Whether reinforcing opinions, imparting knowledge, or presenting a pithy rejoinder, we all love a good quote – as long, of course, as the words are not apocryphal or misattributed. A running bit on the excellent Knowledge Fight podcast is noting how often conspiracy theorist Alex Jones misattributes a quote to Thomas Jefferson. I believe there is a 100% failure record, so far.
Since starting school earlier this year, I have read a lot about photography. Critical theory, history, biography, technique, philosophy, and many other topics have been covered. In one of the books, I think it may have been Gerry Badger’s companion to the BBC series, The Genius of Photography, the intentional fallacy is illustrated by a quote from the English modernist writer DH Lawrence. Trust the tale, not the teller. I considered this concept in issue 10 of my Photos, mostly newsletter, Everyone’s a Critic. If only I had this quote to provide support to my position.
Top 5 Street Photography Quotes
As I turned the DH Lawrence quote over in my head, I considered some of the quotes from street photographers that have a profound influence on my philosophy and my practice on the street. From a number of important photographers and their insightful thoughts, I chose the top 5 that have propelled me forward over the last few years.
5. To produce an authentic contemporary document, the visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation. – Robert Frank
A less pithy cousin to the aforementioned quote of DH Lawrence, the words of Swiss photographer, Robert Frank, reinforce the popular position that a photograph should speak for itself. Artists may have their written statements, photojournalism has its contextual captions, and often street photography is complemented by the most sparse of written accompaniment. I caption my own photographs with only city, country, and year as context. If there is Polish text within the frame relevant to my intention, I may translate this to English. Otherwise, I leave the interpretation to the reader. My contention, after Frank, is that should my photograph require explanation to be understood, I didn’t tell the story I had intended.
4. All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice. – Elliott Erwitt
There is an abundance of mediocre street photography in the world. Some of it, mine. In the groups, boards, forums, and hashtags where street photography can be found, there is a blend of breathtaking excellent work, sloppy technical laziness, and a bewildering lack of vision. Becoming more adept in the technical side of street photography takes some concentration and a book or two. Learning to look and to see, to anticipate, is more difficult. Too often a street photographer will make a perfect exposure… with nothing of any interest within the frame whatsoever. I remember the light bulb that turned on when I first read these words. From that moment, I learned to notice.
3. Sharpness is a bourgeois concept. – Henri Cartier-Bresson
These are oft-quoted words of the French surrealist master. They have guided my photography almost since I picked up a camera. Like most others who consider this quote, I take it on a surface level. Don’t worry if a photograph isn’t pin-sharp, especially if there is a moment within the frame. Robert Capa, for instance, didn’t discard his photographs of the Normandy landings. The opposite also holds true. A tedious photograph may be pin-sharp but say nothing. I read recently, however, that Cartier-Bresson’s words were in jest, responding to his less-than-steady hands in older age. The words in French, La netteté est un concept bourgeois, can be understood in different ways. Nevertheless, I choose to continue to read them the way most do.
2. Street photography is 99.9 percent about failure. – Alex Webb
It is an awareness that for some comes glacier-slow, and for others is a shock from the mains but to realise that street photographers fail and fail often is liberating. My first years as a naive street photographer were spent in almost perpetual disappointment as I measured the sorry photos filling my memory card against the unrealistic expectation of returning home, every frame a winner. Any experienced street photographer worth their salt will be quick to disabuse the newcomer of this misunderstanding, though Alex Webb is one who put it quite so succinctly.
Street photography isn’t easy. 12 great photos, and 1 exceptional picture per year is a good haul. The rest are a mix of decent photos, almosts, nearly-theres, and straight-up blunders. Accepting that failure is a necessary part of street photography was pivotal in my development. Allowing myself to take chances even if I may miss them means I am more likely to catch the great moments when they come along.
1. If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough – Robert Capa
The single piece of advice that has had an instant and prolonged effect on improving my street photography was this famous quote synthesised through the repeated advice of Richard Kalvar as he surveyed the photographs taken by attendees of his workshop. Get closer.
The most common reason street photography doesn’t engage the reader is that it is made at a distance, the camera far from the subject. While this can be a creative choice – to emphasise scale, for instance – that is rare. More often, its cause is reticence, shyness, or fear. One doesn’t need to be aggressive to get closer, one doesn’t even need to be candid. Being closer to the subject changes perspective and lends the viewer the impression of being involved in the scene rather than a passive onlooker. Capa’s quote is so often repeated that it risks becoming a cliche, however, it is an axiom that becomes no less true the more often it is invoked. Get closer.