Stream of Consciousness

One of the more frustrating things for a writer is the problem of getting your thoughts down on paper. Particularly because most ideas seem to come when you are least prepared to record them. Sometimes when I do jump out of bed in the middle of the night, after answering nature’s call I feel a need to grab a sheet of paper and a pencil and put down some of the thoughts that have been running through my head. The previous post, Captioning Dreams, came from just six words scribbled in this way – and fortunately for once I could read my writing.

Often things come to me when lying in bed, trying to get to sleep, and in my mind arrange themselves with a precision and clarity that just isn’t there when I wake and try to put them on paper. When I was working as a teacher, all my best ideas and plans for lessons came as I was cycling to college, often about the lesson I was to deliver on my arrival – but try telling that to OFSTED! (Of course their paper world only briefly intersects with real life on those rare occasions when the inspector sits in your class.)

For photographers like me, whose photography is to some extent a record of their lives and experiences (rather than those who construct things to photograph) the ideal camera would record our mental images – what we see inside our heads – rather than what a lens images on some light sensitive medium. Perhaps some kind of head-set that taps into our brain waves and from them reconstructs the image so it can be saved in a digital format.

At the moment, this is just a thought experiment, without any technological means to implement it, though perhaps one day it will enter the realm of the feasible, though in some ways I rather hope not, as it is all too easy to imagine the possibilities for surveillance and control that such technology could provide. But it does perhaps represent the ultimate goal of many photographers, a kind of seamless transfer of a situation that they perceive as significant into a photographic record.

When thinking about street photography and how to improve our work, we think about equipment that is responsive and becomes intuitive, and about ways that we can remove the barrier to recognising and recording. I imagine we all start by beginning to see the photographic opportunities we have missed because we were too slow to see and react to them.

There are of course specific cameras and techniques that aid us. The Leica and similar cameras were small, simple and enabled you to feel that they became a part of you. One of the pieces of advice given by Henri Cartier-Bresson was that the photographer should become so familiar with the camera that the settings for taking a picture could be made by touch alone. On a Leica you can certainly set both aperture and distance in this way, although shutter speed is trickier – but then most of us probably changed it rather less often. On my M8 it’s actually taped on auto, but simply because I got fed up with it getting knocked onto inappropriate settings.

Working with a fixed focal length also simplified matters. You soon got to know more or less exactly where the frame edges would fall, or where you needed to stand to get the picture you wanted for your favourite 28 or 35mm or 50mm lens. Looking through the viewfinder was largely a matter of a quick check that you were pointing the lens in exactly the right direction, and something that could, if necessary, be dispensed with.

Using wide angle lenses also helps, increasing the depth of field for a given aperture and distance. Most of us relied on setting a zone of focus and always shooting from roughly the same distance – in my case usually centred on 1.8 metres.

Such techniques reduced taking a photograph to the essentials of identifying the opportunity and pressing the shutter release at the right time. The simple mechanism also meant there was little or no delay between the press and the taking of the picture.

What remained was our reaction time, the time for us to process the input and then decide to press. Working on that is tricky, and sometimes it brings up things that we might not always want to acknowledge. To be a street photographer you have to be on the street with your finger on a knife-edge, ready to react at any stimulus – and your negatives tell you what stimulates you. I found that I shared much of the same obsession that Gary Winogrand, the acknowledged master of the art, made deliberately manifest in his controversial ‘Women are Beautiful

[Don’t miss the two Winogrand links above – the first is a great description of a workshop with him, which really does give an insight into his working methods. The second has a few pictures from the book.]

Digital photography has supplied us with an equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s endless roll of paper compared to the very limited and discrete nature of film, but perhaps Virginia Woolf offers a better model for the photographer?


[This, although perhaps not obviously so, is the second in a few pieces I promised to write about ‘candid photography’ in Candid on Candids. More later I hope.]

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