Archive for the ‘street photography’ Category

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New Scientist: How the camera has made us all voyeurs | Street Reverb Magazine

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

There was a short but provactive post recently on Street Reverb:

“Candid street photography and military aerial reconnaissance may seem to have little in common, but they’re both examples of how the camera has made us more distant from each other and from the world around us, according to Sandra Phillips of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who is the exhibition’s curator.”

If you’re in London between now and October 3rd be sure to check out Tate Modern’s Exposed – Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. I’m not sure many street photographers would agree with the quote above. I know many people that would maintain that working on the street brings them closer to the world around them.

via New Scientist: How the camera has made us all voyeurs | Street Reverb Magazine.

I think it would be equally incorrect to say either that photographing on the street brings one closer to the world or distances one from the world.

What the introduction of a camera into any situation does do is to place something between the photographer and the subject. The question is, what is the nature of that something. Is it a wall or a window or a door, or something else entirely?

In some of my work, I have made reference to a line from Simone Weil — “every separation is a connection.” That part of Weil’s theology is to do with how she reconciles her spirituality with the manifest absence of god from the realm of human affairs, and more personally, it is to do with how she understands the physical and psychological suffering she experienced in life. Absence or distance is not simply a negation of presence or immediacy; it establishes a relationship between the separated parties, and that relationship must be considered as such.

While I don’t share Weil’s religious outlook, I think this particular observation is richly applicable to many other contexts, and particularly to relationships between human beings. If we sit down at a table, does the table separate us or bring us together? It has the power to do either, or both simultaneously. A camera has the same power.

Unless the subject flees, the camera does not introduce distance between myself and the subject. What it does is to record the distance that already existed and to infuse that distance with meaning. That meaning is not predefined merely by the fact that it comes by way of the camera; its content depends on the intent with which I wield the camera and also on the way in which the subject and, later, viewers perceive that intent. It may make friends and allies, or it may make enemies and victims, and in many cases it may be a non-trivial task to ascertain which is the case.

IR Flash — progress!

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

So, I finally leveled up with this IR flash mess I’ve been working on. I’ve got actual, honest to goodness results.

Warning: This is going to be very nerdy and tech-y. If IR photography isn’t your thing, just look at the pictures and move on, unless you want a serious soporific. I’ll put up a less geeky post on IR street photography later.

I’m not going to do a whole tutorial write-up thing on how to go about this, because there are already a couple of good ones here and here.

The first one does a great job of explaining how to go about putting a gel on your flash with a bit of space to prevent, you know, melting. However, the filter mentioned there has a non-optimal cutoff for IR film currently in production. The second one (which will be of particular interest to XA shooters) provides a film/filter pairing which is currently available and works great: Ilford SFX gel filters and Rollei IR400 film.

I tried this combination out with my Nikkormat FT-2, 2.8cm f/3.5 Nikkor-H (a great lens for IR work), and a Nikon SB-24.

Nikormat FT-2 with SB-24

Shooting wide open with the flash at full power produces usable exposures for subjects in the 8-15′ range, give or take, with some definite (but acceptable) overexposure for subjects close up.

This is reasonably consistent with the flash’s calculations for ISO 12 (which is what I normally rate IR400 at when shooting with an R72 filter), which suggests I may be able to engage auto mode — or, if subjects aren’t too distant, I may even be able to shoot safely at f/5.6, which would be lovely from a DOF standpoint.

With the Nikkormat and 28mm f/3.5, I’m shooting blind, because I’m working with an opaque infrared filter over the lens. (Note: for night photography, this can be omitted. However, since current IR films are sensitive to visible light, using them for flash work without a filter on the lens during the day is likely to be somewhat counterproductive.) However, with a 28mm lens, even wide open, I have enough DOF to scale focus reasonably well, and guessing the composition isn’t too hard.

BTW, if you’re curious about how scale focus works, this may be helpful:

Scale Focusing with the 2.8cm f/3.5 H

Anyway, after all that technical mumbo-jumbo, what matters is, it works!

BART, Richmond Line Commuters

I’m even reasonably pleased with that photograph as such — successful test aside.

The one downside to this setup is that it tends to let through a little more visible light than I’d like — the SFX gels are a little loose in that regard. Not so much that I’m blinding people, but it bugs me just a little.

So, I’m also still fiddling around with alternative options. One not-really-successful setup is this:

Bessa R with Sunpak 622

It’s a thick eBay 89b filter intended for Cokin-type filter holders which I’ve taped to the front of a wonderfully cumbersome and powerful Sunpak 622. This setup works quite well for digital IR flash with my unmod’d D40, and emits very little visible light, but is completely useless with Rollei IR400. However, initial tests on a less powerful flash provided some exposure with Eke IR820. (Which suggests that the eBay filter isn’t a true 89b equivalent.)

I was hopeful that the Sunpak (which I got specifically for this project) would enable me to shoot with this filter/film combination through sheer power. And it does, sort of, but unfortunately the working distance is still too short to be really useful in the majority of situations.


That was shot at f/1.7, and you can see that even just at about 8′ feet or so, it’s already significantly underexposed. So, while this is not a failure, as such, it’s obviously of very limited practical usefulness unless I’m willing to get truly in-your-face. I’ll continue experimenting with different filtration options and see what I can get on this front.

Document, Personal Document, or…

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Minor epiphany of the day:

One of the more interesting ideas I came across in Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s was the shift from the sort of photography which produced public documents — in the standard photojournalistic/street photography sense — to a sort of photography which was concerned with producing personal documents.

Straight documentary photography is about creating photographs of things in the world (people, places, moments, situations) to act as records of those things. Typically the motivation of this style of photography is based around the public interest — advocacy, journalism, etc.

The personal documentary style is about creating photographs of things in the world to act as records not of those things but of the photographer himself or herself — people and places function as records of feelings or ideas or experiences. This is basically an extension of Stieglitz’s notion of the photograph as “equivalent,” except that in this case, it is usually other people rather than clouds that are the proxy for the photographer’s inner landscape.

I don’t really feel a strong connection to either of these approaches to street photography. On the one hand, my interest in photography is fundamentally quite selfish. I’m not taking pictures of things to fuel a social revolution or record the truth of some moment in history.

But, on the other hand, I’m not really interested in using photography as a tool for introspection. I don’t entirely understand people who view the camera principally as a device to allow them to crawl deeper into their own brains. The greatest value of the camera, as far as I am concerned, is that it is capable of quite the opposite function — it allows me to pull myself partway out of my head and out into — or at least toward — the world…

I’m not entirely sure where that places me relative to either straight documentary or personal documentary photography…maybe it’s sort of the inverse of the personal document — I am interested in photographs of things which act not as records or representations of parts of myself, but as antidotes or…connections. Would the result be something like a wax impression of myself, or even a photonegative?

Print giveaway

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Lightning (View Large/Original)

In case you hadn’t noticed, I do a collaborative blogamathing with Karl called _1/125._ We post excellent photographs that we find online, we talk about photobooks we’re reading and are generally insightful, perceptive, and dashingly handsome. Or something.

We’ve got a new domain, ( and we’re celebrating that — and the fact that we’ve made it two months (that’s a decade in internet years) by giving away some of prints of our photographs. There’s some really good stuff there, and you don’t have to do anything onerous for a chance at it. For more info, see [the announcement post](

So, if you like the photographs I’ve posted here on this blog — particularly the street stuff — please do take a look at the post, and consider following us on Tumblr or signing up as a commenter with Disqus, the comments service we use. You can also fan us on Facebook, but I feel slightly hypocritical recommending that since I haven’t opened Facebook in months…


You should also take a look at what Karl’s posted there. He’s got a couple of fantastic street scenes — the kind that present the utterly mundane in a way that is not at all mundane, but serene and mysterious. He’s also got a wonderful up-close-and-personal soccer (or football for you heathens outside the US) action shot, if that’s more your line.

My contributions are street photography, and include “Lightning,” at top, “Pull,” above, and “Limits,” below.


(Note: We might make some substitutions in the lineup, but we certainly won’t offer replacements that aren’t a step up.)

Photography Against Solipsism

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Late Afternoon

I am by nature, or at least lifelong habit, always apart from the world around me. Solipsism comes easily for me; connections comes hard. In the middle of a crowd, I am perhaps at my most alone, set off as I am by what I think of as my veil of indifference. Behind that barrier, I am free to live in my head and build pocket universes of private images, ideas, and judgments.

But cameras do not operate in pocket universes. The lens is necessarily a window outward. It is not quite an antidote for solipsism, but photography creates an opportunity to perceive other people with…not necessarily clarity, but with intensity.

_Note: strictly speaking, it is not true to say “cameras do not operate in pocket universes–a lot of studio photography is done inside pocket universes. But a camera in the street and a camera in the studio are practically unrelated tools._

It’s not travel photography

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Or, maybe it is. But don’t tell anyone, since I’m on record as saying that (a) travel is the most shallow form of human experience, and (b) travel photography is lame. (It’s possible I said it more eloquently than that. It’s also possible I said it much less eloquently than that.)

In any case, I had a great time visiting Andrew in Santa Cruz, and I made a few photographs while I was there. This included a bit of birding and a bit of casual astrophotography. The latter was pretty funny, since I don’t know anything about stargazing and have pretty lousy night vision, and Andrew, who does know about stars and whatnot, and who can see after dark, doesn’t have any experience with my camera gear, and is also currently operating without full thumb opposability, etc. As Andrew put it, between the two of us we made one semi-competent astrophotographer…

I was strongly tempted to bring some medium format gear, but it didn’t seem reasonable to try to take both my 400mm f/5.6 and my RB67. Too bad, because there were some scenes that would have been extremely well-suited to medium format, including some fantastic night scenes. I made do with what I had, though, which was my Bessa R and some of that sweet free Portra 160NC, and I came away with a few photographs I’m quite fond of.

Student Haircuts



Santa Cruz, November 2009

I won’t pretend to have acquired any magical insight into the nature of Santa Cruz. I mean, yes it’s dripping with hippies and white guilt, but we all knew that already, right? Besides, the order of the day was not drive-by sociology; it was bad movies and in-jokes.

Provoke Era

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I just got back from SFMOMA’s Provoke Era exhibition. It’s my second trip, and I feel like I ought to make some note of my thoughts on it, although my total lack of background when it comes to Japanese photography has made me somewhat reluctant to do so. I don’t even know enough to clearly identify what the scope of my ignorance is, in this area, or how it (and/or prejudice) might be leading me astray in terms of how and what I see…

So, what I’m going to do is simply post a few thoughts that crossed my mind while I was looking at these photographs. Obviously you should be slow to draw conclusions about Japanese photography, or even the work of the specific photographers in question, even if I appear to be doing so.

Hopefully at some point I’ll be less ignorant. I did recently buy a copy of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960’s and 70’s, so that might help a bit, if and when I ever get a chance to open the thing.

Please forgive any misspellings and my total disregard of any diacritic marks — my notes are, as usual, illegible.

While viewing Hosoe

I can’t help wondering if some of the characteristic techniques of this period of Japanese photography are influenced (or at least enabled) by the rise of the small-format SLR camera. Previously, man-portable cameras tended to be press cameras, rangefinders, etc., which are generally not optimal to use from strange angles or for close-focus work. The sort of (apparently) extemporaneous, awkward camera positions, and the very particular deformations of the perspective, focus, etc. are all things that would be substantially more difficult to control with non-SLR cameras.

Contrast perspective here with the (mostly earlier) Western photographers I’ve been looking at a lot lately — Bresson, Atget, Weston, Frank, even Winogrand — in those cases, the perspective is that of a person standing in the space. A pedestrian perspective — not in any derogatory sense, as such, but in the sense that it is the perspective of a person who might happen to be walking by. They seem natural. Here, the play with unnatural perspective is used to dislocate the viewer, and to create a studiously unnatural viewpoint. It is practically a vice, although an excessively “natural” perspective can be a vice as well, I suppose.

While viewing Tomatsu

The are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out of focus) aesthetic implies a willingness to discard information. Huge areas of a given print may contain no information whatsoever, or very limited information — a rough tonal gradient, say — these images come close to being purely graphic.

This is also in stark contrast to what I’ve been mostly looking at lately, where compositions and (with some exceptions) film, paper, and chemistry are being used with great care and skill to capture the most detail possible, and as much in the way of relationships (“relatedness”?) between elements in the frame as possible.
This discarding of information displaces us…

While viewing Tomatsu and Kawada

There seems to be a pull toward iconography when it comes to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the war.

If it were me trying to represent these things, I would probably go the same way, simply because icons and symbols are more…manageable. Less frightening. Of course, I have no idea whether that has any bearing on what these folks were doing.

While viewing Moriyama

It seems like the areas of the photograph (dominated by large, irregular patches of pure white or black containing no detail, amid which a person or object may be sandwiched), come together with an almost-audible report, a clap or a clack. Noise. I’m not normally prone to synesthesia, even the merely metaphorical kind…

While viewing Nakahira

Lost detail — defocus, blocked shadows, muddy contrasts, motion blur — these things frustrate the eye, but do they maybe also trick us to project imagined detail (or meaning) where there is none?

Is this why the Moriyama photograph made me see (to borrow from DeCarava) a sound? Or is it merely the vaguely cinematic quality of these choices that makes me think I should be hearing something as I watch?

While viewing Watanabe and Tsuchida

These guys seem to want to be perceived as snapshooters. I find this annoying. Is it also a kind of discarding of information? Not that detail is not faithfully recorded across the frame, but the utterly banal composition or lack of composition deprives the detail of significance.

These do not make a sound. I am probably missing something…

Other thoughts

I don’t know what to say about Fukase’s Ravens,, except that it’s totally heartbreaking.

Also, while I’m not sure this was part of the “Provoke” exhibition, they’ve got an absolutely stunning photograph by Toshio Shibata. You can see a crappy scan here. A really, really fantastic print…

Of course, I would have enjoyed it and the entire museum-going experience a lot more if one of the staff hadn’t forced me to stop making notes with my pen and instead use an f-stopping golf pencil…of all the cockamamy policies…it’s not like I’m pressing my notebook against the photographs to write; I’m several feet away. And on the off-chance that I got it into my mind to go crazy and attack one of these prints, it’s not like issuing me a golf pencil is going to prevent me from doing harm. Honestly, is this what my membership dollars are going to pay for? Because if so, I’d rather they put them toward something else, like the mildewy smell in the vicinity of the staircase on the second floor.

Also, trivial quibble: Why is it that the nomenclature is “silver gelatin print” vs. “platinum print,” vs. “albumen print,” vs. “chromogenic print,” vs. “dye transfer print”? Why not “silver albumen print,” for example. Also, would it kill them to call a polaroid a polaroid? Perhaps there’s a legal issue…

In BART Stations

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

Lake Merritt BART

I really enjoy photographing in and around BART stations. I’m not sure whether it’s something special about train stations — although there is something about public transit and the way it brings together all, or nearly all, segments of society, that certainly makes it a rich venue for social analysis.

But more likely it’s just that I’m a daily commuter on BART, and as a result, I spend a lot of time on BART trains and in and around BART stations, waiting or hurrying, with a camera in my bag or on my shoulder…


Every Separation

Saturday, August 8th, 2009
Every Separation

Every Separation

I added a new project page on the site with some of my recent street photography. The project is organized around a quotation from Simone Weil — “Every separation is a link.”

Bessa R

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

After the recent, sharp increase in my interest in street photography, and after the interesting posts about the Leica for a year proposition on The Online Photographer, I started thinking more and more about getting an interchangeable lens rangefinder.

Of course it couldn’t be a Leica, despite the tantalizing logic of the Leica for a year idea, because (1) I don’t think I need to a Leica for its educational value; what will it really teach me that I can’t learn from my Koni-Omega? and (2) there’s no way I would be able to sell it at the end of the year, which undermines a key point of that tantalizing logic. I know me; I don’t like to part with gear.

But the idea of a system rangefinder remained compelling, because while I love my Koni-Omega and my Olympus XA, neither is very good for low-light work. The Koni-Omega lacks fast lenses, and the XA’s fulltime aperture priority and maximum 800 ISO metering make it great for moderate low light conditions but terrible for really dark situations.

There are some good fixed-lens rangefinders with faster lenses and manual control, but I wanted the ability to swap lenses and add in a second body later if it really clicked for me. I also didn’t want a FSU rangefinder, because I wanted something reliable and with straightforward operation. With those criteria and my persistent cheap-skatiness, the best option was a used early Bessa. What I settled on was a Bessa R which came with a 35mm f/1.7 Ultron.


I haven’t used the camera much yet, but I’m quite happy with it so far.

It definitely has some odd quirks, some of which I feel comfortable identifying as design flaws — the shutter speed selector is a pain to access, because it’s obscured by the advance lever. Not impossible to get to, of course, and with the lever extended a bit, it’s not even an issue, but it’s not a very elegant design. The film rewind lever is sort of cleverly designed, but doesn’t feel very sturdy — although it’s the only aspect of the camera that strikes me that way; I was surprised by how solid most of it seems.

Also, the black rubbery plastic (or whatever) around the middle of the body has a slightly odd smell, which I got to know pretty well for a while, because I’m left-eyed. (I.e., my nose gets pressed up against the body, as with most of my cameras.) However, this seems to have largely dissipated now that the camera has been aired out.

Bessa-R v. Nikkormat

There are also some things that I really miss from my Nikkormat FT-2. When shooting 35mm film, I’m used to being able to look at the top of the camera to check my exposure without bringing the camera up to my eye — this is really convenient when I’m moving in and out of sun and shadow and I need to continually adjust the exposure. I miss that when working with the Bessa, and I also miss the positioning of the shutter speed selector on a ring around the lens, instead of on a dial at the top of the camera.

But despite the lack of those little flourishes, I was surprised at how solid and usable the camera feels. A lot of reviews point to its cheap plastic build quality — and yes, it’s inexpensive, and yes, there’s plastic in it, but it doesn’t feel shoddily made, by any means. Of course, most of those reviews were written by people who had used Leicas, and I never have, so I don’t have to worry about that particular comparison. : )

However, this is all basically tangential to what i really care about in this camera — which is fast focusing in low light conditions. In that regard, it’s fantastic. The viewfinder is bright, the rangefinder is easy to see in dim light, and it seems to focus quite positively.

I haven’t had a chance to use it all that much, yet. I’ve only put a roll and a half through it, and none of it’s exactly photographic genius, but it certainly works….

Bessa-R - First Roll

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