Street photography is something that many try to practice, but few take the time to really study, maybe because they think all it takes is to bring a camera onto the street to feel like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Street Photography, Creative Vision Behind the Lens, by Valérie Jardin is a book for all those who would like to learn more about this elusive and not easy to define type of photography. It is authored by one of the most acclaimed instructors and practitioners, who teaches many workshops every year, and a good friend of mine. So I ordered a copy as soon as it was published, hoping to see how much of the knowledge she dispenses in person made it into this volume.
The first half of the book is a short, no-nonsense introductory guide to street photography. We don’t learn much here about camera settings like aperture and shutter speed, because those matter only up to a certain point. The book assumes the reader knows what settings to employ in order to get a correctly exposed and reasonably sharp photograph (even though the author repeatedly points out that perfect sharpness is not always absolutely necessary in street photography).
Rather than talking about technicalities, the first few chapters give a concise definition of what is street photography, ethical and legal considerations, and some very practical tips, like the fact that good, comfortable shoes are more important than what camera to use.
Chapter 3 presents some different ways to approach street photography. That’s right, there isn’t a single way to do it! There are as many ways to do street as there are street photographers. One can enter a scene actively or stay outside at a distance, elicit a reaction from their subject or look for candid poses, include more or less of the surroundings, while always focusing on the human element. The latter must always stay at the center of the street photographer’s vision. To me, this underscores the fact that street photography is an unfiltered description of human attitudes and behaviors in a (mostly) urban context.
Chapter 4 starts with putting the accent on the fact that good street photographs depend on having strong subjects, well presented. I think the former always trumps the latter, so it’s good to see that Valérie puts it at the beginning. I see too many purported street shots that end up being boring, notwithstanding their technical perfection, because the subject is just not interesting.
Good composition and great light are important only insofar as they serve to underscore an interesting subject, doing something peculiar, in a context that is revelatory of city life, societal and personal issues, cultural mores and habits. The author rightly insists that aspiring photographers should refrain from taking photos of tourists in popular places, or people looking at their mobile devices. Firstly, because such subjects are too common and therefore too easy. Secondly because, unlike the locals in their own environment, they tell us nothing about the latter.
I wish that the distinction between what makes for an interesting street photograph and what doesn’t would have been spelled out more clearly in the book. Many aspiring photographers think too much about how a photograph is made and too little about why it should be made (or not made) and shown.
The second part of the book is called “Photo Walks” and consists of the presentation of a series of the author’s photographs, organized by location (Paris, Normandy, Rome, New York, and so on) and accompanied by an explanation of the circumstances of their capture. I liked this part very much, because it opens a window onto a street photographer’s mind. It shows the number of decisions that must be made, often in a fraction of a second, in order to get a good photo on the street. It’s a series of great practical lessons that teach us that on the street it pays to be reactive, attentive, patient, and never satisfied with the first shot. I know I will be coming back to these pages whenever I feel like I’m not satisfied with my own work, in order to find explanations of why it is so and inspiration about the things I must do.
In the end, I enjoyed Valérie’s book very much and I recommend it wholeheartedly to everyone who wishes to grow in the difficult art of street photography. Before closing this review, I would just like to make a point and I know this might sound like the student is criticizing the master (Valérie was indeed my mentor in a couple circumstances) but it’s not meant to be a critique, just an explanation of my personal vision with respect to street photography and what I can gleam of Valérie’s vision from this book and from her work that I’ve been following closely for a long time.
I personally believe street photography is more successful when it works as social documentary and when it shows the empathy between the photographer and her subjects. This is one of the reasons why I so much like the work of John Free, just to name an example, and dislike that of Bruce Gilden. The work of Valérie Jardin reveals that she is indeed always empathizing with her subjects and treating them with respect, even though it’s apparent that denouncing social issues is not at the top of her mind. She is constantly on the lookout for visually striking subjects and for powerful gestures. What these gestures reveal about the human condition is not necessarily important, or at least it doesn’t seem to be the primary reason why the author chooses to press the shutter.
In Valérie’s photos and in her words I perceive a profound interest in the esthetical value of her subjects, often independently of their social significance. The latter never takes center stage, but when it is present is more often hinted at, rather than put out in the open. Having spoken with her on many occasions, I know she sees street photography more as fine art than as social documentary, a genre she pursues elsewhere, like when she documented the Do Something For Nothing project.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and it certainly makes it so that a lot of visual pleasure can be derived by observing the photos contained in this volume. I know however that there are people who have a different understanding of street photography and that they shun the esthetic concerns, preferring to focus on its use as a tool for social and political change, to the point of consciously pursuing ugliness (which is in itself a way of concerning primarily with form again, but I digress).
Those people might not appreciate Valérie Jardin’s style and teaching method, so I think it’s only fair to point out that this book is for those who do, like me.
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