The Devil In The Detail – Part One: Details in street photography

A pile of street photography books on a shelf

Late September 2021 through January 2022 were rough months for my photography. Life, cold weather, flat grey skies, local events were cancelled and limited daylight conspired against me. There weren’t many opportunities for me to go out shooting, and the few times that I managed to carve out time for shoots, they were plain rotten. 

Rather than cutting myself some slack, this quagmire of not-so-good stuff resulted in me putting myself under huge pressure to perform well on the streets. When that failed, I put myself under just as much pressure to create gold from coal in the editing suite. I was beating myself up and getting nowhere, and anyone who has been in this cycle of self-doubt, annoyance and disappointment, knows that it’s a tricky thing to break free from. 

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After a particularly cruel day trip to Cambridge, in which I managed to stomp a good 12-plus miles around the city centre to come away with two or three mediocre images, I finally decided to give myself a break. Having spent weeks agonising with myself with camera in hand or Lightroom on screen, I made myself put it all down. I told myself to spend some time with my photography books.

During this break, I’ve looked through the work of many street photographers, from Daido Moriyama Tales Of Tono through to Fred Herzog Modern Color. I enjoyed time with the photography of Brian Nobili and Ricky Powell in NYC Street Photography… It’s A Joint, and Liam Wong in TO:KY:OO – of which both collections operate in sub-genres very unlike my own. I even dove into my growing collection of anonymous zines, picked up at random from eBay and Etsy. 

Alongside this, I watched a tonne of YouTube content, particularly Alex On Streets, Ulysses Aoki, Ivan Chow, Samuel Streetlife and EYExplore – aka, the Usual Suspects (to me, at least). I binged on stunning hand-drawn classic anime – the architecture and set-building of which is always a source of great pleasure and inspiration, read plenty of fiction and listened to some of my favourite music – loudly and regularly. 

In short, I turned my recreation time into my own budget ragbag art school curriculum. I sank myself into artistic stimuli and I gave myself permission to do nothing but pay attention to it, and enjoy it for its own sake. 

Eventually, my head cleared and I realised something. All of the things that spoke to me, whether visually, aurally or literary, sank me into a place and told a story through the use of one thing: detail.

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Detail, because it speaks to me

Untitled // From: TONO MONOGATARI (The Tales of Tono) // 1974 // © Daido Moriyama

Looking through Tales Of Toro, I was struck by how the photographs of bedrooms, road signs, intersecting rooftops and desk fans gave me a greater sense of place than the portraits and hustling crowds. These images stopped me, there was something in their symbols that spoke to me. 

Helen Levitt’s foundational work on the streets of NYC in the 1940s also falls into this same category. While there’s no doubt that the street scenes of children playing are without flaw, Levitt’s close-up photographs of their chalk drawings always have me pause for thought.

Similarly, Fred Herzog’s photograph ‘Proud Parents, 1970’ or ‘Cat Poster, 2009’ have powerful effects – they remain on my mind like a song. The simplicity and intimacy they create have me feeling closer to the people of Vancouver than his wider street scenes (though admittedly, pretty much every one of these is excellent, too).

To me, these photographs are quiet moments, stolen from time, with simplicity in their messaging and invoked emotional response that’s timeless. There’s a delicacy, similar to the quiet moments in an old jazz recording, where you can hear the fingers of the bassist sliding between notes, or the inhale of a saxophonist. Sure, the bombastic crescendos get everyone’s attention, but the quiet details are where the telling romance lives.

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Detail, because the big things get in the way

Paris, France, 1967 // Book: Taking My Time // © Joel Meyerowitz

For some photographers, the idea of paying attention to detail may seem obvious. Maybe it’s just my personality, but I have a history of being easily distracted by big ideas. When I started to learn about street photography, the books I read inevitably discussed the most famous instances of the practice – iconic instances of the decisive moment in large urban scenes, littered with interesting subjects. 

I look at Joel Meyerowitz’s ‘Paris 1967’, or any number of Gary Winogrand’s iconic captures, gaudy space-invasions of Martin Parr or Bruce Gilden’s forceful portraits, and wonder how I’m ever going to capture such moments. 

My fault, I now recognise, was thinking about the art of street photography through the lens of hand-picked great photographs. It’s like using a greatest hits album to learn about a genre. It’s a perfunctory look that, while full of winning content, is ultimately an inaccurate and fractured portrayal of the whole. 

As I spend more time with street photography trying to decipher what it means to me, I am realising that the idea of ‘big moments’ and only ‘big moments’ can be hugely stifling. Especially when you’re in a creative rut, or living in a place incompatible with that kind of shooting.

As a result of my early learning, I’ve picked up the habit of walking the streets at pace, feverish eyes tracking and reading the crowds, looking for something big to happen. The result was more often than not disappointment. 

While disappointment is part of the photography experience, my newfound love of detail has provided me with a new, passionate angle to apply. I can now recognise that my erratic and twitchy shooting was drawn from fear – it was performance anxiety that I was putting on myself, without me realising it. 

When I’m in a crowd that suits it, I’ll still work with pace – but otherwise, I’m going to be moving slowly, considering compositions and hunting for those details that are telling. And I know that, more often than not, this is going to focus on inanimate objects of human interaction. 

This isn’t to dismiss my love and appreciation for the more conventional idea of street photography: snapshot moments caught in the waves of dense population. Realising my appreciation of detail is something that I can apply to my work, where I live and where I go. 

Taking this time out and realising that what speaks to me on a deeper level is the detail has really helped me gain control over my time spent on the streets. Maybe that sounds mad, but it’s the truth for me. 

Would I like to be creating a complex layered street tableau? Of course, but I don’t live in NYC, Paris, Hong Kong, Kathmandu or Tokyo. I can’t afford to continuously visit bustling UK locations like London, Edinburgh or Manchester. I’m based where my life needs me to be right now, and I’m going to do what I can to explore what street and urban photography can mean to me. And at this moment, its detail.

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Detail, because that’s what works for me

Red Stripe // Welland Valley // 2022 // © William Street

My admiration for detail isn’t something that exists only as theory. It’s something that I’ve put into practice a number of times throughout February, and it’s been hugely invigorating. I’d like to discuss two such instances. 

The first is actually a second outing. I headed to a local graffiti spot to follow up on a good few shots I took previously, and that I aim to make into my first zine in the coming months. I chose my prime lens and headed off into the early morning. Rather than rushing to get as much as possible, I purposefully slowed down, moved closer to the work and sought ways that the light and artwork played with the location. I let myself forget about the changing light or trying to capture everything by standing back. I let myself be in the moment and work with the purposefully constrained and limited objects in front of me.

My hope is that when I put this project together, my previous larger establishing shots will work in conversation with these details to tell a more thorough and personal story of this extremely public spot. Here’s an example – I like this one, but I’m not sure it’ll make it into the zine. Consider it a tease: 

Underpass graffiti reflected in motorway runoff // Peterborough // 2022 // © William Street

The second, and arguably more substantial instance of detail, is when I went for a mid-February hike around one of the UK’s longest viaducts. Rather than taking my widest lens, which would be ideal for capturing the scale of the landscape and its interaction with Victorian architecture, I opted for a 50mm prime. As I walked, I enjoyed the view, but my photography mind was set on capturing small details and features – nuances unique to that area that told a deeper story than just “valleys look great”. 

I feel that, overall, this experiment was successful. One of my favourite examples from the day came when walking through a small village. Here, there was a pub, clearly shut down. While a photograph of the building as a whole would’ve shown this, I decided to get closer. I slowed, stopped and looked around the location for five minutes. I found a window, blinds partially open, letting me see inside with scattered items on the windowsill.

Once I had found my composition and I was able to focus on the finer points of the scene. The results spoke for themselves – I think that I got some of the best photographs I’ve taken in four or five months. I’m confident that I captured the spirit of the closed establishment. One of my favourites from the day is the Red Stripe bottle tops above.

It might seem that a country hike is a strange place to practice street photography, but I find huge merits in the efforts. It gets me thinking about new ways I can apply my lens and create engaging work that pleases me. In amongst the beauty of nature, the history of an area, over a hike of several miles, I was able to pick out one small detail that, I feel, represents one aspect of the local life and rural life more widely. 

I also think, through all of this, I’ve also discovered how you can tell an emotive and deeply personal story through objects alone. But that’s a conversation for part two. 

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Thanks for reading.

Published by William Lobley

Writer and street photographer

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