This article is a (tongue-in-cheek) description of the progression of your everyday street photographer — the 8 stages every street photographer will inevitably find themselves journeying through. Enjoy!
#1. The Brick Phase
After watching the Vivian Maier documentary one day, you buy your first street photography camera. Your camera sits like a brick for a few months, except for when you take it out to photograph your dog or patio furniture in the snow. You put on a hat one day and take 12 self-portraits in the bathroom mirror. Ten years later, you still use this self-portrait.
The truth is, at the beginning you want to get out there but you’re nervous. It’s hard to capture people at first and even harder sometimes to get out the door. You wonder if they’ll catch you or what they’ll think of you. It’s just all overwhelming, let alone thinking about what settings you need to use.
Vivian Maier made it look easy, but it’s not.
#2. The Sniper Phase
You get a long zoom, head to the mall, and hide in the corner, snapping shots of people from far away. In reality, you with your giant white lens are the most obvious person there. The mall cops quickly kick you out.
In the parking lot, you take a spectacularly artful photograph of a shopping cart with a missing wheel in the early evening light. You will never again take a better photograph. 20 years after you die, Shopping Cart, 2021 will be the centerpiece of your MOMA retrospective and inspire a generation of shopping cart photos, referred to as the shopping cart aesthetic.
To this day, if you put two people in front of the famed Shopping Cart, one will have a profound spiritual experience, while the other will say, ‘Why the f*** am I looking at a Wegmans shopping cart?’
#3. The Getting Too Close Phase
Over time, you get closer and closer and closer. And closer. Getting close becomes an adrenaline rush.
You don’t consider your photographs to be good unless you can see someone’s nose hairs. In fact, so many of your photos are just crops of nose hairs that you complete your first street photography series, titled Snout.
3a. The Uncomfortable Flash Phase
You watch a YouTube Bruce Gilden video one day and decide that flash is the only way to go. A street photograph is just not any good unless you can see the well-lit veins in a person’s forehead.
After your third fistfight, you retire the flash unit.
#4. The Black and White Garry Winogrand Phase
By this point, you’ve worked out the kinks and you sort of know what you’re doing. Your photographs are technically good, you can photograph people easily from the right distance, and you’re starting to feel comfortable.
Harsh lighting, more contrast, grit, sharpening to the extreme.
Clearly, you are now the greatest street photographer who has ever walked the earth. You capture person after person walking down the street – all of them sharp and well lit, backgrounds perfect. You imagine the galleries, the adoration, the wealth, the amazing sex. It’s all there in front of you.
Hey… it worked for Bresson.
4a. The You Get Called a Pedophile in the Park One Day For Taking an Artsy Photograph of a Plant Next to a Group of Kids Phase
You never photograph plants again.
#5. The Learning About Other Photographers Phase
The world of other photographers starts to open up to you. At first, it’s invigorating and you start to adopt all types of styles into your work. The sky is the limit. You mimic Sternfeld, Daido, and Martin Parr. You decide from now on that you will only shoot in color.
You burn your black and white hard drives in a bonfire to rid yourself of that naive phase. Except you keep Snout. Snout was great.
But soon things turn, and you begin to feel like the worst photographer in the world. How can you possibly create work like these other incredible photographers? It’s humbling, as it should be.
But the reality is that you’re looking at decades of the best work from the most prolific photographers. If you’re not humbled and if this doesn’t make you depressed sometimes with your own work, then something’s wrong.
#6. The Buying Too Many Photobooks Phase
You research the best bookshelves to buy. You follow all the photobook accounts on Instagram. You begin each book by first smelling the paper. You create a Photography Salon just so you can write off your photobook purchases as a business expense.
6a. The Divorce Phase
Hey, at least you have more time for your photography and books. You enter a ten-year phase where you roam the countryside only photographing ravens.
#7. The Consistency and Focus Phase
By now, you have pounded the pavement enough and put in the time to seriously improve. You become more instinctive with the camera. Your work starts to become more consistent. You start to understand the specific content and places that you like photographing the most.
You create a portfolio with work that fits together well. Photography becomes a little less about the individual photograph, while collections and sequences of photographs become more important. You realize that you can create a story or narrative this way that can go beyond what the single image can usually achieve.
#8. The Zen and a Subtle Feeling of Inadequacy Phase
This is a step that once you reach, it never quite goes away. Once your eyes open to all the amazing work out there, it can be intimidating. There is always someone releasing a new, incredible piece of work.
However, you have your own interests and unique viewpoint, and understanding this is what sets you apart. This is where photography goes far beyond your technical ability and focuses much more on the subject matter and your perspective.
This is the way to gain long-term satisfaction from your photography, and for just being a part of all of this. There is a large community of photographers interested in this creative form of photography, but all doing it in slightly different ways.
Your perspective is unique. And that is all you need.
About the author: James Maher is a street photographer and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He is offering his guides The Essentials of Street Photography and The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide, free to PetaPixel readers. Maher also runs New York City photo tours and workshops. You can find more of his work on his website.