William Eggleston was born in Memphis, USA in 1939. His family was wealthy and he grew up in a former cotton plantation. He was sent to boarding school and went to university to study art but didn’t seem to really know what to do with his life. A friend encouraged him to buy a camera (a Leica) and he started experimenting.
He says he was influenced by Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. He also developed a taste for German expressionism. His first photos were in black and white, but did not really get into street photography like his heroes. Eggleston declared at the time: “I couldn’t imagine doing anything more than making a perfect fake Cartier-Bresson”.
When he was young, he complained there was nothing to photograph in his town, everything was too ugly. His wife responded he should photograph the ugly. This became the trademark of his career. He photographed everyday, man-made objects, the ordinary, the decrepit and started shooting in colour.
<p class="has-text-align-left" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="100">His breakthrough came in 1969 when he met John Szarkowski, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. William show John some colour prints he had made and John persuaded the MoMA to buy one of his prints.<br>His breakthrough came in 1969 when he met John Szarkowski, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. William show John some colour prints he had made and John persuaded the MoMA to buy one of his prints.
William Eggleston had his first show at MoMA in 1976. Some people say it was the first colour photography exhibition there, but this is not true : Eliot Porter and Ernst Haas had already exhibited colour photos there previously. Eggleston’s exhibition however had a great impact on the photography world and its influence probably changed the course of photography.
We have to understand that “serious” photography was in black and white at the time. Colour was for snapshots and family photos. Ansell Adams visited the exhibition and dismissed it complaining there was no substance, everything was in the colour. . The New York Times called it “the most hated show of the year.” and I heard that Cartier-Bresson dismissed Eggleston’s work too.
One of the important things to understand about Eggleston’s work in the 1970’s is the quality of his prints. He discovered a process called dye-transfer that was used in the advertising and commercial industry. It was expensive (I read that it cost $150 for a print). but the vibrancy of the colours was far beyond what had been done before for “art“. This created a real shock in a way we cannot grasp today. He says today that he has not seen a good print of his work compared to the originals of the 1960’s.
So William Eggleston takes vibrant colour prints of mundane and ordinary. He does not overthink anything and says the there are things in them people can discover but doesn’t want to over analyse anything.
What should we take away from his work :
Composition, sharpness and exposure remove us from what photography really is.
We should use our eyes, take pictures with our eyes before lifting the camera and taking a shot. The best tool is not the camera.
We should learn how to use colour and get a sense of how colours work together.
Our creativity is the path, not the place, not the tools.
Don’t put too much pressure on meaning, each person will find some meaning (or not) when they see our photos.
When I first started out in photography, I had my fathers Praktika and a 50mm lens. I shot black and white film mostly but as I was a student, I didn’t do much film photography and after a while stopped photography altogether. When I bought my first digital camera (a Canon EOS 400D), I shot family and holiday snapshots in colour. I started doing more and more photography in different genres : landscapes, long exposures, macro, portraits, high-speed, street… I think I have tried almost everything! Street photography has been growing on me since 2012, slowly but surely. I haven’t really consciously thought about it really but all my street photography has always been in black and white.
My inspiration has come from the French photographers Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Sabine Weiss… all who photographed in black and white and often for a good reason!
As I spend time on the internet, I realise that a lot of street photographers use colour for their work but at the same time, that the colour of my own photographs isn’t as compelling or as powerful.
I have put a lot of time and effort into pre-visualising my photos, trying to see the light and the contrasts at the same time as imagining the photo I am about to take, looking at the people around me and trying to predict where they will be and what they will do… Phew! Exhausting!
I need to add to all that to be aware of the colours : contrasts between colours, complimentary colours… Even so, when I get in front of my computer and I look at my images, the colours are flat and rather lifeless. Raw files tend to be that way, but I have enough practice now to get a decent black and white image. I know where to go in the software, what to do. I have used Lightroom and now use ON1 photo raw quite a lot and in all honesty, the adjustments are the same, the methods are the same.
To come back to colour, a good starting point seems to be colour grading. There are a lot of useful videos on YouTube that explain what it is and how to do it. Any decent software with a curves adjustment is enough. By shifting separately the red, green and blue curves, it is possible to make subtle changes to the hues in the shadows and highlights that completely change the way the photo looks. I’m not saying that it is enough but it is a start. I have tried and consequently excluded using presets or LUTs to change the colours because I don’t feel I have much control on what I am doing and I don’t think I will learn much.
In the photos in this post, I have followed this method. I have also masked out sometimes parts of the photos to keep the original colours and this can make some areas pop!
So which do you prefer : the colour version or the b&w version?
It is a path to explore … the only way is forwards!
In these winter months the sun is often hidden behind a thick layer of clouds and the light is ofter soft and cold. This can be great light for portraits, but it is a very difficult light in street photography. Flat light doesn’t create shadows or highlights, the foreground is lit as evenly as the background. The sky is boring, things just don’t stand out very well.
But when the sun comes out, street photography can be fun! Even in the middle of the day, the sun is quite low on the horizon and the shadows are long. This gives great opportunities to catch a great scene or two.
In this series, I found a good spot on the tram lines at around 10am in our town centre. I took a 35mm lens in aperture mode (set at f/4) and set the exposure compensation to -0.7ev. Then I waited for people to pass.
I then found another spot a bit further on.
The post processing is done in On1 photo raw 2019 which I have been using a lot lately. It is much much better than the 2018 version which is sooo slow. The black and white conversion is fast and easy, I set different values to the colour responses. I also added a bit of glow.
I visited an exhibition featuring the work of Willy Ronis yesterday. It is not the exhibition that is featured on the above but I didn’t’t anticipate needing photos for a blog post (I’ll do better next time!) Willy Ronis is a French photographer (1910-2009) whose main body of work was street and documentary photography in and around Paris but also in the south of France. He also did some nude photography. He joint the Rapho photography agency just before the second world war with Brassaï, Robert Doisneau and Ergy Landau. As a left wing sympathiser, he photographed the strikes in the Citroën factory and focused on everyday life for the working classes.
There are no reproductions of photos by Willy Ronis in this article because they are not free of rights. I took a couple of photos to give you an idea of what I saw.
Walking around the exhibition, there were several comments on the photos made by the artist concerning the manner the photo was taken or how it should be printed. These comments can give us some insight and inspiration for our own work. There were three commentaries I took notice of particularly. They were written in French so I’ll give you a quick translation.
“Rue laurence-savart Menilmontant, Paris. 1948”
“A glazier was walking slowly up Rue Laurence Savart , backlit in this winter afternoons sun. His voice had made me leave Rue du retrait where I was looking for a subject and I ran towards him. When a photographer has time in his hunt, he searches for the best place to wait for the unexpected. In the same way, it is necessary, when something appears suddenly to look around the environment quickly to integrate into the frame the elements that will best enhance the subject. Here it was the reflection of the puddle on the pavement and the stream which balances with the sky and the glass our man was carrying. The print is relatively easy. Don’t over compensate the top to keep a dazzling effect”.
Can you imagine yourself changing pace when you spot a good subject to catch the light ?
Do you take the time to look around the edges of the viewfinder to incorporate or take away some elements of the scene. In some ways a traditional rangefinder has an advantage over the electronic viewfinder or reflex viewfinder because it allows the eye to see out of the frame. If the viewfinder is on the left hand side of the camera and not in the centre, you can take photos with your two eyes open. The fuji x-pro 2 enables this as do the x100 series and also the Leica cameras. On the other hand, the electronic viewfinder gives the exposure and an idea of the contrasts in the photo in real time.
An exercice for the next time I’m out: Use my eyes before using the viewfinder to include interesting elements.
“Place Vendôme, Paris. 1947”
“Place Vendôme, Paris, on a rainy day, probably in the first months of 1947. I was hanging around. Maybe I was coming home from Rapho, the offices were very close. I must have seen a lady striding over the puddle and noticed the reflection of the Colonne Vendôme. By luck it was lunch hour and a group of young girls were leaving their work in the sewing houses nearby. I took several photos of strides and this one is the best. It is a good example of a previsualised photo. For the print, it is useful to keep the upper parts of the street quite light and to darken the blacks of the clothes.”
There is a myth in street photography about the “decisive moment”, a term coined by the American editors of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The original term though is “Images à la sauvette” : “Images on the fly”. Many people would think that the only way to make street photography is to be in the right place at the right time and press on the shutter in an instant. Obviously, many photographers have practiced this technique with great success. Willy Ronis shows us that a “decisive moment” may not be unique. He saw the possibility of a photo when he saw the lady step over the puddle but did not walk away. Instead, he waited and found a way to turn the opportunity into a photo. Maybe he tried this method many times and he probably went home empty handed most of the time. His legacy shows what he achieved, not the failures.
An exercice for the next time I’m out: Look out for the interactions between people and the environment. If something can happen once, it can happen again. Then I can take some time to find the best light and composition before waiting for something to happen.
“Le Béguinage à Bruges, 1951”
“It was a grey morning and we were going to the Béguinage of Bruges (it is house for members of a lay sisterhood). All of a sudden I heard a light and continuous crunching sound. I turned around and it was the sound of a company of Béguines going home after church. I ran. They weren’t far from their house and I wanted to keep some space in front of the group. I even had time to include a tree in the foreground on the left to balance the values and suggest different planes of depth. Needless to say this type of decision is made without thinking.”
Some photos taken with a 35mm or longer lens have a tendency to be flat. The subject appears but there is often little to give a sense of depth unless you are in an open space or looking down a street. The inclusion of an element in the foreground can help achieve this even if it is out of focus.
Many of the photos I saw were not street photography per say. He took many photos on assignment for news magazines (Life, Regards…). He was also employed for commercial shoots. He also photographed his family in a documentary fashion. I have tried to highlight in this article some insights concerning the days Willy Ronis roamed the streets with his camera as many aspiring street photographers do. It seems important then to underline how many photos he must have taken on a daily basis.
Take-away point: Practice and train your eye. Take photos as often as possible. The cost is next to nothing with digital cameras nowadays but don’t shoot blind. Be aware of composition (The framing and the elements you choose to include or exclude), light and contrasts.
Willy Ronis started with a Rolleiflex (medium format) camera but changed for a rangefinder Foca. The reason he invokes in an interview I saw was that he didn’t want to change film every 12 frames. By the way, what we call “full frame”, the 24×36 sensor, Willy Ronis calls “small format”. (That is for the full frame snobs!). In 1980, he chose a Pentax reflex camera with a zoom. In his life he only used 3 cameras. How many photographers nowadays change camera regularly expecting their photography to improve.
Take-away point : Know your camera! Use the same camera and same lens as often as possible. In that way, the framing of a scene will become more automatic and you can change the necessary settings in the flash. The time you save knowing your camera will be time saved to use your eyes before pressing the shutter button.