Right now is a very good time to be a street photographer, especially if you happen to live in England. With a William Klein & Daido Moriyama exhibition at the Tate Modern (10th October – 20th January, £12.70 with concessions) and Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour at Somerset House (8th November-27th January, free admission) we’re really quite spoilt. Plus, the day before yesterday, BBC1’s wonderful Imagine… series tackled ‘The Many Lives of William Klein’ and got us all talking in the office, discussing whether the first street photographer was Klein or Cartier-Bresson.
The point, in any case, is not to compare the two. They were each practicing quite different styles and methods of photography and were pioneers in their own right. While Cartier-Bresson relied on remaining an inconspicuous, anonymous figure weaving through the streets to capture one perfect instant – and the ‘instant’ was what really mattered to Cartier-Bresson; he did not believe in post production or, really anything beyond that moment of capture – Klein had, by all accounts, a much more in-your-face approach. He was not shy about his subjects being aware of his presence, and many of his shots were set up. Often it is the juxtaposition between the parts of his shot that were pre-arranged and the parts that were not that gives his photographs their dynamism.
But what brings the two photographers together, and what informs the way we understand street photography today, is that they were both engaging with the real. The real world, real people, real streets and situations. Whether set up or shot perfectly in the instant, Michael Freeman puts it better than I can in his book, The Photographer’s Vision, when he describes street photography as ‘a very specific form of photojournalism in which the photographer walks and looks for the unplanned moment, the coincidence of people or actions or form, hoping for the surprise. And also hoping to be able to recognize it quickly when it happens, and to capture it.’
Street photography is in its essence all about the unexpected, and it remains unexpected because it engages with photography as a medium whose role is to captures instants that are gone too fast for our usual perception to notice.
Both Klein and Cartier-Bresson were doing something that hadn’t been seen before. The question now, as ever, is what remains yet to come in street photography – especially in the age of ubiquity, when just about anyone with a half-decent camera phone can call themself a street photographer. Rather than being put off by the examples of the greats, I hope you will be inspired – and most of all remember that some of their greatest successes came about through chance, courage, and a few happy accidents.
At the time of writing, BBC1′s Imagine… The Many Lives of William Klein is available to watch on iPlayer, so if you missed it I highly recommend catching it before it goes.