practicing in public

I very much like the work of photographer William Gedney, but I admit I wasn’t terribly interested when I learned his journals were available online. Still, when I wrote about Gedney several years ago I took the opportunity to look at a few of them.

Most of the journal entries were pretty dull. Photography historians may be fascinated to know that on Friday, April 22nd, 1966 Gedney finished a roll of Tri-X in his Leica M3 by shooting a few frames of the Long Island University gym and the Paramount building (1/60 at f 2.8) and of a sleeping boy (1/10 at f 2.8). Me, I don’t really care. It’s mildly interesting to know Gedney stopped by Diane Arbus’s apartment in January of 1969 to fetch a couple of prints, and that her hair was very short at the time. Me, I don’t really care.

against the tide

I’m only slightly more interested in reading the quotations or song lyrics Gedney copied into his journals. I tend not to be inspired by ‘inspirational’ quotations. But I found myself reading a three page entry in Gedney’s 1969 journal. Three pages — one long quotation by Alfred Stieglitz. I won’t quote the thing; you can read it yourself if you want. Essentially Stieglitz was talking about ‘practicing in public’ — showing work that doesn’t quite meet your standards for what the work could be. He said:

[I]f one does not practice in public in reality, then in nine cases out of ten the world will never see the finished product of one’s work. Some people go on the assumption that if a thing is not a hundred percent perfect it should not be given to the world, but I have seen too many things that were a hundred percent perfect that were spiritually dead, and then things that have been seemingly incomplete that have life and vitality, which I prefer by far to the other so-called perfect thing.

Stieglitz also talks some bullshit, like “Is the thing felt – does it come out of an inner need – an inner must? Is one ready to die for it?… that is the only test.” Is one ready to die for it, lawdy. Drama queen, right there. Gedney includes all that crap about ‘inner must’ in his three pages — but I think we can overlook the bullshit and still learn something worthwhile from Stieglitz.

sports fan

I love the notion of practicing in public. I’d be lying if I claimed I only shot photographs for my own pleasure. I enjoy making them available to other folks. I rather hope the folks who bother to look at them find something worthwhile in some of them, but if they don’t, I’m not that concerned. For the most part, I’m fairly confident of my ability to take a good photo — if I have a moment or two to allow the elements of a good photo to register in my brain. You know, stuff like composition, light and shadow, geometry, depth of field. All I need is that moment or two; I’ve been noodling with cameras long enough that I can adapt fairly quickly to most situations.

But then there’s street photography, and the street is pretty damned stingy when it comes to allowing you a moment or two for anything to register in the brain. Sure, you can look at a scene and quickly assess the possibilities — the light is good over there, the shadows are nice in that spot, all I need now is for something interesting to happen right there. But if nothing happens — like in the shot below — you’re just left standing around gawping like the village idiot. There’s a spot for potentially interesting photo, but the street just ain’t giving it away.

court avenue sidestreet

Street work is different. It’s about immediacy. It’s about anticipating what’s about to happen while incorporating the unpredictable. It’s about being open to the moment and responding to it creatively, and without conscious thought. Those are things I’ve been good at all my life. All my life — except when it comes to photography.

I have very little confidence in my ability to shoot street. I totally love doing it. I love the spontaneity of it. I love the semi-unpredictable way groups of people shift in and out of patterns. I love the way the point of balance of an image may exist only for a moment, then disappear and what could have been an engaging photo becomes just a disorganized, visually jarring clump of people. I love shooting from the hip (and I mean literally from the hip), trying to anticipate how various elements will arrange themselves in the next few moments — and predicting how that arrangement will appear through the lens of a camera held maybe eighteen inches below my eyes.

approaching the farmer's market

All the things I love about street photography are things that make it easy to get it wrong. It’s so very easy to miss the shot, to fuck up the composition, to release the shutter a moment too soon or too late, to be half a step too far to the left, to fail to notice what’s taking place (or not taking place) in the background.

The difference between good street work and ineffective street work can be measured in the time it takes a person to turn their head or glance at a cell phone. I love the practice of street photography — getting out there and trying to do it well. And I’m with Stieglitz about the importance of practicing in public. If you want to be good at this stuff, you need to be open about the struggle. Fuck perfection.

kid eating cinnamon roll

So back to Gedney and Stieglitz:

Either you feel that a thing must be perfect before you present it to the public, or you are willing to let it go out even knowing that it is not perfect, because you are striving for something even beyond what you have achieved… [I]n struggling for perfection you know that you may lose the very glimmer of life, the very spirit of the thing that you also know exists at a particular point in what you have done; and that to interfere with it would be to destroy that very living quality.

Practicing in public. I’ve been thinking about this concept off and on for a few years, but it was only recently I began to focus on that last phrase: “…to interfere with it would be to destroy that very living quality.”

It’s that living quality that makes street photography vital, isn’t it? So if there’s any style of photography that ought to be practiced in public — that should be liberated from the entire idea of ‘perfection’ — it should be street. Right?

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