Is isolation overrepresented in street and documentary photography?



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One of the byproducts of the new wave approach to street photography, which promotes anonymity, mystery and a cinematic aesthetic, is that there is an absolute abundance of images featuring silhouettes and figures. shadow play. This is the kind of images that I started to create, and there are some fantastic artists who have used this style over the years, my favorite being Fan Ho, one of the classic ancestors of this style.

What you’ll notice about Fan Ho, however, is that his images aren’t exclusively silhouette. In fact, they don’t even make up the majority of his overall work, but only represent one aspect and exist alongside enough evenly exhibited scenes to trump the work for which he is apparently most often cited. His shots of “figures walking in the light” work very well with his other work and are very effective in telling the story of an idea of ​​Hong Kong in the 1950s / 1960s.

The silhouettes naturally dramatize to some extent, and when used photographically, they often rely on exaggerated exposure which allows the shadows to turn black – our eyes often only see the figures in very difficult lighting conditions, because they have a much better dynamic range than many current cameras. It’s easy to create a silhouette effect on digital cameras, and even easier to slightly change exposures in Photoshop to add to this effect.

As such, this style has apparently exploded in popularity, with many photographers choosing to be guided by light, only photographing on sunny days and finding patches of light to compose indoors. Exposed to light, or slightly underexposed, they wait near these areas for a single subject to pass through, or “interact” with, that light. It is almost its own genre and has as many great examples as it does mediocre ones.

I tend to qualify these kinds of images as light architecture rather than streets, but that’s not too important. Instead, what I find interesting right now is the tendency of these images to capture only one subject per composition.

Isolating individuals in the light in this way can make for an interesting image, but an entire portfolio of such images contains a statement, whether intentional or not. It’s a lonely world documented here, because frame by frame, there is no interaction between the subjects, little energy, just desolate figures (or if all are in silhouette, ideas of desolate figures) .

Light architecture is easy to compose, as all you need is a clean background for your subject to pass through, and I think the inclination to take this kind of image increases dramatically if a photographer follows this advice. commonly understood: isolate your subject.

This is fantastic advice at first, as it can help the photographer think about composition, figure on the ground, depth of field, and focus their story around a subject or idea in a frame. . However, I think it should be taken into account along with a lot of other advice, and shouldn’t be taken for the thing in and of itself.

My goal in photography is to find interesting and unique moments and scenes, not just to isolate to follow an aesthetic. I have nothing against minimalism as an art form – in fact, I would say I embrace the language of minimalism in my work, but I think it can get in the way of social commentary. Street photography can represent a lot of things, but I think the best examples of its kind provide social insight or commentary, and limiting your vision to isolation alone means your work will carry that theme as a statement, whether it’s a decision. that you have taken knowingly or unconsciously.

I make an effort to make my subjects clear and distinct from the rest of the frame, with a strong figure on the ground, but that doesn’t require the use of silhouetting. Instead, I work to find interesting perspectives and background, even in a crowd, to isolate my subject (s) from context, while still allowing enough to fill the story, or deliberately leaving the viewer question certain aspects.

I see how easy it would be to confuse the idea of ​​”isolating your subject” with “an isolated subject”. It’s nuanced and takes a bit of practice and understanding of the end goal to really achieve it. A silhouette is an iconic visual that is easy to understand and create. Something more complex, like interaction, character, emotion, energy, it takes a little more energy to work.

The light architecture approach provides such literal illumination to subjects that it can be deceptively easy to photograph as many as you like and feel that you are creating something aesthetic, which is perhaps. be true, but for me these are often a little empty of everything beyond light, possible geometry and figure for scale. They’re also fairly easy to perform, requiring nothing more than finding a scene and waiting for a person to walk through it – even rarer for more interesting action to take place in that space.

This often means a lack of groups and visible interactions between people, which can leave little or no room for the audience to project anything other than a sense of isolation onto these lonely and ambiguous figures.

The silhouetted figure often suppresses any potential for individuality, which takes the pressure off the photographer to seek out those interesting human moments that make up some of the most iconic street imagery of all time. It’s a bit sad for me that for some people the whole genre of street photography means silhouettes when there is so much more potential for other types of images. It is not the idea of ​​isolation but rather a specific type of aesthetic isolation that has reached this level of over-representation.

There are several ways to isolate the subjects in a photograph without relying on those basic scenes where there is only one person in the frame at a time. Isolation does not mean one subject per image – in fact, even the idea of ​​”a subject” does not need to be one person (for example, a group of people can represent a subject, or a group of people. set of different groups can each be a single subject). It depends on the skill of the photographer to present the ideas in this way.

Compositionally, to isolate different subjects, the best way for me to start is to make sure that a good figure relative to the ground is maintained – a clear distinction between the elements of a scene, with little or no overlap where possible.

Isolation through compositional skill can mean working the perspectives of a scene until the different elements come together in their place, without overlapping or interacting in important areas. This means that even a very crowded situation can have many different and distinctly isolated topics.

Alternatively, the tools of photography can have properties that contribute to certain types of isolation. For example, longer lenses provide different attenuation than larger lenses.

If isolation is the real theme you want to convey, then I think identifying that idea in people’s faces or body language is way more impactful than anything that can be achieved through composition. The actual subject of the image counts for something on more layers than what is offered by the language of photography, and this is where I have spent the majority of my energy when it comes to themes of photography. isolation or any other idea that I want to convey through a photograph.

Starting by researching a topic or situation first, then composing around those elements rather than finding a composition first and waiting for something to happen inside (usually just someone passing by) is a much better path to going to an image you have more control over than just aesthetics.

Searching for crowds and groups of people is a great way to practice compositional isolation without relying on light – I do some of my best work on an overcast day in diffused light. I think a closer approach in these situations is helpful, because unless I’m shooting a very sharp lens / film combination, details can be lost at a distance. There’s less definition at a distance, so a closer insightful eye will give me results I’m more satisfied with.

Less definition on film to work with small details further.

Even when photographing silhouettes, I look for ways to use multiple subjects to complement each other and the overall composition, while still allowing them to have their own space. This can lead to ideas of isolation while still presenting a fairly busy situation – you represent a collection of individuals isolated from each other, rather than an isolated individual in a picture, with no further context.

Just isolating a subject doesn’t necessarily convey something in and of itself – it will be about the relationships between everything else in the frame that does. Using things like the role of the ladder in the frame, using large landscapes that diminish the subject and dominate the frame, can have powerful connotations. You can make the topic feel small and, in turn, communicate it to the audience.

Isolation as a theme has interested me a lot recently, due to the pressing nature of this theme in our daily life today. The near-universal state of isolation brought about by government restrictions imposed to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic means that more than ever the art that deals with the subject of isolation is extremely relevant.

Photography often becomes weighted over time, acquiring new meanings and associations as the context around it changes. Many street photographs and documentaries that started out as snapshots now represent elements of culture and fashion that are no longer part of everyday life. As a result, they adopt different values, as they have the power to formulate or reframe ideas around these past states.

You can expect this insanely large body of light architecture-based isolation shots to take on new meaning due to our current situation, perhaps as something people can relate to, or as a way to frame the discussion. Instead, I found the opposite – that photographs of crowds, community and interaction reach a nostalgic peak as people remember the way things were not even a few weeks ago. .

I think this is indicative of the enduring value of this type of image in the end. He really showed that all value for this type of photography lies in its aesthetic merit, and not in what it offers in terms of cultural documentation of everyday life.


About the Author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist who is currently working on a number of long-term street photography and documentary projects. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram. Simon also teaches a short course in street photography at UAL, which you can read here.


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