Beauty and brutality
Street photography from the depths of downtown
Every photographer has tried his hand at street photography. The attempt usually goes like this:
“OK. I’ve got this. It’s easy. Just take photos of people and make sure the light is nice and the composition is right. Here I go. One foot in front of the other. Hitting the pavement, just like Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Winogrand. This is going to be easier than my studio work. It’s back to the basics: me, my camera and the streets. Oh, I’ve got one!”
Camera at his hip, up to his chest, nearly at his eye and no. He missed it. He paused.
“What if they get mad? Should I ask first? Is this rude? Am I doing something wrong? Whatever, the light sucks today and this city isn’t New York. I’m not going to get great images here. This isn’t really my thing anyway.”
I’m willing to say that is what happens nearly 100 percent of the time. Street photography is challenging and to most impossible. Much of the great street work comes from great places, either New York City or a foreign land where no matter which direction you point the camera an amazing scene awaits. Who can’t take a great photo in Thailand, India, London or Paris? This is why you see a decent amount of great street photographs, but you can hardly name any street photographers. Every good photographer can capture a good photo on the streets once in a while, but few can do it consistently. Few would attempt to. It is hard and there is no money to be made from it. Even if one were daring (or dumb) enough to pursue such a thing, downtown Las Vegas would surely not make the list of places to practice.
Downtown Vegas, to most, is fun to photograph for a day. They see the neon, the tacky tourists, the bums, the street performers and that’s it. Being a street photographer and making this your canvas is a risky move. Yet that is what I have done, and I may be the only Las Vegas street photographer. I will admit that compared to NYC (I have lived there) it is difficult. You don’t have the classic backdrop. You don’t have a lot of people walking the streets at all times unless you stick to Fremont. You have to work a lot harder, you have to walk a lot more and you have to rethink the way street work is done. Finding beauty in a strip mall, at a bus stop or in an empty parking lot is a daunting task, but it can be done. Beauty is just organized chaos, and Las Vegas has plenty of chaos.
I do spend a decent amount of time on Fremont, but I stay away from clichés. I am not looking for “Vegas” photos. I am searching for a decisive moment. I am hoping to take the mess of this world and capture the moment when it all comes together, when it makes sense. Street photography reminds us that beauty is elusive. You might not think that downtown is beautiful, but it can be, if you look at it the right way at the right moment. That, of course, could be said of anything. What makes street work different is what it says about the artist. Why did he pick these moments? Are there themes? Are the similarities telling?
Street work also does what other types of photography do not: It takes full advantage of the medium and uses that which sets photography apart from other art forms; it gives photography the merit it deserves when compared to other forms. Photography is different, as it is the only art form that captures time and freezes it. Unlike studio, landscape and other types of photography, street work forces the artist to compose something that is beyond his control. The other types of photography are about controlling an environment, manipulation. Street work is spontaneous. When the moment is gone it will not return. You have to be Renoir in two hundred fiftieths of a second—and you might get punched in the face.