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Welcome to the world: street photography as a cultural record

PJ Heller speaks with three of New Zealand’s top street photographers about the genre’s value as a mirror for society, a cultural record, and a gift to future generations

21 December 2015


PJ Heller speaks with three of New Zealand’s top street photographers about the genre’s value as a mirror for society, a cultural record, and a gift to future generations

At first glance, the images look like random snapshots: humdrum workaday street scenes, and people standing around, some looking directly into the lens but seemingly unaware they are being photographed, going about their everyday lives. 

But a closer look at the framing, the lighting, and the timing — what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” — reveals these images to be much more than casual or haphazard snaps. 

David Cook

Images such as these, created by so-called street photographers, are a visual record of our time. They capture moments that people today are too busy to recognize, and that future generations can look back on to gain some insight into what life was like during a particular period. 

“With so much arty studio-based photography being done, the outside world is in serious neglect as far as photographic documentation is concerned,” says John B Turner, photographer and retired lecturer in photography at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland. 

David Cook

“I feel sorry for future historians trying to find photographs that show aspects of the real life of people at home, at work and on the street.” Turner’s varied career includes work as a news, commercial, and museum photographer, writer, editor, curator and historian. 
Capturing street images for social documentation is vitally important, agrees fellow photographer David Cook, a photo lecturer in the College of Creative Arts at Massey University in Wellington. 

“Time and time again I’ve talked to people who research and are trying to find photos for an exhibition or a book,” Cook says. “They can find photos of a city or place which show the streets and the buildings, but to find really good-quality photos of how people inhabit those spaces, the people in those spaces, that’s often very challenging because it’s so much a part of the fabric of everyday life that we let it slip by, often without making images of how people inhabit spaces. I think it’s really important to do that.”

It’s just what Cook has done, focusing his work not only on the street, but on contested space, community, and ecology. He doesn’t lock himself into using a particular camera and lens, going so far as to use a Mamiya medium-format camera for some of his street work. He also won’t pigeonhole himself into being just a street shooter. 

“I don‘t think I ever called myself a street photographer,” he says. “The theatre of the street is part of the substance of work that I do from time to time.”

David Cook

“The kinds of images I’m interested in are not timeless images,” adds Cook, who took up photography in his 20s while at School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury. “They’re really anchored in time, where you can read a lot about the culture and the here and now. You see that through how people look, how they dress, how they cut their hair, how they gather in various places, what they do and who they hang out with.”

Julian Ward

Unlike Cook, long-time Wellington-based street photographer Julian Ward concentrates strictly on street scenes. He describes his images as “human landscapes”. 

“I‘m not socially conscious,” he admits. “I’m not interested in the state of humanity. I’m not interested in saving the world. I’m not interested in photographing down-and-out people or people with issues and problems. I don’t do any other kind of photography, not even family photos. I don’t take assignments. I don’t do documentary [photography] at all. I don’t tell stories.

“It’s the very essence and familiarity of a city which I enjoy,” says Ward, who has been shooting since he was 14 and is never without his Leica M9 camera with its 35mm f/2.0 lens when he is outdoors. “To observe the rhythm of light, shadows, reflections, and groupings of people. To return to the best spots and wait and wait …”

Julian Ward

That waiting paid off, as showcased in Ward’s latest book, Wellington Streets. The 24-page book is his fourth of photographs. The only text in it is his message: “Just outside my window is Wellington city where I wander most days with my camera.” The book features 47 black-and-white images. 

“I have only ever shot in black and white.” 

Ward’s book supports the notion that street photography can and should be used for social documentation. It has been selected by the Museum of Wellington City & Sea to be included in a “time capsule” so future generations can see what Wellington street life was like in the early 2000s. 

Julian Ward

Cantabrians and others are already getting a chance to journey back in time through Cook’s exhibit and book, Meet Me in the Square. The exhibit of 76 black-and-white images, selected from some 6000 photos he took between 1983 and 1987, was his way of rebuilding, through his photos, the city he remembered, not the Christchurch decimated by the 2011 earthquake. 
Meet Me in the Square is being shown through May 24 at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Tuam Street. 

Ward, Cook, and Turner, who now lives in China, are among New Zealand’s preeminent street photographers. Each has his own approach, style, and unique story to tell about how they got involved in photography. They have more than a century of combined photography experience. 

John B Turner: Spider Man, Mud Run, Chapman Strand, January 20, 2008. (JBT28424)

John B Turner: Spider Man, Mud Run, Chapman Strand, January 20, 2008. (JBT28424)

Turner and Ward both describe themselves as street photographers, while Cook calls himself “a documentary photographer whose field often includes the street or public life and similar things, and the dramas unfolding in public and private places”. 

“When I was starting off as a photographer in the ’80s, learning the craft of photography, I had great appetite for being on the street, being in the world,” Cook says. “If I stepped outside without my camera I almost felt naked. I needed my camera to be able to encounter the world. I had to have it with me loaded all of the time.”

John B Turner: Kiwifruit band, Christmas Parade, Harbour View Road, December 2, 2005. (JBT6772)

Over the years his shooting style changed, from “shoot first, explain later” to projects where he may have an assistant and sets up lights and a background to photograph passers-by. One recent project, Reclamation — The Base, involves photographing shoppers at a large Hamilton shopping complex using lights, umbrella, and camera mounted on a tripod. 

“The photographs I make are rich and full of authentic everyday details as much as those more spontaneous street photographs,” he says. “The images are just so full of everyday life. It’s the kind of stuff that’s the wallpaper of everyday life, but often so present that it’s almost invisible. But if you stop and stare at everyday life it can be very intriguing.”

Capturing that everyday life is also one of Turner’s goals. 

“I am acutely aware that many aspects of our lives and times do not get recorded, or perhaps, do not get photographed as well as they deserve,” he says. “Consequently, it is the myriad small un-newsworthy everyday encounters that make up so much of our lives, and through which we reveal our humanity and character that delight me more than the big public events that make the news.”

John B Turner: Renata Crescent, April 19, 2005. (JBT004224)

Turner will photograph people regardless of whether they are aware of his Canon 600D with 15–85mm zoom lens. When people ask him why he is photographing them, he has a ready response: “I say I am recording my community, or whatever, for posterity.”

Turner’s ultimate aim is documentary or reportage, “Making pictures for posterity to show what the places I lived in looked like to me.”

His new book, Te Atatu Me: photographs of an urban New Zealand village, does just that. The photos, depicting everyday life in Te Atatu Peninsula, West Auckland, were taken between 2005 and 2011. 

“My hope is that these photographs, as visible evidence of this typical urban New Zealand village, will prove useful for future generations to better understand something of the history of this place. And, of course, I also hope that these photographs can be enjoyed as pictures in their own right,” Turner writes in the introduction to his book.

John B Turner: Christina at house auction, Renata Crescent, April 3, 2005. (JBT7)

The book, his first showcasing his own photographs, is expected to hit store shelves in April. 
All three photographers stress that success as a street photographer doesn’t come easily, despite the prevalence of smartphones with sophisticated cameras and advances in digital technology which make picture-taking convenient. 

“People think anybody can be a photographer, it’s just a matter of pushing a button,” Ward laments. “In fact, it’s probably one of the hardest mediums to achieve success in because so many people are doing it. To actually stand out above the crowd is very, very difficult.”

As more and more work floods the market, and with more and more places to show photography, notably online, it becomes harder for talented street photographers to get their work noticed. 

Cook agrees that finding an audience for a street photographer’s work can be daunting. 
“Try to find a particular voice or angle that you can bring to it,” he advises, adding that achieving that can require a lot of time and effort.

“Working out on the street is really good training for other types of photography, whether it’s commercial work, fashion photography, or whatever,” Cook says. “It tests you on thinking quickly, working smartly with a limited amount of technology, and working with people.”
Turner echoes his colleagues’ sentiments and offers advice of his own. 

“There is little market for this kind of work if it is not flashy or a little fashionably outrageous, i.e. ‘newsworthy’,” he says. “Forget the market, but see if you can find a smart and friendly local or national librarian to take an interest in your work. They are the guardians of photographs with future use value. Exhibit your work now and again, to hold the mirror up to society — and challenge the art and social status quo by reminding people of how interesting daily life can be.” 

Julian Ward

Despite the challenges — especially today as people become more suspicious of those taking their pictures on the street — Ward says he wouldn’t want to do anything else.

“Street life is fascinating, and people have always photographed it since cameras were invented,” he says. 

And eons before the camera, people would draw pictures on cave walls to communicate with others, Ward notes. 

“Maybe in prehistoric times, we [street photographers] were the ones who drew on the cave walls.”