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Jackson Pollock, Number 8, 1949 (detail)

Often, I look to other genres of art to find inspiration for my Street photography. Sometimes getting out of the realm of photography grants clarity of reflection on one’s process and results. So, you might be asking yourself: what does Jackson Pollock – the abstract expressionist from the 1950s – have to do with street photography? Let’s find out. Jackson Pollock was an ‘action painter’ and part of the American school of abstract expressionism. He invented and popularized a new type of working, called ‘drip painting.’ Standing over a canvas laid on the floor, he dripped splatters and poured ribbons of paint in overlapping and interweaving rhythmic compositions. His complex compositions brought organic forms into harmonious discord, very similar to the compositional problems Street Photographers face daily. Aesthetics aside, it is his working process and approach to art that I find valuable to modern-day street photographers. So let’s investigate Pollock for possible tips and tricks that can be used while shooting on the street.

5 Tips – Jackson Pollock can teach you about Street Photography

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Jackson Pollock, Photo © Hans Namuth

1) Override your Intellect

When I am in a painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about.

Most photographers are inspired by and look at photography on a regular basis. It is important to remind yourself why you take pictures and hold yourself accountable to the history of photography, lest we slip into weak imitation of our predecessors. While shooting, there are often familiar images and symbols in our minds-eye. This of course is natural, but can also lead to stagnation and poor mimicry of our heroes. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just shut up. What I mean is this: try not to think so much and turn your mind off. If you are well studied, you can trust that the images will “bubble” up. This bubbling is the first inkling of a style.

So go out and let your mind wander and guide your eye. You never know what new thing you might discover, see, or recognize. Sometimes it takes me 30 minutes to traverse a single block, because I am photographing everything. If I free my mind of expectations, I can discover new details on the most familiar streets.

Later, when you’ve returned home, wait at least a day before looking at your photos. Often if you let the images sit, the “new-ness” of them will fade, and you will discover a web of interconnected ideas. Write down broad themes that you see (broken windows, flaking paint, gestures of hands, reflections, sunglasses, etc, etc) from your round of uncensored shooting. This lends tangibility to your ideas; makes them smolder a bit. I think you will discover a new awareness and recognize these ideas more and more out in the world.

Remember, where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Yellow Islands 1952 by Jackson Pollock 1912-1956

Jackson Pollock, Yellow Islands,1952

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Photography © Gary Winogrand – Austin Texas, 1973

2) Go to the Edge

I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc, because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

Many times when we take photos and review them after the fact, the photos themselves become very precious. This is unproductive and any beginning street photographer would do well to jettison this attachment.

I am here to tell you almost all the photos you will take will be bad and some will be really truly awful. That’s okay; everyone has to take a lot of bad photos to get a single good one.

Photography is a skill – something you do, not something that you are. The late great Chuck Jones – animator and creator of a little-known character named Bugs Bunny – said that everybody is born with 10,000 bad drawings inside of them, and these have to ‘come out’ before any good ones can emerge.

Taking photos you know how to take in your comfort zone will increase your percentage of semi-decent photos and minimize your complete failures. But you will have fewer breakthrough successes.

In the digital realm, the act of shooting a photo costs nothing, and is, for most intents and purposes, unlimited. This is not to say that one should just shoot randomly; be very conscientious about what you shoot and how you shoot it. Remember, your images are your best teachers. Look at them, then look at the images of your heroes. Ask yourself: do they work, or not?

Go out there, take risks, mess up, and “destroy the image.”

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Left – Cathedral by Jackson Pollock, 1947. Right – Gandhi’s Funeral, Delhi, India, 1948 – Photograph © Henri Cartier Bresson

3) Abandon the Classical Approach

New needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements … the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.

Prime lenses are best for street photography. Rangefinders are the best camera for documentary photography. To shoot sports you need fast autofocus and a 70 – 200 zoom. All Street Photographs must be in color. All Street Photographs should be in black-and-white. You have to be close to take a great street shot.

I have heard each of these rules at one time or another. Many were born out of aesthetic tradition or technical limitations. For every rule there is a contradiction; for every photographer that approaches street one way, there is a photographer doing the opposite successfully. One must acknowledge the traditions of street photography and the shoulders of the greats that we stand on (Bresson, Klein, Koudelka, Moriyama, Strand, Evans, etc). But this is our world, our time, and our place. From an aesthetic and educational point of view, we must look at those images with respect, but be ready to discard their approach for our own vision of the world.

That’s not to say certain certain techniques don’t work. But if you find yourself in a situation where you want to take a specific photograph, and some arbitrary rule or technique is preventing you from doing so, the only allegiance you should have is to the photograph that you want to create.

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Painting by Jackson Pollock – Stenographic Figure, 1942.

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Photo © Josef Koudelka – Moravie (Moravia), 1966.

4) Follow your Instincts

When I am painting I have a general notion as to what I am about. I can control the flow of paint: there is no accident.

You should start off your day with a general direction where you want to take pictures. Often this general area is a place that will have good light or an abundance of picture-making opportunities. Sometimes, however, you might find yourself returning to the same places over and over again.

It’s good to make decisions about what you want to photograph, in order to prepare with the right equipment and scout out appropriate locations. But there will be times you just have to let go and follow your gut. When a place isn’t working, don’t be afraid to get up and go. Leave. Go to a new place. Wander. Explore. Try something new; switch up your lenses; let your intuition guide you.

5) Find a Rhythm

A dripping wet canvas covered the entire floor… There was complete silence… Pollock looked at the painting. Then, unexpectedly, he picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas. It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished. His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance-like as he flung black, white, and rust colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there; he did not seem to hear the click of the camera shutter… My photography session lasted as long as he kept painting, perhaps half an hour. In all that time, Pollock did not stop. How could one keep up this level of activity?

I seem to remember having read a quote by Alex Webb (I searched for this specific quote and I couldn’t find it, so I might be mistaken) that said he has to shoot at least two rolls of bad photos before he gets into any kind of rhythm.

Many athletes and photographers will talk about being in the “zone.” Street photography is such a reactionary form of photography, combining timing with luck, that creating a kind of rhythm on the street is critical. Without a rhythm, one can lulled into passivity, fear or self-doubt.

One way to create a rhythm is to place yourself in environments that lend themselves to a constant stream of stimulation and image-making opportunities. I like to go where it is busy – not necessarily to the major shopping districts, which tend to attract many people (but all the wrong ones for my purposes) – but places where diverse types of people collide in daily life.

Even in those busy places, I sometimes need an exercise to get the “juice flowing.” One such exercise in particular has helped me get a rhythm started.

Try this:

Take a photograph (it doesn’t really matter what it is, provided that it is about something that attracts you or interests you). Immediately start counting 1,2,3,4… Before you get to 5 you must make another photograph, good or bad. Repeat as necessary, counting and shooting before 5. This sequential exercise forces one to override the internalized blocks, hesitations and fears that plague even experienced practitioners, and allows one to shoot more responsive and instinctively.

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Photo © Gary Winogrand – Peace Demonstration, Central Park, NYC 1970.

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Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950

The Final Word

Pollock’s way of working lends insight into a genre of art that was reactionary, intuitive, and off-the-cuff, while simultaneously deliberate and considered. His improvised dance holds many parallels to the act of street photography. Regardless of what you think of the results of his efforts, as street photographers we could do much worse than to organize complex forms as successfully as Jackson Pollock.

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Jackson Pollock Working, Shot for Life Magazine, Photograph © Arnold Newman

Further Information

Check out this awesome video of Pollock Painting in Action (b&w footage), n.d. Filmed by Hans Namuth © Hans Namuth, Ltd.