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Friday, 24 September 2021


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An excellent observation, "There's at least one complication: we all differ over what's worth looking at." Really, not much more needs to be said.

We do seem to be in a paradox - making images we approve of and then showing them to people for their approval. If we work to get approval from both then critics say we are pandering to the herd. If we only make images for the crowd then we're just being commercial. If we make images that only resonate with ourselves then we're accused of being egocentric. It appears there's no win/win situation. Except, of course, to make images that resonate with our vision. If we chose to share them with the world and the world likes them, great - we liked them first. If the world doesn't like them, tough - we liked them first. In the non-commercial world of photography, why should we care what others think?

Exactly! I liked the “shoulder tap” suggestion but thought some were taking it too literally. I suppose you could take Mr Camp’s example and say if you spotted* the HCB puddle-jump picture in a gallery you might draw your friend’s attention to it with a “tap”.

*assuming you’d never seen it before ;).

I disagree with the shoulder-tap definition. I think a great portion of good photography is created in the photograph; the exact angle, split-second, light, framing...

Eolake Stobblehouse

Coupla thoughts... I think one of the things that separates a great (street) photographer such as Winogrand from many one note wannabes is that he was first and foremost, an incisive observer (and predictor) of the human condition- the camera just allowed him to document and share those observations. Often he'd capture people between thoughts, between actions... the indecisive moment!

A mistake I sometimes fall into is not giving it my all when I'm taking a photo I'm not really all that sure about. Upon seeing the result, I realize too late that if I had just paid it it's proper due, I would have unraveled what caught my attention in the first place.

When I used to teach photography to small groups of middle schoolers, I would say that in large part I was teaching them to become more "picky." I suppose that's like demanding. I meant being picky partly when editing the pile of photos you returned with (literally picking your best), but also when looking through the viewfinder.

Well, just deleted (deliberately I mean) the rambling first draft of this message.

I think different uses require different editing. An artist's portfolio really does need to be held to the "I can't see how to make these better" level. But submissions to an editor in photojournalism, or to friends of snapshots, should not insist on that; for memories, one needs the best shot of the memorable instant, but even fairly mediocre shots can sometimes be that best shot. (This must be one of the frustrations of being a wedding photographer; you nearly always provide the major core of the coverage, but very often the pictures that mean the most to the couple will come from someone else who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, not one of the core planned shots.)

I discovered when editing piles of photos in front of friends that they wanted me to exclude fewer of them than I did, even when I pointed out it would make the album or online gallery bigger.

We are indeed under a torrent of ill-considered photos. But mostly, except for close friends, I see them at third or fourth hand, meaning they've been filtered through several layers to get to me. I see quite a lot of really good photos!

[I think I agree with everything you've said. --Mike]

I am not sure of the shoulder tapping criterion.
Frankly I would doubt that in Cartier Bressons time and place, a man jumping a puddle in that context would have drawn ANY type of attraction from the people of that era, certainly not tapping your friend's shoulder over it.
I think the best type of street photography are often common place and it is the unique alchemistic perspective of camera/lens that a wonderful moment of time is preserved.
Here's an example. Marion Post Wolcott's photograph during the depression.

A powerful image that I believe would not have drawn any type of a second look other than from a photographer with an eye for creating strong, artistic photographs.

I think also it's when presented after the fact, and frankly could be years from that moment that the public looks at the photograph (or art in general) from a different perspective.
Van Gogh

The tap-on-the-shoulder is, I think, a good example of the idea that how to be demanding changes over time. I love the concepts of the two types of demands we should make (and may I say that this is the kind of thing you write that makes TOP an essential daily read). The effluvium of photos that are visible now, especially the onslaught of "Street" (as the kids call it), means that a given photo of, say, two people walking down the street minding their own business may now not have enough tap-on-the-shoulder quality but might have had that quality twenty years ago.

The particular example I am thinking of I have attached to this comment. It's a print of a photo mine that was part of a group salon about 20 years ago. I recall that the show curator really liked it and encouraged me to shoot more like this. At that time, pocketable digital cameras were just too slow to get this kind of shot. This was taken with a small 35mm camera I could take anywhere but which was manual focus and exposure so getting sharp shots of this kind of quick scene were a bit of a challenge and took some practice.

Fast forward to nowadays and, of course, the web is flooded with sharp, well-exposed pictures of random people walking down the street and I do think that the show curator would also have been flooded with these images and mine simply wouldn't have any tap-on-the-shoulder quality.

Of course, I also learned never to try to second guess curators(!) so your second type of demand will always apply. If this photo still meets my own demands for whatever I was trying to achieve, then that's how I should consider it.

The idea of being demanding of ourselves and the shoulder tap criterion both made me think of Pirsig's ideas about quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ... But I can't articulate why, since it's been 30+ years since I read it.

IMHO there is nothing better than a good, professional curator if you intended to put your work up to the public, and especially if you intend to charge for it. I tend to be too critical of my own work - the processing and the technical analysis and the choosing often biases me towards one or two prints when I need 20. And my own biases often make me miss the point - my last two shows (my only two in the last 20 years), my curator agreed that the one print I had chosen was probably the best artistically and technically but on both occasions, she added but you wont’ sell any of that - the money shot is the one over here - a print which I thought was OK (it made my cut) but which I would never have chosen to buy. One was “romantic” - and the other “emotional” - neither being words I would I have chosen, nor the reaction to the image which I intended. Yet she was right on both occasions. I sold out my tiny editions of both, and sold none of my chosen two.

I think I made this comment before, but it will bear repeating. Martin Parr was one of the judges in a reality show for aspiring photographers where one would get axed each week.

Looking at one of the street photography efforts he said "But it is not a photograph."

We see so many photos of people walking or standing, caught in a patch of light, caught walking past this or that - and there is nothing there - nothing to say 'Ah, this is revealing of human nature and this is happening in the picture.'

Yes, yes, not all photographs have to do that. But if in some way they do not - then how do they advance humankind?

If I would think of a photographer who bites into his subjects without being brazen, then I would not choose Martin Parr.

I would choose Gary Winogrand as the exemplar of someone who gets in without ridiculing his subjects but who finds them. And most of his photographs make us do something in our minds - makes us go 'Ah, I recognise that'.

Yep - I’m always asking myself “did what I just wrote really get my point across”. There’s a LOT of editing between ‘kinda-sorta’ and ‘nailed it’. And sometimes I don’t have time to improve on kinda-sorta, or it’s good enough for the situation.

In once sense, I write (and think) for a living, as a Business Analyst in financial services. I’m not trying to write Pulitzer Prize winning work, and my writing needs to be explicit, specific, accurate and succinct. After drafting my first brain-dump of a mish-mash of half-baked thoughts, I often need a good 24 hours separation so I can re-read my writing with ‘fresh eyes’, in order to edit and polish. I’d say nailing it is 20% drafting and 80% editing/polishing. Achieving ‘succinct’ is usually my hardest challenge. A very different approach to the bloat encouraged by university assignments.

Re your earlier post about writing - it is rare that the words just flow, as my brain thinks too fast for my fingers. Plus, it takes time to think through concepts, how to frame them and how to order them etc. If I try to push beyond the point that my brain feels numb, then the next day I usually find that what I wrote is garbage and I’m better off starting again.

I imagine it’s very different to how you work, where the writing requires very differing goals.

I think the “tap on the shoulder” could be a useful concept if you transfer it from the street to the gallery wall (or the computer screen). This encourages editing so that the good shots are not overwhelmed by the “snapcrap”.

As a photographer, I have long known how important perseverance is in making art. But I've never demanded anything from the subjects my lens was pointed at. They don't make the image, it is I who does. Whether an image is good or not, I am entirely responsible.

Well, I think there's a fundamental aspect of this that's been left out, and that's the inherent expectations that are embedded in genres ad mediums and in our own understandings of them (so, macro and micro).

Photography as a medium is particularly hidebound, IMO, compared to other visual arts media at this point in time. If I were still teaching or had been your professor then, I might have looked at your image and suggested that you go further than you did, but not in the way Shirley True was suggesting, but rather in the direction you were already heading which sounds like it was a bit counter to that.

Excellent post. We have been working on a street project lately. It has evolved as we have shot it, grown in some areas and abandoned in others. Some photos are as an observer, some are landscape/street and some are portraits where we interacted with people. I'm not sure how it fits in the definitions I find of street photography but being demanding has been an essential part of the process. Thanks for a (for me) timely post.


Thinking about your article and Wiley's comment, I think the idea is to do the work that our subject demands, to justify our decision to photograph that subject. Sometimes the work is done momentarily, but based on years of practice seeing and skill development. Other times, the subject requires very hard thinking and working the subject to get to the point where we made a photograph that the subject deserves.

A very interesting post - lots to think about!

Regarding "Snapcrap" - an unfortunate choice of words, IMHO. In San Francisco (where else!) Snapcrap is "a camera-based smartphone app that allows users to document human and animal waste on the street and report it with an automatically generated message— 'I see poop' —to the city’s 311 program." (from a web article)

Also, "Snap crap" (2 words) refers to snapping what you deposited into the toilet during your sitting. (see the Urban Dictionary)

I'm sure everyone knows what your use of the word is; it also appears (2 words) as criticism of boring pictures sent through the SnapChat application.



Hi Mike,
Thanks for a thoughtful, really well-written piece. I found it thought-provoking, but the thought it provoked was that none of my photography really fits this. I worked for a couple of decades as a photo-journalist. One thing peculiar to this trade is that a working phojo has to get something "good enough to print" as fast as possible, then get on to the next assignment. So as a pro you learn to knock those assignments out. For my own photography, I have always followed Ansel Adams thoughts on previsualization. I "see" the photo, then I work as long and as hard as necessary to capture that vision. I think my record is going to a sunset overlook sporadically for more than two years until I caught birds wheeling in front of the sun in the correct weather. I'm Sicilian, so I'm just that stubborn...
Thanks for all the work you do here. You are appreciated.

I can't help thinking that the most prescient, major takeaway (to use current parlance) can be summed up as 'do not just snapcrap'. The fact that most snapcrap is on the street is just lucky poetry... Personally I think you added a third equally valid definition to Richard's list.

I know it was a typo but I think Christopher has just invented a fantastic, and very appropriate - perhaps it was a Freudian slip? - word with "phojo"! To be used when a photo has real impact, or perhaps when our inspiration is lacking as in "I've lost my phojo"! Thank you Christopher, I am going to apply this to my own images to decide which ones (if any) are actually any good.

Your point is also excellent. In business perfectionism is often the enemy of good and a bad fault.

I think Ross makes a similar point, and in my work (which involved writing various types of documents, from sales to technical) I would certainly agree with his editing comments, and perhaps the same applies to images.

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