A recent walk in Berlin with a film camera …
Photography gives me a reason to wander the world without intent, letting it take me where it will. Wandering so, I press my camera shutter when things seem ‘right’. It’s as simple as that. Long gone is any chase after the exotic. These days I prefer my street photography to be more nuanced.
I like street photography for a number of reasons:
- Firstly, it need not have an agenda. I wander the streets and react to what is unfolding. Either I capture a visual impression, or I don’t. Having an agenda would close me off to what is actually happening before me. So, to be agenda-free, and thereby to see what the world is disclosing, is one of the delights of street photography.
- Secondly, a street walk will often result in a mixed bag of pictures: street vistas, portraits, surreal takes, people happenings, abstracts, architecture and so on. That makes it interesting.
- Thirdly, street photography requires a special attitude. It is a process of letting go of habitual ways of seeing. As Kertész said ‘Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see’. So we strive to see the world afresh, as if for the first time. Here, a crucial skill is the ability to abstract an idea from the apparent chaos of the street before us. This is the specific challenge of street photography.
- Finally, good street photographs have a transcendental quality, pointing to some ulterior idea. Reading a street photograph in this way can open up the depths of thought.
Let me mention two photographers who’s work set the scene for my visit to Berlin:
Eugène Atget. This process of abstraction that I have referred to, lends itself to association by implication and inference, à la Atget, if you will. One of Atget’s characteristics was to take photographs of quiet spots, even in a busy metropolis. His Parc de Sceaux statues gaze over water or look down broad avenues. Their poses suggest a timelessness, an enduring still-point in the hurly-burly of change. It is this mood, this still-point, that captivates me.
Fred Herzog. Herzog’s colour photographs of Vancouver streets are wonderful. With Atget and Walker-Evans, I place Herzog high in the history of photographic achievement. So it’s a surprising disappointment that a well-established and well-reviewed book like ‘Bystander – a history of street photography’ 1 makes no mention of Herzog in its 400 pages. It’s plain to see that Herzog was infuenced by Evans who in turn was influenced by Atget. The lineage is quite obvious. To study the Atget/Evans/Herzog axis is to realise something quite profound, something akin to visual poetry.
Like Atget in his Paris, Herzog walked his Vancouver for many days of his life, taking photographs of backstreet shopfronts, billboards, windows, doorways, and, of course, ordinary people in their day-to-day existence. His photography is intimate, focussing on the everyday, on the backstreets he knew well, documenting ordinary street life in a lyrical style.
And here’s the point. What we get from Herzog is ‘lyrical documentary‘ photographs. There is something very appealing to me about this notion.
Other who work in the lyrical style? I would mention Walker-Evans, the founding father of this genre, John Gossage, Judith Joy Ross, Gregory Halpern, and Mark Steinmetz. In Street photography, Willy Ronis, Knut Skjærven, Nick Turpin, Niall McDiarmid, to name just a few.
During my recent return to Berlin, at Knut Skjærven’s invitation, I thought about the photography of Atget and Herzog quite a bit. How to concentrate on the process of abstraction and look for the still-point even when in the midst of a crowd? How to take lyrical photographs, even of the ugly?
In the week I was in Berlin I walked approximately 180,000 steps and exposed 20 rolls of film (36 exposures per 35mm film). Here is a sample:
Some technical aspects
Lyrical street photography is well suited to the film method. The more discerning eye that comes with slow film photography, where every exposure has to count, opens up a different way of seeing. I relegate further technical discussion to the footnotes 2.
A final thanks
Apart from the Covid years (last 3 years), I have visited Berlin every year since 2012 and have enjoyed immensely the company of Knut Skjærven.
This visit was suggested by Knut as part of a regular but infrequent Berlin meet involving Bernard, Anne-Marie, Frieder, Conny and Majeed. Thank you Knut for organising the meet and the dinners and thank you to the Group for accepting me in such a friendly manner.
- (2017) Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, Laurence King Publishing ↩
- I have moved on from using a film Leica (Leica MA) to Nikon cameras, specifically the F3 and the FM3A. Another lesson from Herzog? It’s a journey that Fred Herzog made, moving from the Leica M3 to a Nikon F. I don’t know why I take better pictures with the Nikon. It’s a very subjective thing.
On this trip I only used one lens: the Nikkor f/1.8 50mm AIs pancake. Paradoxically, I find that limiting myself to fewer options, fewer degrees of freedom, allows you to be more creative. Having only one lens makes you work harder to find the composition that seems ‘right’. Perhaps it is this need to work harder that explains why limiting myself to one lens results in more creative pictures. That is why I have always avoided zoom lenses. The 50mm pancake is one of Nikon’s best manual-focus lenses. It’s so light and unobtrusive, a joy to use.
For film I used Ilford XP2 Super 35mm which develops nicely in some black and white developers. The thing I like about this film is its lack of grain and its tolerance to a wide set of conditions. It gives a clean look. I rate it at EI 200 and for evening, indoor or night work, I pushed it to EI 1600. Not many films can do that.
I develop Ilford XP2 in Barry Thornton 2 Bath. I carried two camera bodies, F3 and FM3A, one for film at EI 200 and the other for film rated at 1600. For the 200 rated film I processed in Thornton’s Bath A for 4:30 minutes followed by Bath B for 4 minutes. For 1600 rated fim I used the technique set out by Rüdiger Hartung. The film was cycled through Bath A and Bath B repetitively depending on the n factor of the exposure. So as EI 1600 is n+3 of my normal rating (EI 200), the film went through three processing cycles (one for EI 400 box speed; another for EI 800 and finally another for EI 1600). Between each cycle, the film development was stopped (but not fixed) and washed with water each time in 4 fresh water baths.
I think that XP2 film works very well in Barry Thornton Two Bath, giving a ‘flexible’ negative. I enjoy XP2 for its clean looks, lack of grain and flexibility. Perfect for wandering about. It would be interesting to experiment processing XP2 in Rodinal and 510-Pyro – but that’s for another time. ↩