Like many street photographers, I started out by mimicking Bruce Gilden. This seemed like a good idea at the time and I did produce some interesting work. He gave me the balls to take shots like this one. I’m close and she knows it. She can smell my camera and yet I don’t back off â€“ on the contrary I move in for the kill. But this work is not mine; in a way it is Bruce’s. I can feel his presence in it. I mentioned this to him on the street one day and he encouraged me to keep going. â€œMy style would come he assured me.â€ After this experience I retreated to the â€œtravel snapshotâ€ mode of street photography. This too would not be mine. It’s is everyones. Worse. So then, how was I to find my place, my style?
Street photography is hard. Damn hard. Probably most any other genre of photography is easier in that it has more deliberate procedures, guidelines, technical requirements etc. It’s also far easier to create distinctive work in other genres too. At least in my opinion. And, if you need more evidence of this take a roam around Flickr or 500px. Quickly you will notice how street photographers, by and large, resemble one another in their work. It’s all very similar. Of course some people do stand out but they are very few and far between. Now look at some of the other stuff. See how people in studios or those doing portraits are not only producing more professional looking work, generally speaking, but also produce more distinctive images. So how do we get this in the streets?
After a lot of thinking, reading, looking at the work of others and experimenting, I finally began to develop my style. It was taking time but it was happening. I knew I liked monochrome and not colour. Not a good thing really, as shooting the streets in colour will immediately make you â€œdifferentâ€. Despite this, I wanted to keep shooting monochrome. Next, I wanted to use a small, discreet and compact camera. No big DSLR for me. No 300mm lens. No, I wanted something pocketable but professional. Enter the Ricoh GR series. Not only would this camera become â€œmy cameraâ€ but it would also be a big piece of the recipe that would make my style. The images it produces have a distinctive look and feel. The lens, which is of the highest quality (even made it in an exclusive M mount) is also 28mm. That too would become part of my signature. I don’t change focal lengths. Ever. Eventually I would begin to prefer shooting film to digital. So, I now have the Ricoh GR Digital II and the IV as well as two 35mm versions, the GR1s and the GR1v. The film versions are no longer made but if you source them well you can find mint or boxed examples in Japan. Bellamy at JapanCameraHunter.com would be most useful in this regard for anyone interested.
Now, let’s recap. I now have a 35mm professional compact with a fixed 28mm lens and am shooting in monochrome (TRI-X). This still left me to ponder my subject matter. Somehow the past couple of years of working the street as a photographer has caused me to lose interest in people and, most especially, their faces. I’m tired of shooting strange faces. Over time they merely become one and the same. So I tried different things. One of the experiments was to photograph fragments of humans and to do this extremely close. So close that people don’t even realize I’m photographing them. This is how I came to develop my focus on what I would come to call â€œThe Human Fragmentâ€. The only hitch in this was that I was still tied to photographing people â€“ if only fragments of them. Sure I was doing a lot of crude framing and cropping off heads but I wanted free of that in some way. I wanted to not photograph people or any part of them. I wanted street photography, for me at least, to be more than just people. After all, there is a lot more to the streets than just the people who roam them. Right?
Beginning in the autumn of 2012 I began to photograph other â€œthingsâ€ that I found on the streets that captured my attention. A stray pair or shoes, a group of balloons snagged up in a tree or a curtain in a lit window. These things interested me. These were things that others ignored. These little â€œfoundâ€ snippets are all over our streets and yet we, for the most part, simply disregard them. Not me. I now hunt them out. I wander the streets like Moriyama’s stray dog and look for these weird bits of evidence â€“ evidence of the human presence. Of course, I still enjoy doing the extreme close-ups of people and their fragmented bodies. I’m currently working on a Coney Island series which does just this and it is a lot of fun. Going off road or, shall we say off sidewalk is also fun. The beach is a great place for street photography. I’m excited about the results and this body of work as a whole. But what I don’t do anymore is fool myself into thinking that the human element must be present in every photograph I make. At least the human element in its bodily form. This is highly overrated.
Pictures without people can be highly engaging and interesting, but they are also harder to make.
I believe that statement whole-heartedly. This type of photograph, one void of a human body, is interesting and valid but also harder to make well. So where does all of this leave me now in regards to my street photography? Well, I now, after three years, have a fairly tight style. Sure it is still evolving and changing. I hope it always does. But, I know how to work my cameras and make them produce for me. They are my slaves. I no longer lust after all the new gear with the delusion that it will make better photographs for me. It won’t. I use what I have and constantly learn how to use it better. I know 28mm is my focal length. I know my images will be in monochrome and mostly on TRI-X. Although I use HP5 a great deal also and still a lot of digital too. I’ve all but cured myself of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) and Leicaitis. I own a Leica M series camera and rarely use it because it is too large and too heavy for the work I do. However, it was no easy task to move beyond lusting for them. Leica has been very successful in making photographers believe that they need their equipment to produce professional work. It is merely marketing, but it is marketing at its finest. Don’t get me wrong. I like Leica and for some photographers it is the ideal camera but I’m not one of them. My point is that it took me a long time to feel that I was not somehow less of a photographer for not using one. That’s my point. Still Leica users will post nasty comments for my trying to explain this point.
So, with a tiny Japanese full-frame 35mm compact and some black and white film and a 28mm lens â€“ I’m ready. I’m ready to wander the streets like a stray dog and capture the weird and the wonderful â€“ the crazy and the candid. I’m ready to make the camera my slave and not the other way around. It’s a nice change, believe me.
Michael Ernest Sweet is an Canadian award-winning educator, writer and photographer. His first full-length collection of street photography is forthcoming in 2013 from Brooklyn Arts Press. Michael divides his time between Montreal and New York City. More work may be seen at MichaelSweetPhotography.com or follow him on Twitter @28mmphotos.