Soul: The Hidden Ingredient in Great Street Photography

Soul: The Hidden Ingredient in Great Street Photography

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Jeremy Brake Soul Street Photography Cover

I was talking to my friend about photography and he mentioned how he absolutely loves his new camera. The resolution, sharpness, dynamic range are all amazing. As I walked home I remembered that my own camera is getting up there in age. I thought about the street photograph that I missed last week, and how it was so close to being great but my camera missed the focus.

GAS & Street Photography

When I’m home I sit down in my chair and search for reviews on new cameras. First I start with all the new crop sensor cameras, then the lenses that I want for each system, then I realise that if I’m going to invest good money on sharp lenses I may as well put the money into a full frame camera that can really utilize their capabilities. Naturally I search reviews for all of the new full frame cameras out there. Then in the suggestions box I notice a review for a medium format camera and I figure that if I sell all of my current gear and stick with one camera and one lens for a little while, I could afford it. So after doing research on all of the medium format cameras a thought hits me, if I’m going to spend this much money on such an expensive camera, I may as well go all out and get a view camera. Naturally I go onto eBay to see what a view camera will cost me and after a mild heart attack I start to do some research on how to build a view camera and just buy the lens. That’s when I realise it’s one o’clock in the morning and I seriously need to get some sleep.

Gear Research is Easy & Addictive: Unlike Deciding What to Shoot

The act of figuring out which lens is the sharpest or which camera is most suited for your  style of photography is undeniably rewarding. We sit in our chair, do the research and quickly get that boost of endorphins that comes with gaining information. Within seconds we can find countless websites and articles written by people that are willing to feed our hunger and sate our desire for lens comparison charts, camera reviews, and opinion articles on why x or y equipment is absolutely necessary. On the other hand, the act of figuring out what subject matter to shoot, and why the world needs to see these photographs is, well, a pretty hard question to answer. There is no solid yes or no like comparing gear. There are very few articles telling you why future generations will remember and cherish the street photo project you’re about to create, or about the spiritual significance of photographing subject x or y. Why is it that it seems there exists such a massive ocean of information on the technical aspects of photography, compared to a relatively small pond of information on the emotional aspects?

Gear Reviews are Everywhere

I think it’s only natural – who doesn’t feel the ‘wow’ factor when looking at glass with an aperture wider than f/2? The large diaphragm of that $2000 lens practically begs to be used on a subject with a far off background. When you see someone walking down the street with a top of the line Leica and a good lens, you would need to be a veteran Buddhist monk not to get GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). I think If you ask most of the full time photography YouTubers/bloggers they’ll tell you that gear reviews more than anything else seriously help to pay the bills. But is feeding our hunger for this kind of information making us better photographers?

Spend Your Time Practicing Street Photography Not Researching Gear

When I look back on that time spent “researching” cameras I realize I never improved my photography. I could have spent that afternoon out on the streets practicing with my camera and then I would be more prepared to capture street photographs that are difficult for my autofocus system. I don’t think gear matters in the slightest. When I look at a work of art that someone puts their blood, sweat and tears into I don’t think about what settings they shot it with, I don’t ogle at the resolution, I just think to myself – what is this artist trying to say?  What part of their soul have they put in front of me? Some of the most inspiring street photographers I’ve come across work with a point and shoot camera. It’s better to have a bad camera with something to say, than an expensive camera with nothing to say. Or, as Ansel Adams put it:

“There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”.

Great Street Photos Don’t Require Great Cameras

We don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a camera in order to create great street photographs. There exists a lot of corporate willpower that’s harnessed the psychological effect of our feelings of inadequacy and (probably not intended) inspired a kind of ambient fear in creatives that require technology to pursue their art. A kind of fear that if we don’t have the latest and greatest then our works of art won’t be the best they can be, and therefore we ourselves aren’t the best we could be. But the economic reality that we fall into doesn’t have a thing to do with who we are, it doesn’t make us the slightest bit more or less capable artists. Every person alive has “won the lottery” in the sense that we can create great works of art. We’ve all won the cosmic lottery that gives us a chance to be a part of the most unique and complex species that’s ever existed. We get to be alive during the only point in human history where we can cheaply and easily converse with human beings from nearly every corner of the globe. Thanks to computers and the internet we can not only create and share our works of art quicker then ever before, but we can also learn at a pace that’s no longer hindered by the resources in our immediate vicinity. If you’re reading this right now then you’ve pretty much got it made in terms of potential to learn – the internet, and something to view it on. Books can be shipped cheaply and affordably. We don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a top of the line computer to do research on the internet, and we don’t need a top of the line camera to do research on the world.

If you’ve ever walked into a gallery, or opened a street photography book and seen a body of work by someone who spent a significant amount of time taking street photographs of a subject they loved truly and wholeheartedly, then you know what hits you in the heart isn’t the ones and zeroes that make up a digital photo, or the emulsion and grain that go into an analogue print. Cameras have the power to transport the viewer into the photographers inner thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Street Photographers can transport the viewer into the subject’s world. How do we show the world an honest representation of what life is like? What do you see when you confront the world in front of you? What’s your instant reaction when seeing something that you feel is beautiful and worth remembering? These are the questions we all need to keep at the front of our minds. Gear is secondary. Different cameras have different capabilities, maybe not every camera can capture the world the way you visualise the final print. Some photographers need the best for creating big prints, but is that what you absolutely need? There’s no right or wrong answer to print size, as long as it’s an effective choice. In any case, how often do we find ourselves needing to print? If the bulk of your sharing is done on Instagram and Facebook then you’re constrained to 1080 pixels and 2048 pixels wide respectively anyway!

Street Photography is About Communication

Photographs have the power to stop time in its tracks. There’s no other way to recreate the world like photographs can. They can can show the viewer a bit about what we saw and felt. If we’re skilled enough then we can take away all the meaningless aspects and only show the viewer the important parts of what was going on. What can we show the world that no one else can? What’s it like to experience the only life that we get? To be a street photographer means to fight for the idea that photographs have the ability to lessen the gap between people. Trying to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others is a lot like trying to use sign language through a keyhole. We want others to see the entirety of what we’re trying to express, but they can only see such a small part at a time, limited by context and our ability to communicate through imperfect means. I think deep down we all know that there’s nothing we can do that will make others understand us completely. But street photographs have the power to widen the keyhole in a sense, and show the world a little bit more about what it’s like being human. Through confronting, capturing, editing, and presenting what’s in front of us, we can show the world our eyes, and our hearts. I think Alain de Botton once said the goal of art is propaganda for what matters, and lessening the gap between people. You can show the world a small part of what it was like being here, at this point in time. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like being you, but there’s nothing that I’m happier to try and learn about.

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