Street Photography: To Wander or Not to Wander, That is The Question

October 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

I just saw a short video interview with Daido Moriyama whose work I admire. During his childhood, his family moved many times due to his father’s job. Moriyama explains that he was excited each time and could not wait to wander through the new town. This wandering became his method of street photography.

When Moriyama has a project, he leaves home in the morning, shoots, then returns home for a bit. Come the evening he is out again, wandering, shooting, taking a quick drink at a bar, and then shooting again.

At the same time I saw this video, I was reading “On Being a Photographer,” David Hurn/Magnum in conversation with Bill Jay. Over and over the point is made that photography is a skill, which one develops. Hurn says, “But the practice must be directed. In other words, it is not a learning process to wander around banging off frames of film for the sheer fun of shooting pictures. You learn by concentrating on a subject, planning the actual shooting . . .”.

Two somewhat disparate views – but what about other great photographers’ methods:

Helen Levitt , an esteemed street photographer, returned time and again to the same neighborhoods of Spanish Harlem, Yorkville and the lower East Side using her right angle viewfinder. She knew those streets like the back of her hand. What changed was the daily drama. Ms. Levitt was there to be a witness, to create her visual poetry.

Garry Winogrand prowled the streets, all nervous energy, hunting and ready for the shot with his wide-angle lens. He was obsessive and intense about his photography. I have read he could shoot an entire roll of film as he stalked down a single city block. His total immersion in the street is obvious in his photos.

Saul Leiter’s photographs make it apparent he wandered. Obviously, he also loved to shoot in both rain and snow. I love bad weather too, but I am always finding that safe spot (for my camera) where I can get the shot I want! I believe Mr. Leiter probably did the same. His photographs captured both the reality and the evanescent quality of city life.

Daido Moriyama’s method definitely resonated with me. As a child I was constantly wandering, always looking to turn a new corner. I brought this psychology to my photography. Then I took a street photography class with Harvey Stein at the International Center for Photography.

One of his first assignments was to find a spot that was interesting. You had to stand there and could only move two feet in any direction while you shot a roll of film. I chose to stand on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the 5:00 rush hour. There were hordes of people, tourists and office workers, meandering and dashing by the church, Saks Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center and the statue of Atlas. I expected it to be an easy exercise. But zeroing in on that mad rush of humanity was a daunting task. I shot the roll of film and, frankly, the frames were all forgettable. What didn’t fade was the methodology of the lesson — concentration, visual decisions about what works and total connection to place.

Years later, I was working on a project of just shooting on the four corners of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue during lunch hour. This time I had a ball and photographed some of the best street candid shots ever.

By nature I like to wander, to be on the hunt for that perfect shot. Since I always have a project going I am constantly scouting neighborhoods at different times of day. Then I go back and shoot. Occasionally, I will go back to shoot in different weather, different light, until I get the shot I know is mine.

Be a wanderer, hunter, or simply stand still. Plan or don’t plan. Ultimately, you must be out on the street, fully immersed and connected, in order to catch that elusive, serendipitous magic moment.

What is your style? Do you plan where to go? Do you prefer to wander the city? How do you translate the life of the street into a single frame? I would love to hear from you.

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