“There is no special way a photograph(er) should look”

“There is no special way a photographer should look” (*) … and there is no invisibility when you shoot in the street. Of all the myths that enfold the carrier and personality of Henri Cartier-Bresson, that “myth of invisibility” is probably the most misleading. The truth is that he was photographing at a time when people care much less, were not that suspicious than they are today (although there have been suspicion about candid shots since long before). By the way HCB have been in difficult situations at some occasion. Can’t remember where I read that he went into trouble a couple of times when shooting the South US states.

But if Cartier-Bresson would shoot today in 2011, he would be as visible as anyone doing the same, and as vulnerable as anyone of being accused of perversion and up-skirt shooting.


Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Imagine how the guy doing that shot would look like…


There is no question that some people “move” in a better way than others, and probably Cartier-Bresson was one of them. It is a matter of being relaxed and confident, and is important for doing street photography. Most great musicians have a graceful body language, and that impacts their performance a lot. The first lesson you should have when learning an instrument is how to breath correctly, even if you don’t have to blow in it. But shooting a photograph is basically something awkward, and easily looks aggressive or weird, no matter what camera you use, what clothes you wear (though of course some are worse than others for that matter). And I bet many great photographers – especially those using small format camera – look as dumb as you and me when they shoot.

Actually photography is a medium that involves a strange gap between the process (the act of taking a picture), and the final result (the image). You can make few assumption on the final result based on how the process looks like. Only the photographer has clues about what he is doing, and more often than not these are more instinctive clues rather than a crystal clear conscience of how things will look like (once they are) photographed. It is not the case with painting or music, where the final result is tangible to the act of producing it. It is no hazard if very few movies take photographers as subject (there is Blow-Up, and that film based on Weegee that I can’t recall the name), whereas the gesture of making music or painting has been glorified many times (and too much, i.e. at the expense of the more psychological input in those art forms.)

“They’re not easy pictures. But I guess that’s why they’re mine.” (Mark Cohen)

And yes, you can make great pictures while acting in a very weird way to make them. And furthermore sometimes the success of the final image can be the direct result of that weirdness of the process. Just check out that video you can find on the net about Mark Cohen shooting the streets of Wilkes-Barre 30 years ago.


Marc Cohen - 1975 bubble gum


And there was Walker Evans hiding a camera under his coat to shoot in the subway. And more recently there was this,  and so on… You better forget about the romanticized view of a tall elegant man gently photographing the crowd with his Leica. Documentary, street photography can really look like a nasty thing to do. Actually you don’t do that to look cool (you will NOT look cool, definitely ) but instead with the sole end result in mind.

In photography if you like the final product – at least if you are interested in it – you don’t really care how it was done (except for certain extreme circumstances, such as Kevin Carter “Child and the Vulture” iconic and controversial shot). But if you just don’t care about the product, you may easily be upset by the process of making it. A bothering process with no identified justification is weird and suspect.


(*) pun on Garry Winogrand quote : “There is no special way a photograph should look”


2 thoughts on ““There is no special way a photograph(er) should look”

  1. Not sure how I landed on this particular blog post but I understand your frustration. However I honestly think there is a right way and a wrong way to do SP but both are perfectly okay IMHO. I like not to disturb or provoke my subjects and in that sense you could call me a traditionalist. I am not a fan of Gilden or Cohen – they provoke their subjects and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Cohen is accused of upskirt shooting just by looking at him in action in some of the videos. I look at groups on Flickr like HCSP and sometimes wonder which direction is contemporary street photography is headed. Are we creating a whole class of flash totting, low angle, shoot from the hip Street Photographers?

    • What Cohen did sometimes are technically up-skirt shots, no question about that. And actually I don’t think that today’s serious SP is as extreme as that of Mark Cohen, or Bruce Gilden. On the contrary I find that it tends to be more distant (visually) and aloof (spiritually) than it used to be. I am talking about the “established” (not sure that makes sense) contemporary SP, such as In-Public. I think it does not matter the means you uses, as long as you are able to give a sense to what you are doing, which may take a while before that comes out. Shooting very aggressively for the sake of it does not makes sense of course. But if you look at Mark Cohen’s work (which I love) there is something very strong and highly self-reflective coming out of it, which I think justifies the process. Finally it is a matter of personal instinct to decide whether what you are doing has the potential or not to make sense in the long run, and that overpowers the moral/ethic aspects. I think it is what Gilden means when he says “I have no ethic”.

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