“You need to fuck it up more.” Gee, I thought I was good at that. But my fuck ups were too graphic for Matt Stuart. “Graphic images can never rate better than 6/10”. In a few moments Matt had reduced the majority of my output to the lowly status of “great square Instagram pictures”. Shit!
However, I need not be concerned. I was attending Matt Stuart’s first Australian workshop on street photography with 11 others. Matt was helping us shift our photos to a level of visual impact that would command immediate attention. If any pause exists before a person offers feedback then move on to the next image. Matt wanted us to strive for poetic images that rated 9/10.
In Sydney as a guest of Aussie Street for the AS2019 street photography festival Matt Stuart was privileged to spend a weekend with me. “I’m joking!” A phrase Matt would utter, no doubt in response to our uneasy faces, as he went about jolting us with insights, teaching us techniques and challenging the language we used to discuss photos.
I loved Matt’s style! ‘Yes, I said loved! My essay; my words!’ Ha ha ha, another learning. Matt believes you cannot love something that cannot love you back.
I had been aware of Matt Stuart’s photography since 2014 when I enrolled in a photography course with Lynn Smith. As is standard fare with these things we had to bring prints of street photos we admired. I landed on Matt’s work attracted by his cheeky visual puns that seemed a poke in the eye to street photography.
The other prints I brought along were by an Aussie photographer who had recently been crowned “Street Photog of the Universe", Jesse Marlow. Jesse’s work was similar to Matt’s but, for me, Jesse’s seemed slightly more serious (more learning - use the ‘for me’ qualifier). It turns out they are good friends and at the time members of the same online collective. Lynn showed me the books Street Photography NOW and Bystander that set me on my path to street photography.
I encountered an example of fucking something up to add grit in 1968 when I was 11 but I was too young to grasp the concept. Later, in my adult life I became aware how imperfections could enhance beauty by being more fascinating than absolute perfection. One only had to dwell on Marilyn Monroe’s beauty spot to realise this. Monroe knew the power imperfections had in attracting people.
What led up to that first example in 1968 actually had its beginnings in 1954 with the birth of an instrument three years before me. It is still manufactured today. With benefits that had not been seen before, it was soon being copied.
This instrument fell into the hands of a youth in the mid sixties who possessed a very creative mind. His head held creations that others could not imagine or possibly reach. With this instrument in his hands those creations found a voice. He would take existing fragments and build those into a new vocabulary which ended up defining the standards all followed from then on. It became the vocabulary of the rock guitar. He was Jimi Hendrix and the instrument was a Fender Stratocaster.
The song I heard, the one Hendrix fucked up, was Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower released six months before Hendrix recorded his version that became a masterpiece - even Dylan thought it was a better version.
To hear Hendrix was an experience. An observation in new sonic lyricism and rhythms that budding guitarists poured over and analysed in an effort to unlock enough of the ‘how’ to give emulation little wings. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was more than a band name. It was a way to describe the challenge a listener faced.
Mother Nature was kind in 1954. She paralleled the Stratocaster with a second instrument that followed a similar path and went on to influence world culture. It was the release of the Leica M3.
I never did get a Stratocaster and it took years of wealth creation before I bought a grandchild of the M3, the Leica MP in 2018. Two years later I was fortunate to Experience Matt Stuart. Matt’s workshop was very constructive. I left keen to practice the many learnings and mould them into habits. It was an experience that left me keener than ever to street shoot.
This is what I recall of the many aphorisms of Matt Stuart.
Edit as you shoot.
This requires a lot of thinking on your feet. The aim is to shoot to minimise processing. This would suit me as I dislike what Hendrix called his second instrument - the recording studio - where he loved to spend hours manipulating sound and multi-tracking instruments making a live performance of his studio output (sadly only three LPs) impossible. Matt banned us from any cropping that weekend with the aim of forcing us to capture a final image. Ahhhhrrrr!! My best companion, the crop tool, summarily dismissed. Was I heading for trouble with my choice of 28mm focal length?
Spray and pray is OK.
In a surprising twist, Matt thought spray-and-pray was a valid technique. Matt would take many photos when "a scene was on” to increase his chances of getting that sought-after poetic keeper.
Look like a dip shit.
Hang the camera around your neck, like a tourist. Don’t use a cuff - it looks too much like you are drawing a gun when you lift the camera. After you take the photo go into your best Gary Winogrand impersonation, look at the top of the camera (never the back screen) with a facial expression suggesting you don’t know what you are doing and this complex thing around your neck is set up wrong. Don’t make eye contact or engage in conversation with the subjects and look over their head after the photo. At times Matt would be seen walking backwards to stay with his subject when he was in his “following” mode. Oh, and no business shirts allowed. Although that tenet may belong to someone else I know.
Graphic photography rates poorly.
Graphic photography did not rate higher than 6/10 for Matt. What is a graphic image? None of my many photo books have any reference to graphic photos. On the day, I thought graphic meant filled with geometric patterns and realism. This is probably the best link about graphic photography from my Google search:
Aim for poetic images.
This is where the ‘fuck it up for interest’ probably best sits. And forget the facts - it’s said they only get in the way of a good story.
Set up a series as a smile - start high and finish on a high with your lesser work in the middle. Order can be arranged by location, alphabetically, by time, by category, by hierarchy or a mix of each. I was actually caught napping with this workshop. Having been to many workshops over my corporate career you get a bit numb to them. I have a deep seated fear of butcher paper. I usually seek votes what time the first acronym will drop. Matt surprised me with his only acronym coming in the first hour of the workshop.
Don’t shoot people masticating.
Avoid photos of people as they eat. This discussion led to the intention issue. Are your intentions good? Try to avoid making people look unnecessarily bad.
The question to ask when a street portrait is granted.
If someone is agreeable to be photographed then ask them “How much time do you have?” Set them up in the best possible light by looking at how shadows fall across their face as you circle them around to the best spot. Now that they have agreed to a photo take your time setting up the shot.
Keep returning to good locations.
If the location has merit then milk it; keep returning to it, maybe at different times, different seasons, watching the changing light and waiting to get that perfect person walking through it. Scout for interesting backgrounds when in the “fishing” mode of picture taking. Photograph on city corners where people approach you from more directions. Stand still. Don’t pace. Squat with knees together for a lower stance. Don’t lunge. Smile. Be optimistic.
Women should take photos men cannot and vice a versa.
Women are better placed to photograph children. Consider isolating children, placing them in their own world. Cut out the “safety” of adults. Make the children look as if they are about to face danger. And women should avoid photos of cute puppies. Think about shooting with a partner of the opposite sex to cover a broader range of photo subjects.
The language of looking at photos.
Avoid simply saying you ‘love it’ when assessing a photo. Concentrate more on describing how the photo makes you feel. Work subjectively eg qualify your statements by saying “For me, I feel that…” Curtail the photographer’s propaganda by not allowing them to speak about their photo.
Typical camera settings (Note: Matt was shooting with a 35mm focal length)
APERTURE f5.6 to f11 adjusting as you move from shade to full sun
FOCUS DISTANCE 12ft. A 28mm lens at f8 has DOF 5.7ft to infinity. Distance in front of subject is 6.3ft. Pull focus if the subject is nearer than 5.7ft then remember to reset to the rest position of 12ft. Hyperfocal distance (ie infinity set to f8) is 10.8ft.
“Heroes: Zane Banks on Jimi Hendrix”, The Music Show, Radio RN, with Andrew Ford. Episode broadcast Sunday, 15th September 2019.
“You're not going to take any good photos: The Matt Stuart Experience”, The Antipodean Photographer, Simon Ross. Simon attended the same workshop. Here is the link: