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.