Why I take photographs of people

I thought I'd take time out from posting photographs to talk a little about the process of taking photographs of people and say something about my own way of approaching this type of photographic subject.

One of the 2 questions I'm asked most often by friends and co-workers who've seen my work on this blog are: did the people in the pictures know I was taking their photograph? and how did I take the photographs?

The answer to the first question is mostly no. The answer to the second question is, it depends on the circumstances, but as I use a digital camera for most of my current work, I use the live viewfinder image as a guide to help me when I'm in the process of making the pictures. Reviewing the image that's been captured and adjusting my position and angle during the shoot as neccessary.

Making un-posed photographs of life. Of scenes and events that are changing in front of you tends to make a lot of photographers nervous. Largely because a) they have no control over the composition unfolding in front of them (which many are accustomed to) and b) because they're nervous what people will say if they're 'discovered' in the process of taking photographs.

As you may have noticed from the photography links on this blog, and from the photographs shown here and on my sister blog The 5 Minutes Project I'm interested in photographing people in urban settings.

There is a tradition for this type of photographs dating back to the creation of small hand cameras (like the Leica) and the availability of faster film stocks.

Photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, were quick to catch onto the potential of this equipment to make fast and unobtrusive records of un-posed life.
However for Henri Cartier-Bresson in particular its worth pointing out that there was nothing magical about his working methods, whatever may have been written by enthusiastic fans of his work.

His most famous single image (below) 'Man Jumping Puddle' is a good example of what came to be called 'the decisive moment.
However its worth pointing out that, if you examine the contact sheet of pictures he made during the same session, that the circumstances of the shoot did not guarantee this result or indeed guarantee anything memorable at all.

He was in Paris around the Place de l'Europe.

In his own words:

"There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint Lazare train station. I happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my camera at the moment the man jumped. The space between the planks was not entirely wide enough for my lens, which is the reason why the picture is cut off on the left."

Did he see other passengers and passers-by also jumping over this large puddle? or walking around it? From the width of the puddle this seems likely.
If he did notice what people were doing, did he pre-focus his camera and lie in wait for something to happen? Again, the potential for some kind of photographic 'moment' seems clearly evident. But more importantly did he know at the time what he was exploring by working this way? What he was trying to achieve? What he was interested in - was it a picture of an event, a portrait of a person?

This is all ultimately conjecture, as all what we are left with, whatever his intentions, is the evidence and impact of the photograph.

Personally, I think preparing for events and allowing for accidents and chance to play a part in your work is a vital part of working in a documentary style with people. Photographs that look staged almost always are.

If you look at the photograph (below) by Gary Winogrand, taken in Central Park, New York one can show how sophisticated and visually rich, 'street' photographs can be.
The gestures of the people on the bench, their inter-relationships to each other in terms of posture and body language are, I think, fascinating. Its difficult to think a picture as rich as this could have been taken by anyone who wasn't both fully prepared but also willing to throw away any pre-concieved notions of composition or content and take advantage of rapid changes taking place within the scene in front of him as he was working.

These are many of the reasons why photography for me is a constant challenge. Not only to use the tools available to fully explore the world around me but also to say something meaningful about my own experience.
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