Introductory essay to Daylight Hours - James Gilberd, May 2015
SHE'S LOOKING INTO HER PHONE, barely cognisant of her surroundings as she steps onto the zebra crossing without even looking in my direction. As I brake, I’m thinking a Darwin Award is imminent. We see this daily in the city; people are elsewhere; mindfulness is a foreign concept.
Not so for the street photographer. Hans Weston’s photography is an exercise in mindfulness; he is very much in the world that he photographs (even though he would often perhaps rather not be noticed). Put simply, it’s about walking around noticing stuff, and photographing it well. When in his stride, Weston is altogether in the moment.
A very receptive state of mind… not unlike a sheet of film itself – seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.
- Minor White
He photographs in a tradition begun in the 19th century by Atget in Paris, on to Henri Cartier Bresson’s defining early work with a miniature (35mm) camera, and taking in Andre Kertesz’s wry abstraction, Garry Winogrand’s prolific, engaged observation of humanity, and William Eggleston’s exploration of colour, light, moment; his celebration of the mundane.
Space-time is full of momentary, delightful quirks that, but for the attention of certain photographers, mostly pass unnoticed.
Hans’ eye is lighter and more fun than some photographers’. And while his photographs lack neither depth nor durability, the inevitable engagement with the interaction of light with the surface of things (which photography is bound to; design with shape, colour, texture, tonality, chiaroscuro) predominates the work. Once the skill is acquired it is almost impossible to avoid making one’s reality photogenic.
Photos have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface.
– Garry Winogrand
An advantage of having photos in a book is returning to them (something that is seldom done to photos online) and spending time seeing past the photogenic surface, letting the images get under one’s own skin. It takes time to appreciate the reality captured in the split second of a photograph.
There is no particular reason to search for meaning.
– William Eggelston
Unlike some contemporary photographers, all of Weston’s photos were recorded in small fractions of a second: the girl watching the clown hovers 2cm above the pavement of Cuba Mall; the pedestrian’s white cane completes a puzzling design of lines, circles and shadows; the beggar’s gesture to the back of a passer-by whose reflection is caught in a window pane. Only still photography can isolate and reveal this instantaneous fabric.
Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
“You must’ve set that up.” “You Photoshopped it, right?” No; see paragraph 2. Good photographers make their own luck (1), and when accusations of meddling come, they are actually compliments. Having done a bit of street photography myself, I know that when people in public are the subject, the hardest thing is summoning the confidence to get the camera out of its bag and taking that first shot of the day. But once you’re in the zone, sometimes magic happens. Still, what we see of the work that photographers like Weston choose to show is the mere tip of a pyramid, a collection of one-in-a-thousand images.
Even with static subject matter, like the couple of wires hanging out of a red, corrugated wall, or a small statue of Buddha somewhere (where?), Mary and Joseph in the front of a car, you first have to recognise that there's a picture there to be made, and then work to get it right. If you leave it for whatever reason, it’ll be gone, or the light will be all wrong, or something, and you’ll have missed it.
Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
And still, even though is currently lawful to photograph people in public places going about their business, there is a sense of having taken something from them, exploited them in some way.
Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies.
– Diane Arbus
It may be that, the way things are trending, photography made in the way that Hans Weston and other fine street photographers work (2) is surviving on borrowed time. Already, in Europe (notably France, where it all began), photography in public places is restricted by new regulations (3). Knowing a fair proportion of the billions of photos taken daily will end up published online, people are getting more concerned about their privacy, even when out in public. This may be a current mania, or a long term trend that will kill off street photography. Either way, it’s getting progressively more fraught to do this stuff. Confrontations between the public and photographers are on the increase. I’ve had a couple of minor run-ins myself, and while I’ve been sure I’m in the right and doing absolutely no harm to anyone, the incidents have made me think more about what I’m doing and why, and in what direction things appear to be heading.
So for now, I hope you enjoy these photographs as I do. And if you recognise yourself or a friend or relation in one of them, well hey; give us a shout out. It’s all good.
And, yes, I know ‘street photography’ is a category, a label; but it is a useful one. Documentary photography, or photojournalism, describes with intent a specific situation; it tells a story about something. By contrast, street photography favours the unpremeditated, and the urban environment provides a fruitful theatre. The theme can be as general as ‘the human condition’ or as specific as you like. Whichever, street photography is akin to poetry, and as such it tends to come together in the work done afterwards, in the editing and sequencing. That is where the intellectual effort goes in. The photography itself is intuitive.
(1) Of course, some photographers have messed with that whole space - Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, et al – by directing and constructing the Decisive Moment.
(2) Peter Black, Gabrielle McKone, Julian Ward, Camus Wyatt, et al – all shooting in Wellington’s streets, but each with a unique, personal vision and concern, and with very different bodies of photographic work.
(3) In Hungary – the country that produced Andre Kertesz and a string of other great photographers – street photography is now basically illegal.