Nick Turpin: Street photography spontaneity & etiquette
Street photography has been in existence since the 19th century, but really came into its own once the camera became portable, and thus able to be disguised. Hiding the camera away allowed photographers to capture fleeting moments as opposed to posed ones, and this photographic approach remains one of the most captivating and beguiling of the genre. Considered “one of the best” street photographers by BBC News, our newest insider Nick Turpin shares his thoughts on the magic of the candid street snap.
Let’s start with the basics, Nick: what exactly is street photography?
I think in its most basic definition, it’s candid public photography. It’s about making photographs as an observer rather than as a director of the action. Your aim is to identify something special happening in front of you and then to record it before it’s gone, which can often happen in a fraction of a second.
What you’re trying not to do is ‘bruise the scene’, which is an expression I like and was coined by the street photographer Joel Meyerowitz. You have to stand back and make your pictures with a quiet and discreet camera for as long as you can without being detected. It’s very much about capturing everyday life: street photographs can be funny or witty, they can be sad or tragic or romantic or beautiful. They can do a lot of different things – and often several of those things simultaneously.
Perhaps because the photographs typified by this style are so relatable, street photography seems quite accessible. Is that the case?
I think so – what’s always appealed to me about street photography is the fact that anybody can do it, especially because these days you can set yourself up with a great camera quite cheaply.
That said, the simplicity itself is what makes it so difficult: the only tools you have are the rectangle that you’re throwing around the scene and the shutter button that you have to select your moment. You don’t have stylists, you don’t have models, you don’t have lighting and you’re not using a telephoto or a wideangle lens. It’s just you, your camera and the street.
I’m very interested in the idea of not bruising the scene – what happens if somebody makes eye contact with the lens? Is the moment gone?
Generally I think that when somebody makes eye contact with the lens, the opportunity is over and you’ve already missed it. When I edit my photographs I often see this in a sequence of photographs which capture a scene before and after the person saw me, and they have quite a different feeling. The ones before feel like the documents of life, but the ones after become something else – about the relationship between subject and photographer.
Do people notice you in general?
I don’t think they do a lot of the time. It depends on where you’re working and how closely you’re working with people. A project like “On the Night Bus” afforded me a great deal of anonymity: the project was shot on a longish lens and I was shooting into lit buses at night. Even on the street in the day, though, I can remain relatively inconspicuous.
Do you get negative reactions from what you do, and if so, how do you handle that?
It’s extremely unusual. I think it’s happened once so far this year. There’s a moral question of course, but, legally, in the UK anything that happens in a public place is a matter of public record and that’s very important in a democracy.
Does that right extend to publication?
Yes, there are two absolutely fundamental points here. The first is that you mustn’t misrepresent the people in the photograph for editorial use and the second is that you can’t imply an endorsement of a product, so you can’t sell a street photograph for advertising, for example. You have a duty of care to the people in the photographs, even if you’ve never met them or spoken to them.
As records of daily life, street photography is so important though – is that why the Museum of London hold some of your working in their permanent collections?
Yes – that’s exactly what they’re interested in and their collections reflect society now. In 100 years’ time, those pictures of us all walking across London Bridge with an iPhone stuck to our ear or FaceTiming somebody in another part of the world will be antiquated, in much the same way that photographs of the suffragettes at a rally in Trafalgar Square seem so remote from us today.
The street is a stage and every day there’s a new play going on with new actors: that’s what makes it endlessly fascinating.
What’s your take on the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”?
Well, it’s an incredibly subtle form of communication, the still photograph, and my addition to that would be at least a thousand words because there are all sorts of subtle, societal messages and semiotics going on in photographs. That’s what fascinates me about street photography: you’re looking at 250 milliseconds of history.
Nick leads the “Street Photography: London through the historical lens” experience with SideStory. Find out more information here.