The 50mm Divide
In his essay, Walden, the American writer, Henry David Thoreau argued: “That government is best which governs least”; and I tend to agree with him. But I also concede that society needs rules to protect it against rogue behaviour. Rules ensure that behaviour is safe and predictable within agreed parameters. But in photography, are safety and predictability attributes we want to encourage, let alone enforce? In my opinion, they are not. So, where the creative process is concerned, I favour Thoreau’s point of view: the fewer rules, the better.
Some street photographers, on the other hand, seem bent on enforcing rules governing everything from the equipment that should be used to the sanctity of what appears in the viewfinder; and I ask myself, why? One possible answer can be traced back to the writings of Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB) whom many regard as the father of street photography and some regard as a photographic deity whose opinions they embrace with the zeal of an acolyte. I have no problem with that, per se. But where I do become irritated is when these disciples start preaching their dogma as though it were a set of immutable religious commandments; and continue by metaphorically stoning anyone to dares to transgress or refute its teachings, invoking the name of HCB to somehow justify their prejudices. HCB never shot with a lens longer than 50mm. Nor shalt thou!
That HCB was a great photographer and a pioneer of street photography in particular is not in dispute. He was my own inspiration, over 40 years ago. But he is not a god and he certainly should not have the last word on how images may be created. In fact, it is my opinion that no one should have the last word because the art form should be allowed to grow and evolve indefinitely, not be condemned to stagnate and die, caught in a time warp.
For me, photography is about making images with a camera. What does it matter if one uses a 24mm lens, or a 50mm, or an 85mm or a 200mm zoom, provided that the result is what you were trying to achieve? The equipment we use is simply the vehicle by which our vision is shared. The image is what matters; not the equipment used to create it. To disqualify a photographer because he or she uses a lens longer than 50mm is like disqualifying a golfer who uses a club longer than a 5 iron. It makes no sense. Does Roger Federer use a wooden tennis racquet because that was what his hero, Rod Laver, used? Of course not. And does anybody think any less of him because of it? I doubt it.
Besides, if the boundaries of street photography are to be kept so narrow, what is to become of the many outstanding photographers using the street as their studio and lenses longer than 50mm? Should they form their own school where, perhaps, lenses of 50mm and less are prohibited? Surely not? I would suggest that those who think the solution to the dilemma lies in such a schism read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift, paying particular attention to the tale of the two factions that went to war over which end of a hard-boiled egg should be opened!
I’ve heard 50mmists argue that street photography is about how individuals interact with their environment (street), and the use of long lenses tends to isolate the subject from the background, defeating the basic objective of genre. This may be true but it is not always true and I’ve seen many great street photographs shot with longer lenses where the background remains clear and is an integral part of the image. Besides, I’m not even sure that I agree with the basic premise if it demands that the street always have a leading role in the scene depicted. Many great street photographs are about how people interact with each other, and the street is just where they happen to be. In these cases, the street provides an important context; it should be identifiable, but it doesn’t have to be pin sharp!
Where, then, should the boundaries of street photography be drawn? Personally, I have concerns about the over-classification of creative output. I like to think of myself as a person who takes photographs: end of story. I take what appeals to me and I try to use whatever skills I have to do it well; but I don’t go out with a particular genre in mind and I certainly don’t go out with a checklist of do’s and don’ts to follow to ensure that the images I take conform to the rules of the classification. Yet classification is necessary in some circumstances to create order out of chaos; so my strong, my fervent recommendation is to classify photographs according to their image content; and NOT according to the focal length of the lens with which they were captured.
Street photography, therefore, might be classified as: taking candid photographs of people going about their daily lives in the world at large. It’s not a perfect definition; but it’s a starting point. As I said, classification is not a priority for me.
In fact, my own credo is very simple: everyone should find and follow his or her own way. If you find it productive to use a 24mm lens or a 50mm lens because these lenses deliver, better than any others, your personal view of the world, I say to you go forth and use them sans peur et sans reproche. But use them because you have arrived at this conclusion for yourself, through your own experience; not because some doyen of the medium prescribed their use under vastly different circumstances many years ago and you are blindly following his dictum. And whatever you do, please don’t criticise others for choosing a different path. They have as much right to choose their own path, as you have to choose yours; even if you abrogate that choice. If common sense is to have any chance of prevailing in this matter, we must stop all this bickering about lens size and reaffirm the fundamental principle of photography: that the image is of paramount importance; and not the equipment used to create it; and if you disagree with that, we might as well all stop taking pictures of people in the street and instead, photograph our precious lenses.
Of course, there is a much more important issue implied in the choice of lens a street photographer makes: should the photographer be an unseen observer, or a participant in the action being captured? But that’s a subject for a separate discussion.