Ming Thein on street photography

bartjeej

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bart
Ming Thein recently posted an article containing his evolving views of street photography. He has some strong criticism of the "status quo" in the genre, and puts forward an alternative. I suppose none of what he describes is a completely new argument, but there aren't many articles putting forth a point of view on the subject as comprehensively as this one. He states the goal of the article as:
addressing some overdone stereotypes (...) to see if we can get a bit more understanding into a) why those stereotypes exist, and b) if we want to produce visually different and better work, what needs to change. Read on, but only if you don’t believe everything should be shot from close range and monochrome contrast is solely binary.

http://blog.mingthein.com/2015/07/14/the-evolution-of-street-photography/

I think some of his criticism has a point, for instance when he talks about how the obvious attributes of the "street photography greats" are copied and presented as the goal of street photography, rather than the idea behind their images.

On the other hand, when he talks about "sloppy shot discipline", I think it's fair to let the moment and mood prevail over the technical qualities of the image, at least so long as you can't combine the two. Ming Thein is an extremely structured photographer, who does have a good eye for mood, but IMO if his dismissal of shots with "sloppy shot discipline" were to be universally followed, a lot of very good images would be lost. Also, if one simply enjoys high contrast wide angle black and white images, why not shoot in that style, even if 98% of the other street photographers out there use the same style?

He calls the style he proposes less ‘street photography’ and more ‘reporting on life’. He then goes on to describe why he keeps his distance and uses a long(ish) lens; his reasoning makes sense for the type of image he proposes:

Images should not be invasive out of respect for the subject and the details they would prefer to keep private; similarly, as the world increases, so does the ‘personal anonymity’ of an individual: we want to be recognized, but not warts and all. (...) As a result, the focus of the image is less about the individual and more about what that individual could represent; a sort of Everyman. Facial expressions are far less critical because they’re less obvious; body language still matters, but this eases up on the criticality of timing. It is a photograph to encapsulate an era rather than a single instant.

It is both a record of impressions gained through observation of a place and people, and hopefully a more balanced view than a single (not necessarily fair or representative) instant. (...) It is a commentary on the idea of man: what is it to be human in this day and age? There are few to no identifiable individuals, not because I can’t photograph people at close range (I do, and usually now engage them socially first) [but] because the individual makes the story exceptional rather than universal. It is the idea that it could be you riding your moped to the end of the pier to fish for an afternoon, not a specific stereotype of personality. Street photography is social documentary, and a record of both the scene/subject and our interpretation of it; the real questions we should be asking are: what about life now do we want to remember? And more importantly, how do we want to be remembered?

The idea of recording the "feel" of a certain era has been on my mind for a long, long time, so this essay definitely strikes a chord with me there. Also, the point about respecting individuals and how they would want to be seen is a valid one I think. At the same time, I find individuals and their stories fascinating; however, the percentage of candid shots that really manage to tell a story about a person is rather low. Would it be worthwile to shift at least part of our street photography focus to a more universal, rather than individual subject?

I'm curious to see how you guys and girls feel about it!
 

gryphon1911

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Location
Central Ohio, USA
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Andrew
To some of the points:

Ming has a certain way that he shoots. He comes across a lot of times as things being his way is the best way and anything else is garbage. At times he has some valid points, but other times I feel he is more going for the click bait topics and trying to sell his "ultraprint" products.

Regarding the "copying of street photography greats" - we all do this to some extent as part of the learning process. It helps us understand what it takes to get those images and gives us an idea on where to change direction or improve. Some people will always have "sloppy shot discipline" - but is it really sloppy? Some people have a way of getting images that works for them. If they are getting what they want, then who are we to say that it is sloppy. Different isn't wrong.

He can call what he does anything he wants, 'street photography' or 'reporting of life' - honestly everything we take images of are 'reporting life'. Depending on the framing, it shows different cross sections of the whole. Labels are just ways for us humans to help put things into nice, neat little categories. This allows us to put things into perspective.

I'm a big proponent of "if you are out in public, there is no expectation of privacy" and you get images. If there is an expectation of privacy, then don't invade that person's space. I, personally, don't shoot with too wide a lens in street shooting because I want an honest expression from the people that I take images of. People tend to act different or become more conscious of themselves if they know they are actively being photographed.

Recording the "feel" is the same as telling a story with an image - which we should all be striving for.

For me, the article reminds me of my IT career where every so many years, these SDLC and project management processes are renamed, given new terms and repackaged as the next "new" way of doing business. For me, he is just selling a shiny new package on age old basic concepts.

Everyone has to eat, and he is no different. Just my take on it is that I'm not buying his bundle of goods.
 

bartjeej

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Real Name
bart
To some of the points:

Ming has a certain way that he shoots. He comes across a lot of times as things being his way is the best way and anything else is garbage. At times he has some valid points, but other times I feel he is more going for the click bait topics and trying to sell his "ultraprint" products.
Without wanting to go off track, first about Ming and his ultraprints: I'm not remotely interested in that technology (which he does indeed appear snobbish about sometimes), and he mentions it in every other article, but thankfully not this one; and to his credit, he has no ads to anything other than his own products and the usual B&H / amazon ads (which he uses sparingly). In short, I think he can be a bit tiring sometimes, but I don't think he is a click bait driven blogger like Steve Huff or Ken Rockwell.

Regarding the "copying of street photography greats" - we all do this to some extent as part of the learning process. It helps us understand what it takes to get those images and gives us an idea on where to change direction or improve. Some people will always have "sloppy shot discipline" - but is it really sloppy? Some people have a way of getting images that works for them. If they are getting what they want, then who are we to say that it is sloppy. Different isn't wrong.
agree

He can call what he does anything he wants, 'street photography' or 'reporting of life' - honestly everything we take images of are 'reporting life'. Depending on the framing, it shows different cross sections of the whole. Labels are just ways for us humans to help put things into nice, neat little categories. This allows us to put things into perspective.
good points, but I think he goes on to explain his intentions thoroughly enough to justify his use of the term "reporting of life".

I'm a big proponent of "if you are out in public, there is no expectation of privacy" and you get images. If there is an expectation of privacy, then don't invade that person's space.
There may not be a legally enforcable expectation, and anyone who takes offense at being photographed might not have the right to stop you (so long as it happened in a public place), but that's not what he said. He said 'Images should not be invasive out of respect for the subject and the details they would prefer to keep private.' The way I read it, that includes both "physically invading someone's personal space to take a photo" and "without being noticed by the subject, taking photos that they would rather not have anyone take of them".

There's no law saying that you have to be nice to people, but it does make life for everyone more pleasurable if you do. Given your second sentence here it's not clear to me whether you mean the same thing as I do, or whether you mean that, when not in public, there is an expectation of privacy that should be respected (which would equate to following the same limits as set by the law in most places).

I, personally, don't shoot with too wide a lens in street shooting because I want an honest expression from the people that I take images of. People tend to act different or become more conscious of themselves if they know they are actively being photographed.
That's a more resulting image-oriented approach than a principle-oriented approach, but that's okay ofcourse. I'm personally still having a hard time overcoming my fear of upsetting people (which is probably much stronger than it should be), so I take very few street photos in the first place; I'm simply not far enough on that journey yet to have any set principles for myself, but I'm exploring the philosophical and ethical side of it through articles and discussions like these.

Recording the "feel" is the same as telling a story with an image - which we should all be striving for.
I agree, but the central question of the essay, as it appears to me, is this: is the traditional style of street photography the best (and particularly, most representative) way to record the feel / tell the story of "mankind in our era", or does it help to take a step back and go for a calmer, more universal type of image, as MT proposes? I can see the case for both up-close and personal with specific individuals, and more distant observations of a universal "state of being" in 2015; I honestly don't have a preference for one over the other, and am curious to see how the people here feel about it.
 
Location
Switzerland
Real Name
Matt
I'm with Dale on this. I would think that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion (and yes, it's marked as an opinion piece in case you hadn't noticed). There's certainly no reason to put Ming or his work down simply because he explains his views - especially since he obviously has a very good reason to do so.

I know Ming personally and have shot with him (and under his guidance during one of his workshops), and I consider him a friend. If you had ever watched him shoot, you'd know that he's precise and conscientious to the bone - and his moral position is clear cut and hard to fault. He adheres to his own rules, and I for one see them as humane and respectful. For those who think his street work isn't worth it, just look at the next post on his blog (which isn't even about street photography ...). What's wrong with being obsessed with ultimate image quality if you can actually achieve it, even when out in the street?

If you like or dislike his work is entirely up to you. I happen to like many of his images - enough to actually hang some of them on my wall. And I can assure you that "in the flesh", so to speak, the Ultraprints are absolutely superb. But again, that's just my view. To each his own.

M.
 

gryphon1911

All-Pro
Location
Central Ohio, USA
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Andrew
I'm with Dale on this. I would think that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion (and yes, it's marked as an opinion piece in case you hadn't noticed). There's certainly no reason to put Ming or his work down simply because he explains his views - especially since he obviously has a very good reason to do so.

I know Ming personally and have shot with him (and under his guidance during one of his workshops), and I consider him a friend. If you had ever watched him shoot, you'd know that he's precise and conscientious to the bone - and his moral position is clear cut and hard to fault. He adheres to his own rules, and I for one see them as humane and respectful. For those who think his street work isn't worth it, just look at the next post on his blog (which isn't even about street photography ...). What's wrong with being obsessed with ultimate image quality if you can actually achieve it, even when out in the street?

If you like or dislike his work is entirely up to you. I happen to like many of his images - enough to actually hang some of them on my wall. And I can assure you that "in the flesh", so to speak, the Ultraprints are absolutely superb. But again, that's just my view. To each his own.

M.

I don't think anyone is putting Ming down. If he is entitled to extrapolate his opinion, then so are the rest of us. Not everyone agrees and having a dissenting opinion to an opinion piece is equally as valid. I've read quite a bit of Ming's blog posts, as I don't feel it fair to judge someone based solely on one thing. As I said, there are things that I agree with him on and things that I don't. Not all of his work resonates, some of it is really good.

Being his "friend" perhaps you are taking it too personally. I've never met the guy in person, but based on his blog posts - we don't see eye to eye on some things related to photography. That's OK, there are many people out there that probably don't like me. That is OK. The world would be a boring place if we all liked and agreed on the same things.
 
Location
Milwaukee, WI USA
Real Name
Luke
I don't think anyone is putting Ming down.

Actually. I think Snapdawg's post is putting Ming down.

But let's try to keep the conversation relevant to the original poster's question which relates to Ming's suggestion that the goal of good street photography should be about making the images "more universal" and "less personal" (which I don't agree with or even understand, frankly).
 

gryphon1911

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Location
Central Ohio, USA
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Andrew
Actually. I think Snapdawg's post is putting Ming down.

But let's try to keep the conversation relevant to the original poster's question which relates to Ming's suggestion that the goal of good street photography should be about making the images "more universal" and "less personal" (which I don't agree with or even understand, frankly).

Agree to get back to the original topic.
 

Jock Elliott

Hall of Famer
Location
Troy, NY
I don't do street photography, so perhaps I have no standing for offering any opinion. About a year ago, I got very interested in "street," and looked at a lot of stuff, including documentaries about people doing street photography. Further, I like looking at images that move me.

In saying: "Think of these images from a social commentary standpoint: what does it say that what the masses consider ‘good’ street photography involves: aggressive invasions of personal space, fascination with the homeless and disadvantaged, capturing people in unflattering poses at non-representative instants (often wrongly interpreted as ‘the decisive moment’) and generally sloppy shot discipline (tilts, focus misses, unintentional motion blur, clipped exposures, etc.). There is also an obsession with black and white only; not just that, but black and white with only two tonal values: black, and white. And don’t get me started on those images that have no obvious subject other than a road." Ming seems to be taking a swipe at a lot of current street photography.

In many regards, I think he is right. IMHO, a lot of street photography that I have seen doesn't seem to have a real point or subject or decent composition. Further, some of it seems to be about the photographer's experience -- such as seeing how close one can get with a wide angle lens and sometimes even shooting flash at close range -- rather than capturing a worthy image.

I am probably hopelessly old school, but I always thought the point of street photography was to capture people being themselves in a way that was poignant or humorous or simply interesting, and to do it in a way that was unobtrusive. Our own Ray Sachs has posted some street photos that I think are in this spirit and are just excelllent, and the difference between them and a lot of the current offerings is just obvious.

Cheers, Jock
 

gryphon1911

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Location
Central Ohio, USA
Real Name
Andrew
I don't do street photography, so perhaps I have no standing for offering any opinion. About a year ago, I got very interested in "street," and looked at a lot of stuff, including documentaries about people doing street photography. Further, I like looking at images that move me.

In saying: "Think of these images from a social commentary standpoint: what does it say that what the masses consider ‘good’ street photography involves: aggressive invasions of personal space, fascination with the homeless and disadvantaged, capturing people in unflattering poses at non-representative instants (often wrongly interpreted as ‘the decisive moment’) and generally sloppy shot discipline (tilts, focus misses, unintentional motion blur, clipped exposures, etc.). There is also an obsession with black and white only; not just that, but black and white with only two tonal values: black, and white. And don’t get me started on those images that have no obvious subject other than a road." Ming seems to be taking a swipe at a lot of current street photography.

In many regards, I think he is right. IMHO, a lot of street photography that I have seen doesn't seem to have a real point or subject or decent composition. Further, some of it seems to be about the photographer's experience -- such as seeing how close one can get with a wide angle lens and sometimes even shooting flash at close range -- rather than capturing a worthy image.

I am probably hopelessly old school, but I always thought the point of street photography was to capture people being themselves in a way that was poignant or humorous or simply interesting, and to do it in a way that was unobtrusive. Our own Ray Sachs has posted some street photos that I think are in this spirit and are just excelllent, and the difference between them and a lot of the current offerings is just obvious.

Cheers, Jock

Just because someone doesn't shoot a specific type of photography doesn't mean they can't have an opinion. I find that people on the outside have valuable contributions as they are not bogged down in the minutia - the outsiders can see the forest, where as the insiders might only be seeing the trees.
 

Ray Sachs

Legend
Location
Not too far from Philly
Real Name
you should be able to figure it out...
I have a lot of respect for Ming as a gear reviewer and as a photographer. I try to emulate his style with architectural shooting and managed a couple of shots I really liked in that vein over the past couple of months. Which excited me no end. I don't share his attitude toward street though. I see photography, any type - included but not limited to street, a lot like the way Oscar Peterson saw music. An interviewer was trying to get him to diss popular music relative to the jazz the reviewer loved. And Oscar responded with "there are two kinds of music - good and bad", meaning regardless of genre. I see photography that way, including any genres or sub-genres. I can listen to music and tell you whether it's good or bad, at least to my ear, which is the only ear that matters to me. Similarly I can look at a photograph and make the same judgement with and for the only eyes that matter to me. I don't care whether it's B&W street taken from up close, with or without motion blur, whether tilted and OOF or dead straight and in perfect focus, or color shots taken with a long lens. Some of it works and some of it doesn't, regardless. I have a couple of ways of shooting on the street that work for me and I find the vast majority of my shooting to be just OK or pretty bad, but I like enough of it to keep doing it. And occasionally I nail one, and that's enough for me to keep coming back for more.

Ming doesn't strike me as a natural street shooter - he's very very precise and careful about everything that he does, and I think that's a REALLY challenging way to approach street photography, which to me requires a lot of speed and improvisation and flexibility. Nonetheless he's trying to find his way in a genre that probably doesn't come naturally to him. And to me an essay like the one he wrote is indicative of a photographer trying to find his own way with something and thinking about it really really hard. And trying to get your thoughts down on paper (or monitor) is often a good way of clarifying your thoughts. I've been a writer for my entire career and I find the processing of trying to present my thoughts in writing a valuable way of clarifying my own thinking process. I used to do that a lot with street photography, as I was trying to figure out my own technique, my own style, what I thought was morally OK and what wasn't, etc, etc, etc. So I don't have any issue with Ming writing what he wrote - but it means a WHOLE lot more to him than it means to me. To me, it's ultimately meaningless except as a fine way for him to work through it. Because at a certain point, to use another saying also often used about music, "talking about music (photography) is like dancing about architecture"...

-Ray
 

Djarum

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Location
Huntsville, AL
Real Name
Jason
I don't shoot street. Its not my thing. But I do enjoy looking at street images. A lot.

What I can say is that over the last year or so, I've been getting turned off to it though. With the proliferation of all the new cameras the last few years, more and more shooters are doing street. There's nothing wrong with that. Some of the shots are really good, some are ok, and some are plain aweful. But even the good shots are getting tiring. I don't want to see some leathered old man begging for change. I'm just simply tired of those images. Not that their bad. What I get from Ming's article is some perspective. While I don't think every new image a street shooter takes has to break new ground, I do think, like any photographer, not just street, should be trying something new and outside themselves. I know that seems as if I'm telling someone else what to do. If someone wants to stay in their own comfortable zone with what they are used to, fine, especially if thats how someone enjoys the hobby. I just have a hard time with that mentality. Whatever I do, I want to get better at it, and I do except that some people don't have that mentality.

I also don't think its the just status quo either. It's just the old trap in many cases that new photographers are discovering street, and then all the same themes are getting beaten to death. Sorta reminds me of the Microbrew explosion we have locally going on. Everyone is doing an IPA. I mean everyone. Whats wrong with a stout? A belgian white? How bout a dark ale? It just gets old, even though the product is excelent.
 
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Ray Sachs

Legend
Location
Not too far from Philly
Real Name
you should be able to figure it out...
I don't shoot street. Its not my thing. But I do enjoy looking at street images. A lot.

What I can say is that over the last year or so, I've been getting turned off to it though. With the proliferation of all the new cameras the last few years, more and more shooters are doing street. There's nothing wrong with that. Some of the shots are really good, some are ok, and some are plain aweful. But even the good shots are getting tiring. I don't want to see some leathered old man begging for change. I'm just simply tired of those images. Not that their bad. What I get from Ming's article is some perspective. While I don't think every new image a street shooter takes has to break new ground, I do think, like any photographer, not just street, should be trying something new and outside themselves. I know that seems as if I'm telling someone else what to do. If someone wants to stay in their own comfortable zone with what they are used to, fine, especially if thats how someone enjoys the hobby. I just have a hard time with that mentality. Whatever I do, I want to get better at it, and I do except that some people don't have that mentality.

I also don't think its the just status quo either. It's just the old trap in many cases that new photographers are discovering street, and then all the same themes are getting beaten to death. Sorta reminds me of the Microbrew explosion we have locally going on. Everyone is doing an IPA. I mean everyone. Whats wrong with a stout? A belgian white? How bout a dark ale? It just gets old, even though the product is excelent.
I'd argue this is true of ANY photography and any art form for that matter - most of it isn't very good (how many mediocre / boring shots of a flower, of a mountain range, of a sunset...). But I do agree that new camera technology has made it a lot easier to try street shooting and a lot more people are doing it. So there's a lot more street stuff in your face all the time and, as with anything, most of it isn't very good and for new shooters, nailing a cliche is a goal in itself. Gotta learn the rules really well before you can start breaking them. So I understand the reaction to street at this particular moment.

But we all have things we like more and like less. I personally don't think I can see another shot of a waterfall taken at a slow shutter speed with that satin-like sheen of the water without throwing up a little bit in my mouth. That was a cool technique once but became cliche almost immediately. I personally still enjoy a good street shot with some human interest, that tells a story, more than almost anything, but that's just because I'm intimately familiar with how hard it is to do. And even though I think I've gotten a lot better at it over the years, my success rate is still really low - so it's still a huge damn challenge!

-Ray
 

Djarum

All-Pro
Location
Huntsville, AL
Real Name
Jason
I'd argue this is true of ANY photography and any art form for that matter - most of it isn't very good (how many mediocre / boring shots of a flower, of a mountain range, of a sunset...). But I do agree that new camera technology has made it a lot easier to try street shooting and a lot more people are doing it. So there's a lot more street stuff in your face all the time and, as with anything, most of it isn't very good and for new shooters, nailing a cliche is a goal in itself. Gotta learn the rules really well before you can start breaking them. So I understand the reaction to street at this particular moment.

And thats why I took what Ming said more with a broad brush stroke. I think some of what he said can be applied to all types of photography. One of the things he danced around a bit too was intent without down right saying it. Is the intent to take pictures on one's own terms or is it to make one's photography look like someone else's because thats how its always done? This goes for any photography. Getting to your waterfall example, large rushing waterfalls look terrible with a long exposure. In many cases small one's can look bad too if over done. In many cases its done because it can be done and its done because everyone else says thats how it should be done. Its funny how cyclical all this becomes. I think I remember having a very similar discussion not but a year ago about HDR. Now its about street. Next year it will be about portraits.
 

Livnius

Top Veteran
Location
Melbourne. Australia
Real Name
Joe
I get what Ming was saying with regards to things being shot a particular way 'back in the day' simply because of the technological limitations of the day.....limited to black and white film, having to shoot at higher noise/grain inducing ISO's and and when you didn't have the ISO to coax the camera into a high enough shutter speed you were left with some motion blur. Fine...I get that....BUT, I don't think it is somehow wrong to replicate that look just because today's camera and post processing technologies may be light years more advanced. I think that sometimes, a particular look or style that has been associated with a particular activity for so long can over time almost become a part of that activity...street photography in this case. Another way I look at it.....it has been many MANY years since snowboarding has been made legal on mountain resorts (yes that's right, for many years in the past, snowboarding was actually banned) ....but even though these mountain resorts have opened their arms and embraced snowboarding you will find that even still, the snowboarder is more likely to be the rebel.....crazy mismatched even garish clothing, flamboyant hairstyles, riding with big headphones on and often a complete disregard for mountain rules regrading riding unpatrolled out of bounds areas etc. I mean there is no need any longer to rebel against the system (the system in this case being the skiier-centric resort management) but the rebel attitude and mindset has remained and is now a part of the snowboarding (sub)culture.

Street shooters don't NEED to shoot high grain, high contrast black and white anymore, but still often do, and I think it is often for many of the same reasons why snowboarders still see themselves as the unloved adopted children of the mountain.
 

val

Veteran
I don't do street photography because I don't want to be photographed on the street.

Street photography with super high contrast black and white is not my cup of tea, I quite like Ming's images but his opinion is his opinion. It doesn't bother me whether I think his opinion suits me or not.
 

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