Henri Cartier-Bresson brought to photography the concept of “the decisive moment” There are moments that change the world, moments that change our lives, and moments that simply make our day like a friendly smile from the waitress who brings our morning coffee or a hug from someone we love when we need it. Cartier-Bresson also defined the criteria for street photography; and till today, some people believe that to transgress his rules is tantamount to heresy.
A week ago, I was having a discussion with a Flickr friend about the use of products like Photoshop to manipulate photographic images. Is it okay to delete unwanted elements from a photograph? Is it okay to add elements to a photograph? Is any distortion of reality permissible, either in the camera or in post-production? Does Photoshop encourage sloppy camera work, with the knowledge that the flaws can be corrected later? Are the special effects available in Photoshop becoming a substitute for real photographic creativity? You can read the detail of the discussion here.
Then, I started to ask myself these questions; and I decided to put myself to the test.
The Experiment (Part I)
First of all, I wanted to see if I could create a series of acceptable images without relying on Photoshop to enhance them. Secondly, I wanted to see how popular these images would be, compared to others where I have used Photoshop or other means in the creative process. Finally, I wanted to see if anyone could tell the difference.
So, I purposely chose images for this series that concentrated on the littlest moments in our lives. Each one portrays an interaction between two people in everyday situations and if there was a subtitle for the series, it might be: “as real as it gets”. My aim was to reproduce, as faithfully as I could, what was captured in the camera. I did allow myself to crop images where I felt it improved the compositional balance. (I have never really understood the revulsion that some people, including Cartier-Bression, feel about cropping); and I did allow myself some latitude to adjust the contrast and density of some of the images, just as one would do in a conventional darkroom using time, temperature and different grades of photographic paper to adjust the final print. But I did not use any post-production techniques or devices, or Photoshop “special effects” to heighten the drama of the moments or to make them more eye-catching or appealing.
In one case, however, I did use Photoshop to remove some graphical elements from the image to simplify it. My challenge to Flickr friends was to identify which of the images had been manipulated in this way.
Nothing could be more ordinary than this image; a scene that must be played out tens of thousands of times each day in Sydney alone. What first attracted me to it, as one viewer commented, was the use of red décor in the lights, umbrellas and barriers surrounding the outdoor area. I took several shots of the customers having their coffee, of passers-by and of the waitress clearing a table and taking an order; but it was when this moment occurred that I knew I had what I wanted and could move on to look for a new subject.
As street photographers, there are three key elements that determine whether our shooting expeditions will be successful: chance, vision and skill. Much of what we achieve depends on our being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, it is possible to anticipate a situation and place ourselves in the optimal position to capture the scene when (and if) it develops; and on other occasions, we just have to be ready to react. In the former, chance and vision work together; whereas in the latter, chance and skill predominate; but it is chance that makes street photography so unpredictable, so exciting and so rewarding (when we are favoured by chance).
And even when chance delivers, only the photographers with vision will recognise the fact. My favourite street photographers are those who recognise a photographic opportunity where most would pass it by, unaware of its potential; and I often wonder how many times I have missed the greatest photograph I might have taken, simply because I lacked the vision to see reality in that special way that great photographers do.
Then, finally, having been favoured by chance and recognised the fact, one still has to convert that image into pixels or onto film in a way that tells the story and is pictorially strong; and there are a million decisions to be made in a split second to achieve that to perfection. So it is little wonder to me that the art of street photography is so challenging and yet I am amazed at how many brilliant street photographers exhibit their work on Flickr.
This is a different kind of photograph. In a previous essay, I described the two key elements of a photograph as pictorial and narrative. Of course, these elements are not mutually exclusive and many photographs exhibit both to some degree; but usually one predominates. In this case, the dominant element is the narrative; and while some narrative images create a situation and allow the viewers to imagine the story for themselves, in this case there is a specific story being told and therefore it is necessary for the viewer to first understand the context in order to understand what, specifically, is happening in the image. In Flickr, I explained the context as follows:
It was December 26, 2004; on a crowded marina. The yachts were about to leave for a race down the east coast of Australia to Hobart in Tasmania; and this little girl didn’t want her Daddy to go.
From a pictorial standpoint, I was never entirely happy with this image. I wanted to include the two figures in the foreground, first of all to show how crowded the marina was on that day, but more importantly, to emphasise how small the girl was and how small she felt in this situation where her father was about to leave her on such a perilous journey. But the fact that the woman on the right is looking at the camera creates a major distraction from the focal point of the image. I thought of tightening the crop so that less of her face was visible but in the end, I stayed with the original frame. I still can’t make up my mind about it.
What attracted me to this image was the apparent “disconnect” of the couple. I wasn’t sure whether he was uninterested in what his companion was saying; or was thinking about it very deeply. She, on the other hand, seemed to be persisting with her dissertation, regardless of his body language.
Once again, this is predominantly a narrative image but unlike the previous one, I am not reporting a specific story but rather recording a situation to enable the viewer to make up his or her own mind about what is going on; and it was fascinating to read the interpretations given by those who commented on it in Flickr.
These two children were running around in a small park chasing the birds that had gathered there to scavenge for scraps left or provided by city workers and visitors on their lunch break. As far as I could gather, they were not together; but they were making the most of each other’s company, as children often do. I had taken one shot of the girl running towards a group of gulls and was ready to move on when I noticed the little boy heading towards her on what looked like a collision course. I raised my camera again, focused and shot right at the moment of impact.
The “zen-like” seagull in the foreground, which attracted some attention on Flickr, was an unexpected bonus. I doubt that I was even subconsciously aware of it when clicking the shutter. Once again, chance plays its part; adding another dimension to the drama. The gull was probably thinking: “serves them right for chasing us!”
The last image in the series owes a great deal to chance too. What attracted me to the scene were the silhouettes in the background and I was preparing to photograph them when the gentleman in the foreground stood up into a narrow beam of light. Suddenly, he became the focal point of the shot (meaning I had to change focus quickly) and I snapped him opportunistically. Since my exposure was already set to create the silhouettes in the background, it was equally appropriate for capturing the light striking his face and his right arm.
James Yeung said that this was his favourite of the series and I have to agree with him. The man’s expression and his body language leave now doubt in my mind about the “connection” between him and his companion, unlike the image of the young couple uploaded earlier.
Like all the images in the series, this is a simple, literal capture of an everyday moment; no frills, no tricks; as real as it gets. So what is the verdict from my Flickr audience?
First of all, let me say that this is not a valid survey since the population of images is not large enough, the population of respondents is certainly not large enough and since I am not representative of street photographers.
Using comments, favourites and invitations as a benchmark, these images have scored only half as many responses as the images posted in the preceding week. Some of that may be due to timing; but it is highly unlikely that this series will catch up to that extent. Particularly significant is the comparison in the number of “favourites” received: 23 in total for this series; 87 for the same number of images uploaded on the previous week. Furthermore, in the previous week, 2 of the five images I uploaded were Explored (on Flickr) and one of them was chosen as the “Photo of the Week” in the à la sauvette group; whereas none of the images in this series were Explored or received a commendation. Consequently, I have to conclude that my images of literal street photography in this series are significantly less popular than the more stylised images I have posted previously.
A number of factors could account for this discrepancy. First of all, there may be reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the image content. For example, it may be that some people were available to comment in the preceding week but not in this one. Secondly, this could prove nothing more than I am not very good at taking this kind of street shot. Possibly, there is a “disappointment factor”, where people who expect one kind of image from me are disappointed to find something quite different and for that reason, decide not to comment. And finally, there is the inescapable fact that none of these images is eye-catching. It was a conscious decision on my part to keep the images simple and maybe that betrays a misunderstanding of what this kind of street photography seeks to achieve. I would certainly love to receive feedback on this.
As for the challenge to detect the manipulated image, here is the original, unadulterated version.
A number of people picked this image although no one picked up the clue I left. If you look at the version on Flickr, you will see that the angle of the wall behind the girl is visible above her hands but not below them. In the version shown first in this article, that clue has been removed; and of course, in the version immediately above, the element I removed is now visible. I removed the customer sitting in the background because I felt that the girl’s hands were key to the narrative of the story and I wanted them to stand out more (against a neutral background). Whilst this might contravene the strict credo of street photography, I am torn between factual integrity and the desire to make the best possible image; and in this case, the figure in the background has no bearing whatsoever on the narrative and therefore, in my opinion, is redundant and dispensable. Your opinions on the aesthetic and/or ethical admissibility of this modification are always welcome.
The Experiment (Part II)
If the first series might have been subtitled “as real as it gets”, the second part of the experiment might be subtitled “breaking all the rules”. In this series, all but one of the images will have significant post-production work; and your challenge is to identify the image that is “real” (i.e. straight out of the camera).