Research – Street Photography

When I identified that street photography would be the best approach for the photography in my ASL project I wanted to research two defining examples of cultural street photography and portraiture: Robert Frank and Walker Evans. Their two pieces of photographic work examining the American culture and environment uses an approach I felt I would like to take when photographing my subjects. It references an encounter and the aim of the image is to provide a somewhat detached response providing an overview of that person and their place in their social environment. Although my project will be focusing more on the person than the landscape, I still need to consider the landscape and the background in the composition of my images as this will have an effect on the image and the interpretation taken.

Walker Evans

Walker Evans is considered to be an influential photographer in the area of documentary and cultural photography, renowned for his objective style approach. Evans was in the era heavily influenced by Cartier Bresson and his ideology surrounding the ‘decisive moment’ and being an observer of the environment. This detached style references Barthes’ dynamic of the operator, spectator and target as the viewer of the photograph becomes the observer over the subject and their relationship to their environment. I chose to look at Walker Evans’ book ‘American Photographs’ to examine the manner in which he explored the American culture through both portraits and landscapes.

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  • It is noticeable in this portrait that the subjects are aware they are being photographed however they don’t look comfortable being in the frame – there is a sense of annoyance and disturbance
  • The photograph is taken slightly from above due to the subjects being seated in their vehicle, this creates a notion of power imbalance with the photographer holding the position of authority and control
  • The crop is quite open so the viewer can see the background behind the subjects, they can see that they are in a car in a street with moving traffic around – the viewer can make their own assumptions and interpretations of the environment in which the subjects occupy

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  • This portrait is different to the last one as although the photographer still has control over the representation; the power dynamic appears to be slightly less imbalanced
  • The subject appears comfortable in front of the camera and happy for the picture to be taken as opposed to the previous photograph
  • The background being close to the subject prevents the viewer from attempting to consider their environment, it is clear that the purpose of this photograph is for the viewer to look solely at the subject
  • Shooting in black and white, although the only choice in that time, brings out the texture of the wood background and the print of the clothing
  • The contrast appears to be fairly high in this image which accentuates the shadows and the details brought out by the black and white tone

 

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  • It is unclear here whether the subject knows they are being photographed or whether they have chosen to look away from the frame – the close crop would suggest that Evans was close to her but as a viewer we can’t know this
  • The crop is close as before but this time the subject does have some interaction with the environment so the viewer doesn’t just consider the subject on her own – there are some details about the environment which is interesting to look at which is perhaps why Evans shot in a different manner to the previous portrait

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  • There is a definite sense of power and respect in this portrait, the subject is shot from slightly below which indicates that they have a greater authority in the relationship between subject and photographer
  • Being black and white, the details in the photograph are very apparent, the buttons and texture of the uniform and the emblem on the hat
  • The eye contact means that the viewer engages with the subject and attempts to make an interpretation about their character

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  • This portrait, although similar to that of the previous close-crop portraits, appears to focus on a person of a lower socioeconomic background, this impression comes from his attire
  • Despite the probably difference in status, the image doesn’t appear to be a domination of the subject, the photograph is taken at the same eye level as the subject, not looking down on him which gives the viewer the impression that both the subject and photographer are equals
  • The subject is confronting the camera holding a gaze with the lens which suggests that this is a powerful, strong individual, there is no subordinate behaviour shown in his reaction to being photographed

 

Robert Frank

Robert Frank is perhaps well known most for his project, The Americans, which is what I am looking at in my analysis. As in immigrant to America from Switzerland, Frank is discussed for his ‘outsider’ position when photographing the subject in his project The Americans, as he was relatively unfamiliar to the culture and environment having grown up in another country. Frank was associated with Walter Evans however his style of photography appeared to offer a new perspective on the subject content. I have chosen to research Frank in relation to his approach to street photographer as proclaimed ‘outsider’ and how this may have had an impact his process of photographing. Choosing the American environment and culture as a subject pits Robert Frank up against the other great photographers of the time, like Walker Evans, which provides me with a good basis for comparison. Although Evans may not be completely classed as an ‘insider’ to the cultural and socioeconomic groups of subjects he photographed, it is thought that was closer to the American dynamic than Frank.

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  • Instantly I see a more abstract, creative approach to photographing the subject matter than Walker Evans did previously.
  • The focus has shifted from trying to capture portraits, or urban landscapes and is more about capturing the aesthetic of the environment in front of him, observing interesting opportunities to frame content.
  • He has captured the people, most likely without their permission however there is a aspect of privacy as it is hard to tell who the subjects are in the image, suggesting a consideration from Frank, accepting that this from of photography can be intrusive
  • This image depicts what is perhaps considered the outsider stance, however it is made in an interesting way, this image doesn’t presume to represent anything about the subject other than their relationship within the environment he has captured, and the interesting composition – Frank hasn’t selected the people, he has framed the opportunity

 

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  • This image is slightly different to the first image I have analysed, it doesn’t particularly look like the conventional American environment, as it strays away from the urban street environment
  • The image is so very well composed, it looks more like documentary photojournalism that it does a study of the environment
  • There is a sense of lifestyle in this image which is perhaps established with the landscape orientation, the viewer doesn’t associate this as a portrait as starts to relate to it as an image of reality

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  • This image looks very much like a fashion portrait, similar to the work of that of Richard Avedon
  • It appears to reference the timeless, elegant look we now call vintage, however at the same the look would have been in fashion with the upper class individuals
  • Although this does look more like a portrait, there is still something different about it, the lack of eye contact creates the impression that subject is being observed, perhaps without their knowledge

 

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  • This image is very similar in aesthetic to that of Dorthea Lange and her portrait, Migrant Mother, there is a distinct similarity between the wooden background and the tone of the image.
  • As with many of Franks other images there is a lack of eye contact with the subjects in the photograph, exaggerating Frank’s outsider status as he appears to be an observer
  • The subjects appear to be very comfortable in front of the camera, regardless of whether they know they are being photograph or not, this technique of looking away from the camera could actually put the subject more at ease, creating the possibility that Frank isn’t predominately observing

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  • Robert Frank also documents the environment and the traces of human existence, capturing the lasting impact humans have had on the American landscape
  • The subject matter being the road could perhaps reference the increasing levels of travel as infrastructure developed and so did the idea of the American, prompting many to move to the cities in order to try and make their success in an urban environment
  • The idea of straying away from portraits is an effective and different approach to photographing the American environment, perhaps the portraits could be referred to as the landscapes of culture.

 

Reflection:

There are both parallels and differences between the way Evans and Frank shoot and this is because of their different shooting styles, however the concept of the ‘outsider’ is also very relevant. With Walker Evans it appears predominately as though Evans aims to capture the individual and in doing so, considers their relationship to their surrounding environment, sometimes incorporating features in the photograph. There is a lot of eye contact in Evans images and he appears to treat the subject with respect, his framing giving them a power status, or at least the status of equals in his images, which encourages the viewer not to pity them. This stance is not taken however in the image of the two individuals in the car who appear to be frustrated at being photographed, focusing down on the main issue with street photography; whether to ask the subject if they will accept being photographed and when to ask this question. In the cases where it is obvious Evans has most likely entered into an agreement with the subject before hand, there is a specific type of image being taken, staged and controlled by both the subject and photographer. In the real candid photography, the subject does not primarily give the photographer permission to take the photograph and must instead express their emotions in the frame the photographer takes. Some individuals will reject this however others will continue their actions or not even notice the image is being taken. This approach would suggest to give a more accurate representation of the subject as if they not are aware of being photographed, they are less likely to change their behaviour and present themselves differently. Analysing Walker Evans images has introduced me to ways to frame my own street photography and thrown up cautions and challenges I may encounter when producing my images.

With Robert Frank’s images there is a distinctly different approach to the way he photographs his subjects, almost always appearing to be a detached observer. This stance of photographing and his immigrant status must have encouraged the discussions around his process being that of an ‘outsider’ as he is not inherently familiar to the culture he is photographing. Abigail Solomon Godeau addressed the outsider stance as being a negative position in the case of Diane Arbus photographing the outsiders in society. It is explained that the works of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark were a more positive form of photography because they are deeply involved in their subject matter. This would indicate that Robert Frank’s photography should be destructive to the subjects he is photographing because of his outsider status, however to me, this doesn’t appear to be the case. The important thing to consider when photographing people, is whether this is going to be a portrait, a representation of them, if that is the case then the insider approach would definitely be desired. However Frank appears to be photographing the environment, making the people part of his composition and therefore not trying to presume he knows anything about them. There isn’t really much to indicate that Frank is trying to represent anything other about them than their physical relationship with the environment he is photographing. One really interesting aspect about Frank’s photographs is that he appears to try and reference other images from other photographers in his own, I observed similarities between Frank’s images and that of Richard Avedon’s fashion portraits and Dorothea Lange’s renowned image of the Migrant Mother. This could be intentional or it could have been a subconscious decision made by Frank in his photographic process, but is something to consider when approaching my own street photography.

The most important thing for me to consider after researching these two photographers is my stance to the individuals I will be photographing and whether I want to try and assume an insider or outsider stance, and which one would be the most appropriate for my concept. As I am investigating the idea of the instantaneous encounter, I would think that an outsider approach is needed as I can’t assume to know anything about the subjects I am photographing apart from the information I can gather on sight. However I can’t take the same approach as Robert Frank and simply document them in relationship to their environment because it is the people I am interested in, as on the Internet you do not know where the person actually is when talking to them. Therefore I must try and disregard the environment when photographing these individuals and just photograph them as exactly the same place as they were when I first engaged conversation with them. This will mean my images stay true to the idea of the encounter and that I haven’t let my status as a creative interfere with the way the image is taken. What I really want to make sure however is that I am on a level with the person I am photographing, because on the Internet the power statuses that may be established in the physical encounter become void. My images should show that like entering an anonymous conversation, that the power levels are at an equal at the beginning of this encounter.

Choosing renowned street photographers like Walker Evans and Robert Frank have been really beneficial to me, however I am aware I could be criticised for not choosing a more recent example of street photography because my concept is so digital. The reason behind this was because I wanted to research and view the idea of the physical encounter at a time when developed digital technology didn’t exist, as the physical encounter would be the predominately way of meeting other people. I didn’t want to research photographs where the encounter could be corrupted by the subject’s knowledge and capacity of digital technology. Therefore I could apply the ideals behind photography of physical encounters and apply it to my own project to further exaggerate the difference between the online encounter and the physical one. The research into these photographers has given me a good direction to follow in approaching the subject matter of my own project and I feel confident in identifying the approach I want to take when making my own images.

 

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