Shoot New York City Newsletter
1 February 2021 - The Henri Cartier-Bresson Issue
Issue 125 of the SNYC Newsletter
Greetings everyone! Learning to let things happen and to acknowledge that things are generally not in your control is equally true for life in general as it is for street photography. This is especially so during the pandemic era.
I’ve written a number of times in the past about street photography perhaps being the most challenging genre of photography. It’s all about your eyes and your mind. Not about the camera.
People think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing. Henri Cartier-Bresson
Part of the challenge is to just gain control of your tool/camera and get it to do what you want it to do so that you can get to the main challenge. It’s very easy to miss a number of opportunities while fumbling with camera settings.
The inclination on the streets of New York City and for street photography in general is to move fast and think that it’s like hunting wild game. Not so.
Photography is for me, a spontaneous impulse that comes from an ever-attentive eye, which captures the moment and its eternity. Henri Cartier-Bresson
The real challenge is just to witness what is going on around you. To slow down. To not have expectations about what you want to capture. For instance, you couldn’t make the above photo up.
And in the past, I wrote about it being rather like Neo in The Matrix. That although you have really slowed down, you are actually able to respond quickly. It is a fallacy to believe that you need to be in a state of high adrenaline to shoot street.
Perhaps we could call it Zen and the Art of Street Photography. My guess is that someone has already beat me to that. Just like, Just Do It!
At any rate, considering that many of us are not able to shoot the streets nearly as often as we would like to given the lockdown that is taking place, I’ve decided to do something a little different in this issue.
Thanks to everyone who has purchased workshops for a future date, also zines and prints. Everything helps and I hope that things will return to some kind of new normal sometime soon. (I really don’t like the ‘new normal’ expression. If you have a better one, let me know.)
I continue to provide workshops and we are wearing masks and social distancing. Yes, with an abundance of caution. That is the new normal. If you’re in the area, let me know. Also, you can find upcoming group workshops listed below.
Hello Australia, Uruguay, Argentina, South Africa, Brazil and Tahiti, I know you’re out there enjoying summer. Meanwhile, a big snowstorm is supposed to hit New York City about the time that many of you will be receiving this.
Anyway, happy shooting and stay safe.
The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.
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Street Photography - Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Wisdom
When I first started to consciously shoot street photography, I looked up to Cartier-Bresson as inspiration. I say consciously because I was taking photos that would’ve been considered street photography before I knew what it was.
He is considered the Godfather of Street Photography. Though I’m not certain that he actually ever called it that. Or at least for the first handful of decades of his photography.
In fact, he was really doing what he and others described as documentary or photojournalistic photography. And perhaps it’s not really important as we see his photos as street. To put a twist on a marketing phrase, the viewer is always correct.
But perhaps instead of deciding what genre he fits into, we can focus on what he brought to street photography. But first, a maybe slightly radical statement. I do not look to the photography of HCB as inspiration anymore.
You rightly ask why? I have at least 2 good reasons. First of all, the world was a very different place when he was shooting on the streets of Paris and around the world.
The first big mistake is to want to copy the photos of a great photographer who took photos more than a half century before our current day and age. At best, we can stage photos to look like his.
But that wouldn’t be street photography by any stretch of the imagination and perhaps could best be described as appropriation or even plagiarism.
Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing. Henri Cartier-Bresson
Many of the “master” photographers started out as painters. So a big part of HCB’s legacy is that his photography is like an encyclopedia of the so-called ‘rules of composition.’
While the rules can make for some very interesting photos, street photography is not about utilizing the rules of composition and tends to me more about justifying why a photo works or not. It is applied after-the-fact.
The idea of wanting to take photos like HCB reminds me of trying to learn to play guitar and wanting to master/copy a song perfectly. I used to know a man who could play a Hendrix song just like Hendrix.
If you closed your eyes you could imagine it really was him. But what does that get you? A cup of coffee? It gets boring after a short while. And I suspect that you are more interested in developing your own style as a photographer.
I am not nostalgic and certainly not about a time that I didn’t live in. Which brings me to what I call the wisdom of Cartier-Bresson. There is perhaps more to learn from him through his writing, though I can only guess that much of it is also a method of justifying the past.
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
It is possible to loosely break down street photography into 2 camps. The first is being an observer and not interfering with the action taking place. To be certain, there is no such thing as objective photography.
Street photography for me and plenty of others is about capturing without giving reason for the subject to respond even if it does on occasion happen that we are seen shooting someone.
Eye contact is fine. Actually it is often a good thing to capture. The expression is candid. Nothing more is required for it to be a street photo. And sometimes it works.
However, there is another camp and it is one that I don’t belong to and never will. That is the Bruce Gilden style of street photography. It is a very disruptive style of street photography and one in which he feels it is necessary to provoke a response.
The above photo is an example of how Gilden disrupts people for the sake of creating his ‘street’ photos. Not all of his photos of are in this style. But many of his more well known photos are of elderly eccentric women in a state of shock.
He smashes the camera directly into their faces and the flash goes off and you can see the look on her face. I’m not able to find anything about this photo that I would like to borrow for use in my photography.
As an older woman, I can say that if he did it to me, I would be compelled to violence. Personally, there’s nothing that he could say or do to justify treating people in this manner.
Perhaps I have already given him more space than I should. But I will go so far as to say that I don’t consider the above photo and others like it to be street photography. Gilden is pushing people to respond to him and then photographing it. He is interfering with the situation and creating a response.
My street photography is not like that of Cartier-Bresson nor Gilden. But I have learned from both of them what I like and don’t like and as a result, I have adapted my style.
The more that you look at the work of other photographers that you like and don’t like and the more photos that you take, the more that you will create your own style.
I also suggest reading about what other photographers have to say about street photography and photography in general. But just because they are famous and widely published doesn’t mean that you just adapt their styles and/or beliefs. Including mine. Just saying.
If you want to read about Henri-Cartier Bresson, a good book is The Mind’s Eye: Writing on Photography and Photographers. Published by Aperture Foundation in 1999 and it includes his very famous essay The Decisive Moment.
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Photography Assignment of the Week - The Rules of Composition
So yes, the rules of composition are mostly something that we think about after-the-fact. But if you are doing what I call slow photography, standing in one place and waiting. Or if you just happened to get lucky. Or you, like me, like to break the rules, go for it.
The ‘rules’ include, thirds, opposites, odds and many others. It is always about being creative and having fun.
You can interpret this assignment and don’t be afraid to post creative photos. As well, it’s good to know why you chose the photos you did and it’s maybe best to post them individually so they don’t get buried.
This is a voluntary assignment if you want to take part. You can submit your photos to the Facebook group for Shoot New York City and also on Instagram tag @shootnycity. If you're not a member of the Facebook group yet, all you have to do is request to join.
It would be great if as a group people would comment on photos submitted as well. Let's have fun! Happy shooting and sharing! And you can connect with other people that you share an interest with.
Workshops are now a maximum of 3 people. Social distancing and masks are required. And with fewer people in each workshop everyone can gain even more individual attention.
For those who haven't done a workshop or photo tour with me in the past I have a number of reviews on my website and also on TripAdvisor! Workshops are both for people who live here and also travelers, as are photo tours.
Photo tours are one-on-one and arranged on an individual basis for both neighborhood and photographic style and can be designed as a workshop as well. They are customized to your interests and level. Thank you for your patience and Stay Safe!