacant and somehow disengaged. It is a powerful allegory of life in the street, with all its emptiness and futility. The framing is superb, with picture elements drifting out of shot and suggesting material beyond the edges of the frame. The stairs disappear out of shot at left, and what appears to be a gas hot water unit is only partially in the frame, and a door at right alludes to another space beyond that which the photographer has captured. Part of a banister intrudes into the frame, and gives some sense of what is in front of the picture. This is very careful framing, which is at once archaic and at once complete. The desaturation and grunge/HDR effect simply adds to the overwhelming sense of ennui. There is a palpable sense of pointlessness to the whole image which makes it that much stronger.
In the next image the photographer has stood in an entranceway and looked out on the street. The left-hand half of the picture is taken up with the poster in a shop window, with an attractive model looking over her shoulder at life on the street. As the photographer has pressed the button, a man has walked into shot carrying two bags and with a pack on his shoulder, seemingly oblivious to what is going on around him as he makes his way purposefully along the street. Notice how he has just stepped into the frame, and notice how the idea of moment is accentuated by the fact that one foot is flat, immobile and sharp, while the other is blurred and suggestive of movement. There is a complete disconnect between the model in the window and the man passing by, and yet both are linked by the framing the photographer has chosen. She appears to be watching him but he is completely unaware of her presence. While she lurks in the shadows, he is out in the bright light of day. Notice how both the shadows and highlights hold detail. This is classic street photography, well seen and expertly documented.
Shop windows and their relationship to the people moving in the street can be a rich source of exploration. Our perception so often of shop windows is in looking at them from the outside, on the street and seeing them from our own (outside) perspective. Tell that to any shop assistant, whose day is taken up with looking past the displays to the people moving by on the outside. By stepping inside the shop and making a photograph of the shoes on display and then contrasting it with the shadows of the people moving past, the photographer has made a richly textured and graphic composition. There is strong use of shadow as a compositional element, and it is the strong contrast of light and shadow which gives this photograph its cachet. This is a photograph which is less about form than shape, and the almost translucent shadow of the person walking past the window provides a visual link between the texture of the display on the inside and that of the footpath on the outside. Note how rendering it with an indistinct border alludes to a filmic approach and, by extension, to the archaeology of the photographic medium.
Shadow, texture and the graphic qualities of subject material provided the basis for the next image which is exciting. The man on the left is carrying two plastic bags filled with something, possibly groceries, while the woman approaching from the right is also carrying a plastic bag filled with something much smaller. They are both looking at each other, as if in conversation, and perhaps comparing the contents of each other’s bags. While the narrative is relatively simple, quite a banal moment, yet there is significance to it. Converting the image to black and white allows us to see it without the confusion colour would create, and to appreciate the lines and textures. The only mid-tone areas are really the steps in the bottom of the picture, the sunlight pavement, and the soft middle grey texture of the sea beyond, itself highlighted by the sharp-pointed shapes of the rocks. Again there is a mystery here, a sense of being an observer of a conversation at which we can only guess. Remember that this style of photography can tell stories as much about the ordinary and everyday as it does about the unique and momentous.
Street photography offers us the opportunity to produce surprising juxtapositions, and in fact, juxtaposition is a key theme in street and documentary photography. A generously-proportioned person (it is difficult to exactly determine the gender of the human) is walking across a paved footpath, carrying a folded-up shopping bag. Ahead of her and slightly to the right, a pigeon is also making its way across the cobblestones. Notice the wonderful symmetry between the position of the pigeon’s feet and that of the person behind it. There is a gentle sense of humour here, and awareness of the fact that two ordinary events can have much in common. By cropping off the picture at the human’s waist height, the photographer makes a general statement and a gentle observation. Had he chosen to include the entire person, it would be a statement about who that person is rather than them being a kind of metaphor. The warm colour of the paving slabs reflects upon both the human and the underside of the pigeon and therefore links the two in both graphic and chromatic terms.
The simple act of walking along the street can provide much material for reflection and study, and can often offer the opportunity for gentle but acute observation. Remember that subject material in this type of photography can be quite ordinary and yet offer us a new ways of looking at things. In this photograph two women walk out of the frame at upper left, while a third woman follows behind. Again the moment has been acutely observed. Notice the right leg and foot position of the two women at the left of the frame, and the fact that the following woman’s right arm is in an almost identical position. Strong shadows and desaturation helped to move this photograph from being purely representational to being a well seen if not particularly profound allegory. Notice how the shadow of the bird between them on the pavement provides a visual link and references the triangle of dark shadow on the upper right-hand of the photograph. Again, by cropping off the walkers’ heads, the photographer removes any sense of who they are and restricts them to the realm of metaphor.
The ordinary and every day is a continuous succession of single moments, rather like the frames on a strip of movie film. Each is distinct and complete in itself and yet, when combined, creates the illusion of time passing. Often the fact that we are witnessing an event taking place can prevent us from seeing the singularity and succession of singularities occurring within a short space of time. In this photograph the photographer is watching people jumping into the harbour and enjoying themselves on a hot day. What takes the photograph from being mere representation to something special is the person diving out of the frame at lower right. Again, by omitting their upper body and head, we are presented with something surreal, a moment when what is seen photographically is at odds with what we might expect to see and/or choose to see. There is something quite bizarre about the diver, by the way in which he appears disjointed and disconnected from the action which gives the photograph a distinctly bizarre feel. Desaturating the image further helps to give a sense of something quite apart from reality.
In every photograph, no matter what genre it belongs to, there is a perfect moment when all the elements in the picture come together, and that is photography’s greatest strength, for the truth lies in the moment, in the brief period when the shutter is open, and the moments as selected. It is, if you like, all about the decisive moment. Equally important are the small details, and a great picture will often rise or fall on the fraction of a section collected by the camera. A tiny fraction either side of that moment as a bridge too soon or a bridge too far. Remember that it is the little things, the minor elements in the photograph which will determine success or failure. This photograph is similar to the previous one, and the photographers were probably more or less in the same place, observing the same event. It has been cropped using the 1:1 format, which of necessity lends a degree of formality to it, and yet there is an anarchic quality to the photograph which defies the sense of balance and stolidity. At the moment when the photographer pressed the shutter a young person’s jumping into the water and has been captured just before he sinks below the surface. The use of 1/800 sec helps to absolutely freeze the moment. There is a wonderful counterpoint between the drops of water rising up around him and those falling from the feet of the person climbing the ladder. It is as if they are operating in concert. And yet they are not. Even though the photographer has used F9 .0, the depth of field is such that the person blocking the left third of the frame is out of focus. Remember that our human eyes, which have a natural aperture of F5 .6, will struggle to hold both near and far in sharp focus, and thus the blurred spectator in front gives us a better sense of the reality of the moment than if they had been crystal clear and sharp. Notice also how the strip of light projecting up the shoulder helps to separate the watcher from the background, and the softly textured blue of the garment provides a counterpoint to the solid black underneath the wharf. Again this photograph is quite filmic in its representation, with strong saturated colours and deep black featureless shadows. It is very reminiscent in many ways of the graphic style of the photographer Alex Webb.
Every workshop I have done so far has produced fascinating and yet distinctly different approaches. All of us, who live in or near a city, have the possibility of making work of this type, which challenges preconceptions and prejudices. Street photography has the potential to open up things we take for granted and show us new truths within the moment. As Richard Kalvar puts it:
“The photograph is completely abstracted from life, yet it looks like life. That is what has always excited me about photography.”