Get Closer For the Essence of a Photograph

I recently read an interview of the street photographer John Free (He happens to work solely with black and white film and prints his own work). In it he discusses how difficult social documentary, photojournalism and street photography are and goes on to say, “In street photography, it all must be done with one photograph and with no caption to help explain what cannot be seen. No caption and no posing, make street photography the most difficult form of photography that I have ever been involved with. My professional work in social documentary photography was very helpful in teaching myself how to get closer to the subject. Closer in many ways, not just where I stand, but how I can convey my feelings about a subject in my photograph of that subject. To bring as much life and understanding into the image, in order for the viewer to better understand the image.”

I think he has done a rather good job of capturing why it is so important and what it means to be engaged in a nearby space with your subject. Not only when making photographs of people, but also when it comes to their surroundings. This approach makes a stand-alone image better, and can do the same for a group of pictures in a documentary piece. Just look at the photographs the great Eugene Smith did for Life Magazine to see what I mean!

I like the 50mm lens best, but many use 35mm lenses in the same manner. And I’ve used 40mm lens equivalents with great results. These include the 80mm and 90mm lenses made by Mamiya and Fuji for 6×7 and 6×9 format cameras. I would estimate that 90% or more of my photographs over the years have been made with a 50mm or near 50mm lens equivalents when using formats larger than 35mm. Perhaps it is the way I see the world. I like to concentrate more closely on the subject at hand, being careful not to include what might be extraneous information. For many, the 35mm lens works best, and I also use it on occasion. It really doesn’t matter. When it comes to photographs of people, the point is to get as close to your subject as you feel comfortably doing, and in a way that doesn’t violate personal space. Then of course the key is to click the shutter at the right moment under the right circumstances!

When I am out I really don’t make a lot photographs. That’s because I try to make pictures only of what moves or entertains me in some way. And when I look at my proof sheets the choices for printing get narrowed down after careful inspection. Even after a print is made and living with it for a while I may decide it needs more work … or it may not survive at all. That’s how I do it. Finding something meaningful, getting close with an appropriate focal length lens, only making prints of real keepers, and finally making sure the final image says what I wanted to say.

Doing all of these things enables me to get “closer in many ways, not just where I stand, but how I can convey my feelings about a subject in my photograph of that subject.”

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