street photography

Book Review - "Street Photography Is Cool" by John Lewell

John Lewell is a name that may be familiar to some of you as the founder of the Streetphotoindex and of his own top ten UK listed blog at www.johnlewellphotography.com

 

John recently published his own eBook entitled Street Photography is Cool – and it is available on Amazon.

 

John is an extremely erudite writer, as you would expect from a Cambridge graduate, who is both well read and well travelled. He demonstrates great knowledge of many aspects of art and culture, and this informs both his own photography and his views on shooting on the street.

 

This is not a “how to” book but is more a walk through many of John’s thoughts on different aspects and challenges of shooting on the street, using his own images as examples. Each chapter begins with a reason - “street photography is cool because…” much in the style of the “Love is…” Schultz cartoons that so many of us will have grown up with.

 

From the outset John is keen that street photographers should develop their own style, putting down the manual and getting out and shooting as much as possible. He acknowledges that he is largely self-taught, eschewing the influence of the “greats” in order to develop his own style.

 

“Once other photographers have shown us how they see the world we start to see it in the same way. That's why I didn't start to look comprehensively at other people's work until I'd developed a style of my own.”

 

John acknowledges that street photography is not easy. “Without intense desire and motivation no one can succeed as an artist.” He picks his way through a lot of the challenges that will be familiar to anyone who has tried to shoot candid images on the street and illustrates these with analysis of images from his own back catalogue. These insights are reassuringly familiar and will resonate loudly. John has clearly considered these issues at length and over time. However, they are very personal views.

 

At some points in the book I felt urged to debate some of the points that John made. His writings are fairly black and white (pardon the pun) on certain issues – particularly concerning black and white photography, for example. In “It's a Colourful World” he writes:

“I'm still puzzled why so many people still cling to black & white, given today's versatile and sophisticated colour tools. I can only put it down to their reluctance to embrace change: a deep obstinacy rooted in habit and tradition.”

To me, this misses the point entirely. Black and white is a tool at the photographer’s disposal which, given that the two dimensional image (the photograph) is already an abstraction from the reality of 3d, allows a further level of abstraction and expression.

 

On developing a personal style John writes:

 

It's far better to allow your style to grow out of your interaction with reality. It will come naturally from your selection of subjects, from how sympathetic you are to them , from your distance or closeness to them , and from whether you can find a little bit of originality in the way you portray them . I think originality in art is vastly overrated and has led to all kinds of unnecessary and ultimately sterile disruptions. The " little bit of originality " of which I speak is to be glimpsed in your personal style. It's what comes from the photographer in response to reality, rather than from anywhere else.

 

This is very much a matter of opinion, as is any subjective evaluation of any work of art. However, I was surprised that John, with all of his cultural acumen, seeks to encourage photographers to seemingly seek to operate in a vacuum of their own work. To me, it is about learning from those who have gone before, from their successes and their mistakes, and seeking to take the elements that we, as individuals, most like from each of these giants upon whose shoulders we plant our tripods. Similarly, we should seek to be influenced by as wide a range of cultural and artistic experiences, not purely photographic, as possible in order to broaden our creative vision. John has such a cultural wealth at his fingertips that I was most surprised to read his thoughts on this.

 

I was particularly struck by John’s thoughts on the future of street photography at a time when private and public identities have never been so mixed. He warns:

 

“Eventually, a database of street photos may itself be tied in with tags on social media , enabling us to identify the majority of people we photograph on the street . Tomorrow, everyone will be in the public eye . When all is revealed by face recognition technology I wouldn't be surprised if street photography were not outlawed altogether in many countries. Either that, or people will take to wearing masks and camouflage.”

 

He recognises the responsibilities that we have as photographers on the street and shares views on shooting courteously and within the law. He gives tips on the importance of limbering up for a day on the street, ensuring that you are in:

 

“…the right frame of mind to take street photos . That's because you need to be able to see beyond the obvious, to find the extraordinary in the ordinary , and to anticipate the next few moments almost as though you can see into the future...”

 

This is so true.

 

In the main, John represents the world of the street photographer well.

 

“Every true street photograph represents a unique occurrence, captured in a moment of time that can never be repeated . You were its witness; and your photo , however ill composed or badly taken , will have intrinsic value of its own .

 

Self- publication is very much  easier today than ever before. John explains

 

“I've used only my own photos to illustrate the various topics. Although restricting the book in this way probably gives it stylistic coherence, it doesn't acknowledge the rich variety of approaches taken by contemporary photographers.”

 

It would be interesting to sit down (with a bottle of wine or a couple of pints of ale) with a dozen images taken by the street photography greats or, indeed, those of contemporary photographers, and discuss our various opinions.

 

Like all good books, Street Photography Is Cool raises plenty of arguments and generates even more discussion. John has done well to publish a work that so clearly puts forward his views as he walks us through his images.

Best of March 2019

Sixteen from London’s streets from March. Let me know your thoughts below.

Click on the image to go LARGE.

Best of February 2019

Sixteen from February out and about on the streets of London and Cambridge.

I would love to hear your comments below.

Click on the image to go LARGE.

British Photography Awards

Thrilled to be shortlisted in the Street category of the British Photography Awards with my image All The Fun Of The Fair.

All The Fun Of The Fair   Chiddingfold, Surrey. 2018.

All The Fun Of The Fair

Chiddingfold, Surrey. 2018.

Part of the competition is a public vote and you can vote for my image by clicking on the image which will take you to the link.

Please do look at the other images and categories - there is some amazing talent on show.

Twitter: @GBPhotoAwards

Instagram: @britishphotographyawards

Facebook: @britishphotographyawards

Photo Rich. Time Poor.

I am lucky enough to have had a week’s holiday; not travelling but just unwinding, catching up and reeling back some of the hours lost to the day-job over the past two months. I suppose that it’s part of my own sense of worth and some deep puritan work ethic that I am seemingly unable to completely stop. I begin my time off by making lists of tasks to achieve within the week ahead - one of which is to write this blog. (So here I am with less than 24 hours holiday remaining and a slight sense of guilt for not having done it earlier - anyone else been here?)


One of my main aims this week was to spend some time looking at photo-books. I have said several times in this blog space that one of the best ways to learn is to look at the work of the greats. It’s so important. It feed us, educates us , inspires us; yet it’s so easy to put off. Why wouldn’t I want to invest a small amount of time in something which I know will help me improve in an area I feel passionate about? Yet time is precious. Finite.


How long should one sit enjoying a pile of photo-books for? Two hours? One hour? 30 minutes? Ten? Even that can feel like an indulgence when there are other people in the house going about their business. Surely, one can find ten minutes in a week.


It turns out I couldn’t.


I do know where a considerable chunk of my time has gone. Social media. Specifically, Instagram and Twitter. In recent blogs I have written a good deal about social media and largely in positive tones. I am not about to change my view. While I find that I have spent a long time on both platforms - or longer than I would’ve wished - this is purely my problem and not one that I can blame the platform for. However, while I enjoy the capacity of social media to allow me to see many, many more images in a short space of time than ever before in history (and very easily too), I find that there is such a wealth of images to enjoy and respond to that I am not spending long on any of them. It’s become a swipe, flick and like mechanism. I consume hundreds of images in a day and I dread to think how much time I spend on each one. Or rather, how little time i spend on each one. I’ve learned to quickly take in the basic elements - composition, light, framing - but it’s almost a skim reading. Sometimes I probably spend longer writing a comment than looking. So many pictures. So little time.


Don’t get me wrong, I am inspired  by what I see on social media, I learn from my peers, and it definitely feeds me - especially in encouraging me to pick up my camera, get out and start shooting. I need to learn to slow down and truly consider the images before me. In short, I need to chew my food, savour it and reflect on it, rather than always subsisting on the spaceman’s diet of a dry handful of tablets that contain just enough to sustain me.


This morning, the clocks went back. Today I have an extra hour. While I have been promising myself time spent with a pile of inspirational photo-books, the week has almost passed and I haven’t achieved it. So I hereby declare that I am going to commit to spending that hour with a fresh pot of coffee and a pile of books; a collection of paper images that I will turn slowly, savour, and force myself to look at more deeply. I come to them with the expectation that I will learn from them - both consciously and subconsciously. When I next pick up my camera I will do so with the improved knowledge and better vision that this hour and these books have brought me.

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4 From 7: no. 2

A village fair and some shots taken into cafes for this week's offering:

Like Buses

No posts for a while and then two in one day…

 

Just a short one to mention how honoured I am to have been listed in the list of Top 10 UK Street Photography Blogs. For me, it’s a real honour to be mentioned alongside the likes of Linda Wisdom (Linda Wisdom Photography) and Max Gor  (maxgor.com).

 

Do check them out and the other great UK photographers in the list. And pass them on…

 

Thanks,

Hugh.

London Light - Feb 2018

My blog thus far has tended to be philosophical ramblings about photography; musings on settings and gear; or the occasional “how to.” That probably begins to explain why blogging tends to happen fortnightly - fitting around the day job and collecting my thoughts gets in the way.

 

I have decided that perhaps the blog space is the place to try posting photos that I have been taking recently with a view to seeing how they look published, out there in the world, for all to see. Be prepared for more photos and and more posts - though just as many words.

 

Last Saturday I was in London with the camera, though not specially to take photos - this was a family outing. The trusty Fuji x100f is never far from my hands. The light was fantastic, even if the clear blue skies meant the air was shockingly cold, making holding a camera a challenge at times. I can’t do gloves. Gloves seem to introduce some kind of layer between camera and brain - as well as between hand and camera. I just can’t seem to function properly as a photographer in them.     

 

Here is a mix of colour and black and white images from the day - all shot around South Kensington and Brompton Road.

It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing.

Jazz and Cocktails. London, Jan 2018.

Jazz and Cocktails. London, Jan 2018.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a stupid thing to want to do.” Elvis Costello says; at least he is just one of several musicians who this quote has been attributed to. The more attributes, the more pertinent - perhaps. So, if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, how about writing about photography? And what about about the connections between jazz and street photography? That is what is currently occupying one partially lit corner of my mind.

 

Many great photographers have shot evocative images of many great jazz musicians, it's true - deep blacks, crisp rim-shot whites, all filtered through a haze of filter-less Gitanes smoke. You can almost hear the flattened fifths of the tenor saxophone. The music and the stylised black and whites take us back to a bygone age when cigarette smoke was de rigeur and a kipper tie, pork pie hat and blacked out shades was the uniform of the new school of jazz. But that particular alley is not where we are heading.

 

Instead, I want to explore the connections between jazz and shooting on the street.

 

Music and photography both have their own distinct subcultures or genres, each demanding a different appreciation and I think there are similarities here. Take landscape photography. This requires a considered approach, taking time, preparation and precision to create the greatest images. In this it is a kin to classical music. The holiday snapshot; surely that’s pop music. Immediate, brash, unsophisticated for the most part, disposable yet relevant and life enhancing. Street photography must be jazz. 

 

Jazz relies on certain rules or forms. Structures are learned - scales, cycles, blue notes - forwards and backwards and around. Well known songs, standards, are revisited time and time again as new elements are unearthed and discovered or rediscovered by new bloods eager to make themselves heard. It requires a great deal of technical proficiency. These structures are echoed in street photography with its foundation in other genres of photography and of visual art - the rules of composition, the work of the greats on whose giant shoulders the photographer attempts to climb.

 

Perhaps the defining feature of jazz is its reliance upon improvisation. True, this is not confined to jazz. Classicists will tell you that the great composers created frameworks for improvisation. However, it is improvisation which defines jazz. This, to me, is where the arcs of jazz and street photography swing closest to one another.

 

The dictionary will tell you that improvisation can mean making do. Who would want to sit on an improvised chair, or tuck into an improvised meal? Improvisation in jazz is not about making do. Far from it; but it is about making, creating something afresh. It is about an artist at the peak of his/her powers, creating something on the spot whilst referencing the traditions that preceded them and demonstrating their technical prowess in response to a given situation. It means a high level of technical proficiency combined with a high level of creativity.

 

Isn’t this what the street photographer does? In creating a new image, they bring to bear the knowledge of every image they have ever been influenced by. They use their technical expertise coupled with the inside-out knowledge of their camera, each button and lever falling into place instinctively just as the keys of every piano or saxophone do in the hands of the most skilled jazz musician. And they do this instantaneously; responding to whatever happens along.

 

It is this ability to react quickly to whatever is going on around them which makes a great street photographer or  great jazz musician. It is part anticipation, part learned technique and part luck. The challenge is to rearrange the world into something beautiful from whatever ingredients you are handed at the time.

 

The moment of creation is one of stepping off into the void. For a jazz musician, it means being able to imagine the sounds before they have been made; for a photographer it is about envisaging the image before the shutter is pressed. Nether moment is repeatable in quite the same way. This is what puts the energy into the piece or the image. This is where the excitement lies.

 

Perhaps most significantly, jazz also likes to throw away the rules. At its most free, it is simply a celebration of sound and reaction to an environment. Street photography, too, is at its most creative and innovative when it bends the rules, breaks the structures and surprises our expectations. A celebration, a riot of light.

 

As the great Charlie Parker said: “They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”

 

Jazz has always doffed its pork-pie hat to tradition but forged bravely forwards into new territories and this, to me, is what street photography does best.

2017 Reflections

According to Lightroom folders, I’ve taken about 20% more photos this year than in 2016. I already shoot too many. Of course, the number on file is nothing compared to the number taken - I delete a huge proportion of the number I take. And, I guess, like any street photographer, many of these will include the nearly shots - the ones that would’ve been classics if I hadn’t missed a head off or framed the action too far off the edge, or forgotten to switch the camera on/insert SD card/bring extra batteries. Ah the ones that got away.

2017....

2017....

 

Crucially, have I improved? As Yoda puts it in the latest Star Wars movie “The greatest teacher failure is.” Perhaps this is the new hope - that we continue to learn from our mistakes. I have to believe I have and looking back at last year’s photographs I certainly feel that this year’s crop are more knowing, more intelligent. They have probably lost a certain innocence or naivety. That, in itself, may not be such a good thing. It isn’t good if my images have simply aligned themselves to others' perception of what makes a good shot. I hope that I have maintained an essence of me and even developed a more recognisable style. I still try to take the pictures that I want to see - rather than trying to conform to someone one else’s view of what works.

 

This year I have even discovered the joys of printing. For as long as I’ve been taking photos seriously they have existed only on a computer screen or a mobile device. My first exhibition at the tail end of the year necessitated finding out about printing and seeing the first fifteen black and white images printed was such a proud moment, eager to unwrap them at my desk and showing any poor soul who happened to be passing. Thanks to the Printspace for doing such a great job. The exhibition was a far greater success than I could ever have dreamt and I loved giving my talk - who knew I’d love talking so much? (Ahem!) Following the exhibition, some of the prints now hang in my home and in my office and I do still enjoy seeing them, adding to the sense that I am shooting the shots I would like to see. Long may that last.

 

A year ago my website was only a few months old. A year on, blogging hasn’t exactly been frantic but it has been fairly regular and consistent - enough to see the site in the top 50 street photography websites online - though I wonder how many there are… I’ve bashed away on Instagram and Twitter and seen my following increase, now approaching the 1,100 mark on instagram (not huge but not nothing). More importantly, as a result of plugging away on these I secured an interview and feature with Digital Photographer (Issue 195) and a feature on www.streetphotography.com. Both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

 

Honestly, if you’d told me at the beginning of 2017 that by the end I’d have achieved half of the things above I would have struggled to believe it. I’ve been very lucky and very well supported. You know who you are... thank you.

 

Artistically, my photographs are better. I know they are because I am more fussy about quality control and what I will allow through. I have improved my editing workflow and become better - more subtle but still with some way to go especially with colour. I have honed a style that uses sub framing a lot and is better for it. I have improved my techniques with night shots and my street work is now more about capturing well composed moments and not simply catching a passer by on the way to the supermarket.

 

So, if could go back a year, what advice would I give myself?

  1. Believe in what you’re doing especially the black and white - and be true to your vision of what is right.
  2. Keep pushing the social media on a regular basis. Blog too whenever you can.
  3. Don’t underestimate the value of just sitting and looking at pictures - online, in a book or a gallery. If that doesn’t sit comfortably with your Protestant work ethic, then think of it as high class training for the eyes.

Published and not damned

Photographically, things have built to something of a head in the last weeks of 2017 for me. Having finished an exhibition which proved to be more successful than I could ever imagine, I find myself featured in the December 2017 edition (195) of Digital Photographer - available across the planet, they tell me. And online at www.dphotographer.co.uk

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For some one who only ever saw their photography on a screen until a few weeks ago, it’s a bit of a head spin. Now I see my images aligned professionally with text and formatting ... and everything. And they look all right! Actually, to coin the old joke about the chap who was run over by a steam train - I’m chuffed to bits. 

So, if you’re near a newsagent and not snowed under five feet of white stuff then wend your merry way down to the High Street and check out my eight page feature.