Passive vs. Active Street Photography

Cha Cha – Little Italy, New York, 2003 (copyrighted)

In its many definitions, ‘street photography’ (SP) is often understood as a hunting process, by which one walk the street and look for scenes to capture. It is akin to prowling. Indeed, the vocabulary of photography has been based on aggressivity in the last two hundred years that it has been practiced. Howard Zehr, in his book ‘Contemplative Photography‘ made an interesting parallel between photography as hunting and photography as contemplation. The main idea is that contemplative photography viewed the process more of receiving the light reflected off the scenes, rathern than grabbing. I think that Joel Meirowitz said it best -when it comes to SP- when he compared SP to “… it is like going to the sea and letting the waves break over you. You feel the power of the sea. On the street, it successive wave brings a whole new casts of characters. You take wave after wave, you bathe in it…” His work shows clearly that he is immersed into the scene and becomes part of it as he practice his art. My favorite SP book – Bystander: A history of street photography – has many of those examples. The above image is one of the results of such case, in which the woman in white appeared suddenly, fending her way through the crowd, offering the above scene without the intervention or the influence of the photographer.

While one may reach a quick conclusion that the contemplative approach to SP calls for a passive attitude, in contrast to its active nature, the practice is actually more than an active vs. passive issue. I often adopt an attitude where I keep reminding myself that I may not be clear in my goal when doing street photography, but if I let myself in, then the scene will present itself. Whether that is an active or passive approach is outside of my consideration, but I know that it helps me to be in the present moment and welcome the unexpected.

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The street is the medium

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When it comes to Street Photography, the street is the source of opportunities. It is the medium. Each has its own unique character that yields various scenes, based on whether it is the straight, undulating, wide, narrow, quiet, busting, etc. I particularly like Joel Meyerowitz’s description of the street in the video below. He has a way of describing it that will definitely *echoes* with the Street Photographer. Try to focus on the street identity the next time you are out there

I am biased towards the video above as Fifth Avenue in New York is my one of my favorite locations. It never stops giving different scenes everyday. It is the river that is never the same every time one dives in. There are specific points along that majestic avenue that I am still continuously discovering through years, with the rhythm of the seasons: every corner, down from Central Park to 42nd, notable among them is that of 57th and 5th. The famous street photographers of past were inspired by that Avenue, and many talented ones are still working that same path these days.

There are many other locations in New York that are street photographer’s dream. I currently read Dede Emerson’s A Different Kind of Street Walker to discover those gems.

Share your local favorite street, let us know what are the particular characteristics that drew you to that location!

Stepping into Contemplative Photography

Occasional thoughts about the practice of contemplative photography as I delve into my own practice and reflect on the process. I will try to be as non-technical as possible, but there may be times when I will talk shop as many practitioners would -I assume- discuss about their tools. This site is meant to be a mere record of my process, and I do not seek to engage with discussion with others, nor feedback. It is just meant to be a ‘thinking out loud’ record of my own journey.

I have been involved in (amateur) photography for close to twenty years. It started from the time when I picked up a serious (read: SLR) camera and continues well into the use of digital cameras. I’ve used -and still uses a great deal of films. I have amassed a sizable collection of cameras and photo equipments. But, I found myself spending a great deal of time learning and assimilating the technical side of it, more than I ought to be taking pictures. As I approach the 20th year of my on and off journey with photography, and as my interest is now on using it as an outlet for contemplative practice, I think that it is fitting to record and reflect on the next phase of my development as photographer. I want to have a record of my progress -if there is one- that I can later on look at.

As a contemplative tool, I am convinced that photography will also serve me as a way to slow down and really be present in the moment, whatever that does mean. As manley Ort described in one of her posts about the process of ‘Seeing‘ through photography, using a conversation excerpted from the movie “Smoke”” to illustrate her point.