Thursday, February 19, 2015

Urban Photography

There's loads of internet-famous photographers running around out there who do a kind of Urban Something (in addition to selling prints and workshops, natch). Here are some of the basic forms:

  • shadow play
  • reflections
  • signs and arrows
  • the thing out of place

and here's how you churn this stuff out:

Shadow Play

You're looking for geometrical accidents of shadows and the physical stuff. A repeating grid of windows with a repeated pattern of lines of shadow over it at about the same spacing. A shape and a repetition of the shape in a shadow echoing it. Sometimes it's just a big diagonal line formed by a shadow, ideally in counterpoint to some sort of rectilinear building-ness. But at this point that's pretty much it.

Extra Credit: go b&w and high contrast, place a small silhouetted person in there, oblivious to the awesome geometrical discovery you have made.


This is much the same game as shadows, but usually sloppier. Basically reflect anything in anything shiny. It'll be cool.

Extra Credit: place yourself in the reflection, ideally somewhat subtly, or distorted, or both.

Signs and Arrows

Find a sign with a supermodel or other hot young person facing left, and wait until someone who looks homeless enters the frame looking to the right. Or vice versa. Signs with strong horizontal arrows (but not an ordinary One Way sign -- puh-LEESE) should be juxtaposed with someone walking across the frame. With the arrow or against it, it doesn't matter.

Extra Credit: silhouette the walking figure.

The Thing Out Of Place

Find some strong geometrical pattern. Either place something that contrasts with that pattern into the frame, or look around for a pre-existing one. Frame so that the pattern dominates, but the single out of place element pops out visually.

Extra Credit: make the out of place element a dramatic pop of color.

Extra Extra Credit: Combine two or more. Make the Thing Out Of Place be the person walking against the direction of the arrow. W00t!

All of these were pretty good ideas once upon a time, but being distilled to their graphical essence, and being repeated endlessly, they've lost all their substance. They're just +1-bait now.

The distillation has harmed these things in two essentially different ways. In the first, less crummy, ruination, the photographer is repeating someone else's idea. In the second, more common, ruination, the original idea is no longer even present. The photographer doesn't even know that the trope has been used to embody ideas, and is blindly repeating some aspects of the trope.

Reflections used to be used, and could again be used, to juxtapose one thing with another, the reflected object with the object seen through the window. Now it's just a trope, and usually there is no juxtaposition, no idea, no nothing, because the person shooting it is not thinking past "cool, reflection." Contrasting small intense elements with larger compositional structure can be used in a bunch of ways to illustrate ideas of, for instance, isolation, or social class, or man vs. nature, or A vs B, or whatever; or it can be used to manage the perception of the picture so your viewers tend to look at the right thing. Now it's just cool "Hey, shopping carts. And a leaf." And so on.

And so on.

The tropes are fine, but simply churning out instances of the trope isn't art. It's copying someone else's concept, or worse, failing to do so. It is as if you've noticed that Vermeer used oil paint, and missing the fact that he painted a girl. Smearing paint on a canvas as random doesn't make you Vermeer. Copying his ideas doesn't either, but at least it makes you van Meergeren.

Better still, though, make your own goddamned paintings.