Vaguely Familiar

I often ask myself what makes good street photography. Granted, I only do so when I’m not shooting. While on the street, in museums, at your mama house, I just shoot what is. Ultimately, in those times of pensiveness, when I’m frowning at all the shite that spilled from my lenses, I’ll decide that is what good street shooting is. It’s taking what is — the mundane bits of life — and making them seem to be what always is.

Now, I know that sounds pretentious, but it isn’t meant to be. Great street photography should seem at once unique, surprising, and fresh, but also vaguely familiar. It’s a song you don’t know, but it has a chorus you’ve heard somewhere, maybe hummed by your funky Uncle Jethro with the cheap cigars.

Vivian Maier’s work, recently discovered and universally hailed, does exactly that. We see a shot of a girl in a museum, with her mom attired in yesteryear’s finery, and we are startled by the girl’s frankness, staring into Maier’s lens.

Photo above by Vivian Maier. Click to see more.

It’s just a photo, after all, of nothing special. That is, if you ignore the compositional elements: the mother standing cross-armed and her older daughter mirroring her demeanor; the little-girl matching socks that place the other child midway to adulthood; the negative space of the room, between the trio, and between the main subject and the camera; grandmotherly, stern woman in the painting sitting in judgment behind the child. We wonder if she would disapprove. The child herself is twisted; is she turning to the camera or away?

It is just a moment, most likely. A second never repeated and without significance, yet like the grandmother in the background, we can see it in a museum with 22nd-century patrons gawking at the odd clothing and manners.

That is what street is — nothing and everything; ordinary and shocking; the known and the unseen.

Like Ms. Maier, I find myself in museums and shooting not the people but the interactions between them and the art, or them and my camera. Sometimes it’s a small street camera. Others it’s big and black, like me, meant to glean a reaction. But the results are surprisingly familiar.

1-DSCF3750-001
1-DSCF8789 1-DSCF8801 1-DSCF8841 Now, in no way am I trying to compare myself to Maier, except that she shot subjects that I’ve always found fascinating. I suspect many other street shooters do too. But then I think of the thousands of undeveloped shots of hers, the myriad unseen prints, and I wonder if all artists give in to self-doubt. I look at my very ordinary shots above and wonder if any of them will look vaguely familiar and extraordinary decades from now.

I doubt it, but the wonder is enough to keep me shooting, and the gap between the quality of my work and self-taught masters like Maier is enough to keep me learning. Failure is a great motivator if you have the right mindset.

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13 thoughts on “Vaguely Familiar

  1. Very well written, love. I do so love these posts of yours, you make me proud. Doubt, particularly self-doubt, as we have spoken about a number of times before, is a necessary component of progress and innovation. It’s what keeps our artistic expressions fresh and vital. And there is nothing more vital and fresh than street photography, as we search for the mundanely artful, or those serendipitous moments that are a once in billion chance happening in the great scheme of daily, moment to moment happenings.
    As another street photographer said, (I cannot remember who at this precise moment), it often takes a generation before the mundane takes on the hue of being something special, exactly for the reasons you outline in your article with regard to styles of dress and observed cultural norms. Maybe we could all learn to cast a more artful eye over the world around us, view our environments with the attitude of a photographer intent on capturing the magic of reality before it passes us by

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    • Thanks, sweetie. Your encouragements are invaluable. In addition to self-doubt, I find it useful to look from your own work to a master’s work, just to get a sense of scale. I guess that’s the photographic equivalent to writers’ advice to “read, read, read.” Like Stephen King implied, the goal isn’t just to understand what’s been done in order to improve, or even to humble yourself into getting better. Sometimes, it’s just looking at a master’s work and saying, “Hey, I’ve done something like that.”

      I kind of had that reaction to Garry Winogrand’s work, but I’m still at the “Whoa, I need to get better,” stage in Maier’s case.

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      • I need to check out her work and see if I agree. You see, you are already a master at your style of photography, and it’s taken me a while to learn what that is so that I can look at a potential shot and say, that’s a Bill shot. I’m still far from being able to feel intuitvely what it is that fires your photographic imagination. As far as I am concerned you are exceptionally talented at capturing those fleeting moments of magic. Keep doubting yourself because what you do is worthy of any of your heralded masters. Somebody someday, apart from me will look at your ‘period’ shots and have the same opinion of you that you have if the likes of Maier and Winogrand.

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      • The thing is, your motives behind your photography are just as valid as that of any of your heroes of street photography. You admire them more because you aren’t as fascinated in your own photographic talent and ability to shoot. You are as profesdional as they come. I’ve seen you shoot, and you impress the hell out of me. You are a master of your equipment, and that is a big part of photography. No one else will ever have your unique artistic eye, that you can’t learn because it is based on your own biological imperative to learn and grow. You just don’t know how good you are. That’s always going to be for others to decide. I bet ‘they’ had exactly the same doubts.

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