Out On the Street – Rules of Street Photography, by Robert Dunn

Image by Robert Dunn

In my last piece for Photobookstore Magazine I wrote about Jeff Mermelstein’s “Hardened,” his grand exploration of all things shot out on the street. I mentioned some coincidences between Mermelstein’s street work and my own, and also wrote about what separates photographers simply snapping pictures on the street from those who create masterful books of street photography. After spending so much time with Mermelstein’s book, I want to set down some of the rules of street photography I’ve gleaned from his work, as well as from others. I’ll start with a general rule, then talk about what we can learn from Mermelstein, and finally add a number of ideas of my own.

1) The first rule, indeed, commandment of taking shots on the street is to ignore any of the dumb rules you’ve read about what you should do on the street. Here are a few: Only shoot with film, never digital. Don’t crop. Don’t shoot into the light. Don’t shoot color, it’s not serious. Always shoot people, and always their faces. You’ve probably heard more. Twaddle. There really are no rules for street photography, there are only good photographs and boring photographs. Indeed, it’s always a good idea to not photograph what everybody else seems to be shooting, and it’s also probably reasonable to ignore everything I’m saying here, too. That is, as Bruce Springsteen puts in the song that gives this piece it’s title, “When I’m out in the street / I walk the way I want to walk / When I’m out in the street / I talk the way I want to talk.” Go out with confidence, purpose, swagger. And always shoot what you’re interested in, not what somebody else says is interesting; do your best to make it truly interesting; and don’t have too much in your head while you do it. Instinct is all!

On to what I’ve picked up from Mermelstein’s “Hardened,” leavened by some thoughts of my own.

1) Details! Study and learn how just a whiff of the right detail can most intriguingly evoke the whole shot. I just now opened “Hardened” to a picture of a hand holding both a white-filtered cigarette and a long cucumber, with a women’s shoe in the bottom left corner. There’s oddness, tension, and not a waste of a millimeter of space in this photo. Here’s a spread a few photos on: a woman’s hand with a diamond ring and green nail polish holding some bright orange feathery thing. That’s the whole photo, except for the perfectly color-harmonized pale-blue sky. And next to it? Another of Mermelstein’s close-ups of near-phantasms, this time a black-and-white chancred foot, with gross nails and a blistery red sore. Yuck! But also far more effective as a photograph than a full shot of a small-in-the-frame destitute man.

2) And next … more details. I titled the Mermelstein piece “In Your Face,” because that’s often what he shows us. Not a bunch of people full-length with a lot of negative space around then, but souls in pore-popping detail, hands, feet, pore-cavernous skin, even just hairs on a scalp. And not just people. Here’s a shot of a skin-puckered red bell pepper lying by a curb in a Little Italy street, the pepper taking up almost half of the page (with a smoked-down cigarette butt next to it). Why a red pepper in a gutter? Because it’s a striking image, an intriguing play of color and shape, and as is usual with Mermelstein, invocative of its origin story, as in, What’s that damn pepper doing in the gutter, how’d it get there? Details like this both command our attention and invoke little mysteries.

3) And one more time, Get up-close … even right in people’s faces. There’s a video out there of Mermelstein shooting on the street where he does just that, time after time, just walks up to somebody and throws his camera in their faces. Sometimes he gets yelled at. Sometimes flipped off. But that’s how he gets those vivid, personal, revealing shots.

4) Be fast. Strong street photos might only make themselves manifest for seconds, even milliseconds. You have to see the shot, then manipulate your camera/phone to capture it. (And you’re of course picking up on all the hunting words associated with street photography, obviously no coincidence.) Some of the photos in “Hardened,” like the title shot, are of actual signs … ah, signs on the street. They don’t go anywhere, don’t move, you can focus and simply take the photo. People doing interesting or exceptional things? Not so simple, not so slow. That red-headed girl, eyes squinched, mouth howling, as she gets her hair grabbed just right? Flash, you got it; blink, it’s gone. That great third-eye shot a few pages later, two men talking, the left eye of the man facing us captured in the eyeglasses of the man facing him … that eye floating there, yes, a third eye … I’ve gone for shots like that myself. A whisper of a breath later and the floating eye is bisected by the rim of the glasses, or simply not there. Fast … yep, up-close and fast, and—

5) Then know when to pull back. Mermelstein is out there shooting without any agenda other than to take pictures, so when he sees something compelling, he goes for it. Most often they’re the close-ups of people or vegetables or even cutlery and broken glass (as in one shot), and the closeness helps make them interesting. But in other photos it’s simply what’s going on that makes it worth our attention. A woman in a wide bell-shaped hat before a Chinatown nut and candy store, a bright yellow happy-face balloon in a corner. A woebegone girl between two puffy-sleeved arms. Another girl almost flying out of a taxi window, held back by her mother. Mermelstein knows also how to layer photos. Another striking one has a plastic cup and arm sleeve on the right, and behind it in full view a black man lying back while talking on a phone, what looks like a prone scooter between his legs. These are all shots in the moment, photos grabbed on the street, something strange or interesting catching his eye and … he goes for it.

6) Which leads to another important rule, you don’t need (or even want) people to pose for you, or really even know you’re taking their picture. You want to capture a consciousness that is about their business, not yours. I’ve rarely seen a posed picture that tells me more than, Here I am, posing for a picture. Or, Here I am, showing the world what I want to show them. Sure, we love posed pictures of beautiful celebrities, but the souls shot on the street are just whoever’s walking by.

7) Which means you don’t have to look through your camera’s viewfinder, or what passes for it in an iPhone. Just snap away with your camera or phone from any position. See what happens. Surprise yourself.

8) Which is to say, Why not shoot digitally? It doesn’t cost anything, you can experiment, make terrible shot after terrible shot and delete them, and also get all kinds of effects less easy to come by if you’re beholden to actual film. (Just for the record, you can always use a digital camera as if, mentally, it’s an old-school camera, as in pretending that you’re shooting expensive film, and upon each shot your dinner and rent depend.) Mermelstein went from a Leica to an iPhone. These days, Daido Moriyama shoots with a small digital camera. I only use my Fuji X100F, and with more pride than not know very little about how it works, just that I can wrench out of it the photos I want.

9) What I do know, though, is that when I’m out with my camera, I’m always looking for pictures. Mermelstein has to be the same. It’s a kind of vision thing, where you do your best to take in everything around you, always gazing about for what will make a good shot. Seeing the whole street is essential, and speed is all important, too. And overall, I find it a joy to enter into a sort of Zen-like street-photography mindset, where I’m floating along the streets at heightened awareness, always looking, always ready to react with a snap of my shutter, both fully in the moment and yet artistically just a bit removed from it, too. All this is also good for you. Being fully involved in a scene or situation is a goal of all kinds of religious and New Age disciplines. Don’t go away to a How to Embrace the World in All Its Wholeness retreat, instead put your money into a camera, and go out and grab every smidgen of detail and motion and character of the world before you. Here’s Mermelstein on the rewards of street photography: “In my opinion what is most important is to stay true to your personal vision and create a body of work that expresses that. I never believed in making pictures with the goal of showing those to obtain commercial work. Do what you do best and love the most and you will be doing all that you can to be happy.”

10) And don’t simply enjoy taking the photos, embrace the editing down, choosing, ordering of your street shots. Mermelstein also says, “Of course going out and making the pictures is exciting. But what is even more exciting is the feeling that I get in viewing pictures I made for the first time. Sometimes it is more than a month or two before I first view pictures I have taken. There is a perpetual thrill of catching up.”

11) All of which adds up to: love taking pictures; anticipate and delight in seeing what you come up with; and also love editing them into books. A complete life. What’s not to like?

And all good lessons for street photographers. Now I’ll add additional rules/thoughts wholly my own.

1) Move to New York City. O.K., that might be asking a lot, but there are reasons so many great street photographers live here, the always-ness of life on the streets, the endless parade of characters, the complex press of bodies moving in interesting ways, the abundance of different windows and materials to shoot through for different effects, the different ethnic neighborhoods (lots of quick trips around the world) … I can go on and on. But of course one can find good photographs everywhere. I’ve done books set in Japan, Bangkok, Tuscany—pretty much wherever I go. So I shouldn’t be so New York–centric. The basic rule is, Just get out there and shoot, and always—

2) Be hungry for photographs. I take my camera with me everywhere, and if I haven’t been out seriously shooting for a couple days, I’m chomping at the proverbial bit to start getting new shots. I also walk a lot, an added benefit; 10K- to 12K-step days is a norm when I’m out working. (Step count … that I use my iPhone for.) I also will often tie in a lunch or dinner, and a stop into a bookstore or two. At bottom, this rule is: Go out and take a long walk … and bring along your camera, and your photo-head (see No. 7 below).

3) Here’s another thought: expand the scope of photography you know. If you don’t know Japanese Provoke-era inspired masters such as Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, check them out immediately. Ideally, get the current reprint edition of Provoke magazine, as it was published 50 years ago. Then check out Moriyama’s and Nakahira’s and Shomei Tomatsu’s books. The essential lessons from these masters: focus is often irrelevant (it might even get in the way of mystery and magic); your own vision is key; and that you can do anything in a photobook … even, as with Daido’s “Farewell Photography,” renounce photography altogether. (The book has just been reprinted, and won’t be available for long.)

4) But don’t stop there. Look at everything. Collect photobooks, and study them, the ones you like right off and others that you might not immediately get. Also dive into art as deeply as possible. Spend time in museums. And always ask yourself what you’re responding to, or not, in a celebrated painting or photo. The ultimate idea is to find how to see arrangements of actual reality in the street that have the force of art. In the “Hardened” review I mentioned flippantly Winogrand’s famous park bench photo; in truth, I’ve spent a lot of time gazing at it. Everyone in it is in the perfect position relative to the others, and making the perfect expression. Look at it hard. Take out one person and watch the shot fall apart. Imagine the girl with her hand on the back of her hair and the one next to her lowering her eyeglasses a moment later, no motion, glasses back where they belong—less interesting, yes? The deal is, to know photos when they present themselves you have to have looked at a vast amount of photos to get a feel for what works; then, of course, move fast to snap them. Just the other day I was walking through the East Village past a loading dock and from the corner of my eye saw seven or eight men there arrayed in a way that intuitively grabbed me. Before I gave my impulse a thought, I quickly spun and took two shots of them. The photos are still in my camera, and might not work out, but what if they do? (By the way, I’m hardly the only one fascinated by Winogrand’s photo. Here’s a link to a New Yorker magazine article about “The Girls on the Bench”; in it, the author tracks down two of the then-young women in the photo.)

5) As I mentioned in Mermelstein Rule 8 above, go digital and shoot fast and intuitively. Film? I know, it looks great … but these days it seems an unnecessary hassle, or worse. Fast? Would I have shot the guys on the loading dock if I had to worry the cost and hassle of film? Probably not. But with digital, if it comes to nothing, so what. And then there’s this: In the photobook course I teach at The New School University, one of the students brought in her photos from a roll of film that was ruined by the place she had the film developed; something about processing the color film as black and white, or vice versa. Why worry about that? See what you did right away if you wish to. I delete photos as I go, enjoying making the decision as to whether the shot is hopelessly terrible or maybe, just maybe within tolerance of worth keeping and looking at more closely later when I dump everything into Lightroom.

6) And … embrace mistakes! The woman in my class bemoaning her ruined film, well, the student next to her took a look at what she had and said, “This will make a great book, these messed-up photos.” She was right. The student turned in two photobooks: a conventional one with nice photos capturing “solitude in the busy city,” and the wholly unexpected one of blurs and seeping color and an intriguing abstraction … which was far more moving. (Again, check out Daido’s “Farewell Photography” to see what I’m getting at.)

7) As I wrote above, broaden your horizons with Japanese photographers, but still study all the masters, Winogrand, Frank, Mermelstein, Levitt, et al. When I was first getting going with my shots on the street, I used a book I have of Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson photos called “Photographing America” as a talisman. I’d pick the book up every day on my way out the door with my camera, both to look at great enduring photos and to jog my own mind into street-photography-think, that Zen-like floating state of seeing photos in the world instead of just seeing (or not seeing, you folk all the time buried in your phones as you walk along) the world itself.

8) And study the history of street photography. There are lots of good books out there on the subject, but I learned the most from “Bystander” by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz. Pick it up.

9) Don’t stop with just great photographers or their photobooks. I find I’ve learned as much, and fed my photographic ideas as richly, with great literature and even music. Read poetry, highly imagistic or metaphoric poetry (Keats, Shelley, Blake, Eliot, Plath for instance.) Listen to all kinds of music, but especially classical and jazz, the first for the sweep of musical tensions, the long emotional ride; the second for the rich complexities of harmonies and rhythms … I mean, just try to fill up a photograph the way John Coltrane fills up (and batters and splatters) bars of music. Then there’s Bob Dylan, who has written whole songs that can be read as photobooks—see “Desolation Row,” with its postcards of hangings, its brown passports, its beauty parlors filled with sailors, its circus in town. Four vivid, strange images, and that’s only the first two lines of the 11-minute song.

10) Back to Cartier-Bresson, you know, the Decisive Moment guy. Personally, I long ago stopped worrying much about decisive moments. Sure, if you can capture a once-in-a-lifetime image (that French guy leaping off a floating ladder, his foot floating inches above the puddle), go for it. But one of the beauties of photobooks is that they don’t depend on one photo, but a string of them, the right ones in the right order. So shoot everything, and after the fact decide which ones belong in which book. And if your photo is of a decisive moment, great; but also keep in mind that Cartier-Bresson never liked that title, which Simon & Schuster slapped on the first American publication. Cartier-Bresson’s title for the book? Images à la Sauvette, which roughly translates as images made hurriedly or furtively, a perfect instruction for the budding street photographer, as in: Get out there on the street, and grab photos as you walk/run about. Photograph them in the spirit of, There are targets out there, and you’re shooting at them as they flit past. Then back home you can hope that they’re “decisive.”

11) Which leads again to Mermelstein’s point above in Rule No. 10. A lot of the fun of street photography is finding out later what you’ve actually gotten. As Mermelstein says, he gets as much or more thrill out of seeing his photos as taking them. It’s the excitement of first seeing the photos that are actually strong and starting to think of what you can do with them. As I said, I use a digital Fuji, and I will glance at shots right after I snapped them, and delete manifest duds, but mostly I wait till I accumulate enough new shots—usually hundreds and hundreds—then pour them all into Lightroom, where I can slowly start getting to know them, work to make them look a little better. It’s always a delightful surprise to find a good photo amongst the ones I’ve overlooked the first few times through a new batch. Be quick on the street, but don’t be hasty when editing your work. Take your time, then—

12) Make a book. The way I do it is, I get an idea, a title or theme, and I go looking through Lightroom to see which of my photos will fit it, in which order, etc. This editing is as much or more fun than taking the shots. Of course, I’m by background a novelist, used to spending all my working hours staring at a blank Word page and trying to fill it up from my imagination. Editing actual photos is blithe fun after that. Still, it is real work, making books, and the perfect culmination to all the wandering, snapping, and hoping that street photography demands.

13) Which leads to a final point: Have fun taking street photos. I mean, what’s not to like, you’re out on a nice day (or an intriguingly Saul Leiter–ish snowy one), sun’s shining (that October light!) or not, and you’re filling yourself up with everything your eyes can take in and trying to do literal magic by stopping time. Think about it, you’re out there actually stopping time.

14) O.K., one more thought. Like any good magician, don’t think about your magic too much. Have I said this already? Bears repeating. The hardest work isn’t taking the photos (or worrying about processing them), it’s working to get your head into the place where you take in as much of the world around you as you can, then see photos within it. Fun, yes, but, again, work. This kind of full, abundant, ever-focused vision isn’t our natural state. It isn’t there on our phones. It’s in learning ways of seeing. Study up, look at all the photobooks you can, dig into how masterful photographers see, decide what works for you, fool around, experiment, see where your own lens takes you … and overall, remember: You do not want to take photos already taken. You do not want to take the photos everyone else will be taking. At bottom, you simply want to take the shots only you can.

That is, practice Mermelstein-vision, as I put it in my last piece. He has his way of seeing the world, Cartier-Bresson does, Robert Frank does, Helen Levitt does, Daido Moriyama does. That’s any street photographer’s ultimate task: to find their way of seeing the world, and then use some form of camera to capture that.

Easy? Nope. Simple? Certainly not at first.

But the more pictures you take, the more photobooks you own and read, and, well, again, the more photos you take, the easier and simpler the process becomes. You get into a flow. You stop obsessing about the photos you take, only the ones you miss. Yet with all of that, the joy increases, too. There’s nothing like getting closer to what really matters, your own vision, your own body of work.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.

All images copyright Robert Dunn.