Taking the leap into street photography can be an unnerving one, particularly if you have the shy, introverted core shared by many of our kind. Nevertheless, it’s not impossible. The key is to be out there, camera in hand, at the ready. Here are 5 assignments for street photography beginners to get you started.
I have, rather helpfully – I think, ordered them to journey from first tentative steps through to something more adventurous. If you are comfortable, feel free to do them in any order. If you’re particularly fearless, work backwards. Have fun, and good luck!
Self-portraits were popular long before the advent of the camera-phone. Many playful street photographers through the ages would flirt with a creative self-portrait. A particular favourite of mine is Cartier-Bresson’s shoeless image in 1932. It is Elliott Erwitt, though, who is arguably the master, his career marked with increasingly absurd self-portraits.
We’re not quite brave enough yet to train our lens on other people, so let’s first focus it on ourselves. How you choose do this is limited only by your imagination. Perhaps you’ll set the camera on a tripod. Maybe instead you’ll hold it at arms length. Alternatively, find a reflective surface and play around with it. Possibly you’ll dress as you are. Or perhaps you will design a whole story to tell. If you need a touch of inspiration, a quick search through Pinterest should set you right.
Remnants of Life
It is often said that street photography is images of life as it happens, however, it is equally photography of the aftermath of a moment – of the remnants left behind. Man Ray once photographed Marcel Duchamp‘s Large Glass after it had collected a year of dust. Dust Breeding is a stunning, haunting photograph. Out on the street, Helen Levitt was fond of chalk drawings on the pavements of New York, left behind by the children playing.
For this exercise, think of street photography as urban anthropology. Look for signs that life has played out beyond the reach of our eyes, and what we see is what was left behind – the echoes of life. In these photographs, your subjects will most likely be inanimate objects – a discarded, broken umbrella, a bike missing a front wheel, or a lost hat or glove. This small assignment is a firm stepping stone before we move onto people.
Marvin E. Newman is an American artist and photographer who was briefly a member of the Photo League. At 95 years old, he still works in New York City, and until June last year I was entirely ignorant of his work. In 1991, his one-man show, Shadows, 1951, was shown at the Keith de Lellis Gallery, New York. These images, produced in Chicago during the titular year, shaped his work for many years to come and are now celebrated.
Our instruction for this assignment is to look only for shadows of people. You may choose to photograph in the Newman style or you can find your own way of playing with shadow. It is better to photograph in the morning or late afternoon where shadows will be longer and there will be more to play with – of course ensure you don’t catch your own shadow in the photograph also – unless you’re mixing our first and third assignments, of course.
Gestures and Expressions
A whole spectrum of emotion can be revealed through a gesture, an expression, a connection between one person and another. Body language is key and having good sense of empathy to predict when someone may show emotion is helpful, so our next assignment is arguably what street photography is all about. It is certainly not easy but any street photographer worth their proverbial salt can do it. For my money, though, Richard Kalvar is one of the great photographers to anticipate expression and to position himself to catch it on the image.
This time we have to be more daring – we will photograph people themselves, whether they are aware of it, or not. For example, look for people deep in conversation. This offers more scope for expression and gesture but little chance you will disturb them. Alternatively, find people looking, reading, waiting, whether alone or in groups. Before you hit the street, spend some time studying the work of Kalvar, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, and other greats. Consider what gestures and expressions make a photograph engaging. Then, put the books down and get out there.
Finally, we get personal. French poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas once paraphrased the popular saying as “these lovely lamps, these windows of the soul”. Our eyes betray so much of our state of mind, of our emotions. There’s a reason it’s difficult to look into the eyes of your crush. Or, conversely, to someone to whom you are lying. Eye contact is intimate, and rarely more so than the timeless eye contact made with a camera. Bruce Gilden is a street photographer with a reputation for getting close to his subjects and in doing so, by the very nature, inviting eye contact.
For our final assignment, then, we will take our next step and intend to catch our subject’s eye. You can do this by asking to make a street portrait of someone interesting you find, or simply appear unannounced and snap spontaneous, natural, eye contact. Whichever you choose, be prepared for possible rejection in the former, and rebuke of the latter. Nevertheless, always be polite, friendly, and sincere in responding to any potential confrontation.
This final assignment is not easy, and even seasoned street photographers can find it difficult at times, but with practice comes experience, and with experience comes comfort. With comfort comes confidence, and with confidence comes very good photographs, indeed.