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  • Mark Wylie

Street photography and the moments of life

To me, street photography is about capturing moments in life. It is about documenting fleeting acts that disappear almost as quickly as they seem to appear. It is about noticing what people do in their day-to-day lives, recording it in some pleasing or interesting manner, then being able to revisit that moment later. Sometimes, you marvel at what you have witnessed, laugh at the craziness of it all, or be moved by an expression that has affected you in some way.

I tend to treat my approach to street photography as if it were a zoom lens, sometimes I will get close to the action, other times I will step back. I have found over the years, that I am more interested in the wider view than the close up view. Both definitely have their merits. I love images taken up close on a wide angle lens as you feel that you are almost there in the moment with the photographer. Those images have an energy, an intimacy, and sometimes a discomfort all of their own. However, I tend to lean towards images that include - and integrate - multiple layers and elements. I like the game of trying to fit it all together into some kind of meaningful whole. I often find myself thinking 'what else can I add to this scene' so that I can create a sort of tableau. I see life as street theatre and people as performers in some surreal, overly complex, play. Taking a moment in life, making some sense of it - both compositionally and narratively - is a real challenge, but one that street photographers with their trained observation skills, sound technique and creative eye can pull together in quite visually stunning ways.

Henri Cartier-Bresson created the term 'the decisive moment' as a way of understanding when all the elements of a scene come together in some sense of harmony. His images are both stunning and emotive. Alternatively, some photographers believe that there are multiple decisive moments throughout a scene unfolding before you. There is not one moment, but a number of opportunities for interesting images. Bresson himself would 'work a scene', although he was never that keen on people looking at the images before and after the decisive moment. Joel Meyerowitz, in his explorations of street photography, rejected the idea of the decisive moment. His images became about the totality of the moments before him, which led him to using a 10x8 large format camera on the streets to capture such scenes in as much detail as he could.

A history of our time

Street photographs are a history of our time, without them and the moments that they capture, much would be lost. Our understanding of the world of another time would be lessened without some of the great images taken by photographers like Richard Sandler, Martin Parr, Bruce Davidson, Jason Ekenazi, and those who are working the streets in more recent times, like Matt Stuart, Andre Wagner, Math Roberts, and many others.

The complexity of each and everyone of us

Sonder is the understanding that each person you come into contact with, even for a moment, is living an existence that is as naunced and complex as your own. They may form a minor part in the backdrop of your own personal life story, but each character has their own equally complex life story, with equally diverse and meaningful stories as your own. You might sit in a cafe, on a train, and wonder about the people around you. Who are they? What are they talking about? Why do they have that expression on their face? Like the fine threads on a spider's web, invisible lines run, connect, and effect people in a multiplicity of unseen ways.

Street photographers' capture some of these threads within the bodies of their work. Sometimes an image can be very powerful, such as the image below by the prolific Garry Winogrand. It is one moment in time that captures something disturbing into his insight of American life during at the late 1960s. Winogrand had a singular brilliance, a sharp wit, as well as an eye not just for the moment, but a sensitivity to the moment and how it connected to the broader themes of contemporary American culture at the time.

(c) Garry Winogrand

Sometimes, street photographic work can be mundane, banal even, but nevertheless, it can still also add an important understanding to life during a certain period in human history. In 1976 William Eggleston travelled from his home in Memphis to Plains, Georgia, the home of then then presidential nominee Jimmy Carter. His later book, Election Eve, could arguably be seen to contain a considerable number of banal, even boring images, but together they still create an illustration of life in the short period before Carter became president in Eggleston's own enigmatic manner.

(c) William Eggleston

When viewing street photography as an effort to create meaningful images that capture the look and feel of our own time period, we are adding our work to an important legacy, even if it is in a small way. Our images can allow others a moment of sonder in the future, where upon viewing a photograph they may become aware of the lives of others, imagine what those lives might have been like and what happed to them. But of course, whilst there is an important element of documentation in street photography, there can be without doubt equally important elements of fun, motivation, desire and ultimately interest in other humans on our own part when creating photographs .


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