Cars and street photo
Prologue: I think the section I'm looking for on APUG is one I would call "Poetics", which is about the making of images, not in terms of the materiality of the medium, and not about their ethical or theoretical implications, but in terms of artistry, ways of doing, ways of creating. My rather simple question, I think, falls under this rubric.
When you are doing street photography, are you also annoyed by the fact that cars are always in your picture area? I don't find modern car on the whole to carry an interesting aesthetics. They are bland, shapeless, and just everywhere on the sidewalks. So if I see something interesting happening in the street or on the sidewalk, there's always a parked car behind that's ruining the point of interest.
So, if like me you find them an eyseore, how do you get rid of them? Do you stand on them and take pics from above? Have you find good ways to incorporate in your composition? Do you just look for spots without them? Do you also feel that if it was all pre-80s car, it would be more interesting? I tend to think that Stephen Shore's photos wouldn't be as interesting if the cars in it didn't have such interesting designs.
I think if the picture is interesting, the background will merely show that it's a "street" scene.
That being said, I think we take the "everyday" as being too mundane when in fact in 20-50-100 years those same mundane shots are magical.
As photographers I think we need to take the "long view" on what we shoot as well as the instant gratification aspect.
They might be more interesting in 20 to 30 years. Cars and other clutter are a fact of life.
Originally Posted by mhv
The magic of street photography is exactly the fact that you can't control the elements like you do in the studio. Unwanted background and foreground objects, blur, cropped parts, out of focus, weird perspectives and angles, hard and unflattering lighting, unnatural expressions, obstractive shadows, loss of details and so on and so forth. Many such images at first might look flawed but very often it takes just a bit of time to uncover unseen relationships between the various elements, creative and fresh viewpoints, surprising frozen moments and beautiful accidents. Unless you carefully choose every single part of the back/foreground, campaign for more aesthetically pleasing environments or use photoshop, your only other option is to learn to like what you now dislike.
Interesting points about the long view of mundane life; actually I was just thinking about that the other day. It strikes me that things that were common and usually of little interest then like a fruit stall or a picnic have been used in successful pics by Doisneau and HCB. There is the danger of nostalgia, and the sweeping argument that "life was more interesting then," I know.
To a certain extent I agree that these things didn't strike people then the way they do now. But let's just take architecture for instance. The brutalist style of the 70s has been seriously undermined not only by the fact that it wasn't all that practical, but also for the fact that we find it ugly most of the time. Now, one can answer that in 60y we will have a great architect finding an ingenious way of reusing it, but where I want to drive my point is the now. There is stuff that I find uninteresting and parasitic to photos, but I can't avoid it. So my usual approach is simply to avoid representing it.
Ari, you make an interesting opening by "learning to like what you dislike" so I'd like to know more about how you've dealt with situations in which a big eyesore was unavoidable to the picture you wanted to take. In what sense did you "like" the thing? Did you just reinterpreted it in another way? Did you sidestepped it?
Michel, have you read this interview:
Shore says that he deliberately included cars in his photos just because they provide a time stamp that most westerners cannot ignore. He cites Walker Evans as an inspiration.
I try for the most part to photograph what is there in front of me, and find that if I do start to stage manage a scene it usually gets more boring. Nature and Fate have better imaginations than I do. If the cars are there, they come along for the ride. Friedlander's quote goes to the heart of it:
"I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary's laundry, and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It's a generous medium, photography."
I make it part of what the photograph is about. I live in an ugly city, so often there will be something ugly in the composition, but because street photography is about the "reality" of the environment, you not only accept it but use it. A pretty little girl in her best dress and a balloon on the street has a relationship with the mundane car or even dirty garbage can that makes the photograph. So, the photograph is not just the girl, but the girl+garbage can, beauty and the beast.
Originally Posted by mhv
There are too many street photographers to mention but what their work is about, is not just the subject but its environment as well, as mundane or ugly as it. Plus, the forms of the background can work with you in ways that take away the ugliness.
Its all up to the photographer really, no need to apply make up to the environment.
The notion of car-as-timestamp is constant through Walker Evans, Frank, Winogrand, Friedlander... Winogrand in particular seemed quite caught up withthe ideas of seeing and seeing from cars, later in his career.
That said, if they bother you, either shoot aroudn them, or take a reflective look -- what about them bothers you? Can that emotion be used to strengthen the pictures?
Like a lot of others have posted before me, I have had trouble with things like autos, advertising signs and power lines in my photos. One photo in particular was of a "Shay" locomotive in a Northern Ontario lumber town where the engine is on display and the town decided to illuminate it with a lamp fed from a power pole directly behind the smoke stack. I took my best shot at it, but regardless, the pole looks like an out of place appendage.
I had intended the photo as a print for a friend who has a large collection of model trains and when I gave him the framed print, he said he loved it and he missed the pole completely. When I pointed it out to him, he said it didn't matter and he never would have noticed it anyway as it looked like a natural part of a display background.
Since then I've pretty much stopped worrying about those sorts of things. The things that bother me when I'm taking the photo likely will be considered interesting in a few decades anyway.
I recently bought the Danny Lyon book 'The Destruction Of Lower Manhattan'.
Wonderful book in which he documented the old buildings that were being demolished, around 1967. Some of these buildings dated back to the civil war. He writes that at the time he didn't like the effect of modern cars in front of the buildings so he settled on early Sunday mornings as the best time to photograph.
Nevertheless there are still plenty of mid 60s cars in most photos.
I find them to be an interesting element -
they give me a sense of the era in which the photos were taken
interesting contrast between two parts of American history
in a way the cars represent the mentality of mass consumerism that leads to the state of mind that decides to raze 60 acres of beautiful & significant buildings.
I know what the OP means about the ugliness of modern cars - i often used to look at stuff from the 50s by W Eugene Smith, Robert Frank etc & think how lucky they were to have those amazing curvy chromed cars in their shots. But the ugly cars of today will undoubtedly look interesting in 20 years time as people realise how much things have changed.