Since this is the first in what I intend to be a recurring series, I’ll begin with a general introduction. After discovering the street photography genre in 2015, my new year’s resolution for 2016 was to dedicate myself to its learning and practice; basically, to shoot and to study.
For the latter, that meant finding current street photographers to follow on Instagram, watching how-to videos on YouTube, and Googling to research The Greats of the past.
Simply put, there are ‘types’ of shots, ones that once established have been handed down like batons across generations of street photographers.@cpplunkett
In pouring through so many images—and quality ones from heralded photographers at that—it became apparent, duh, like any other genre, that street photography had repeated concepts, elements, subjects, themes, etc. that are present throughout the canon and used similarly by many different photographers … that is, motifs.
Just like science fiction movies have their alien invasions and fairy tales their damsels in distress, so too does street photography.
Simply put, there are “types” of shots, ones that once established have been handed down like batons across generations of street photographers. My intention for this series is to identify and discuss them, with an emphasis on showing their history and how they have continued to this day. (If for no other reason, selfishly, to pull off some of my own!)
Motif #01: Objects Found In Mouth
Mouth, The Third Hand
It’s such a universal behavior. We’ve all done it. Maybe your hands are already full, or you need an alternate holding place while you use them, so you put an object into your mouth and bite down to hold it. And it’s usually briefly, making this particular moment that much more of a challenge to capture with a camera.
And I think that’s an inherent trait of so many street photography motifs: situations or characters that are identifiable, but infrequent enough in public to make them rare—both to see as happenstance, and particularly to artfully frame once happened upon.
The Past: Jeff Mermelstein’s “Sidewalk”
Certainly, street shooters captured this decisive moment before Jeff Mermelstein was roaming New York City in the 80s and 90s. But the cover of his 1999 book “Sidewalk” created the most iconic example.
All rights reserved of the photos featured by Jeff Mermelstein. Buy Sidewalk on Amazon.
And Jeff wasn’t finished in fully mastering this motif with the cover shot. Another photo included in the book switches out legal tender for literature: in this case, a paperback book in the mouth of man, wonderfully mustachioed and bespectacled, who gazes into the camera. And as proof to its influence as much as the cover, I’ve come across an Instagram account, @bookinmouth, whose name, I strongly suspect, is inspired by it. That, and, oh yeah, it’s included in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The money-in-mouth money shot continues today—with bills, yes, but with bottles and gloves too. Below is a gallery I put together of street photographers I follow who’ve all posted their version of the motif recently to Instagram. I think Aaron Berger’s photo—the man basically has a money-bill beak, with the five spot flapping upward—is particularly a standout. I’m sure there are many, many other examples of this motif, both past and present, I haven’t come across yet; so, please, share examples in the comments to continue building references and highlighting great work from great photographers.
All rights reserved by the photographers, images courtesy of their Instagram accounts.
My Own Efforts
I’ve had this shot in the back of my head ever since coming across “Sidewalk,” but have yet to directly nail something I thought worked on any level. However, I did capture one that’s a variation on the theme, a cousin on the motif family tree so to speak: an object placed under the chin to free the hands. Perhaps a more sanitary option for the germaphobes?
Update, April 25th: Caught one! Captured this guy running down Michigan Avenue with keys in mouth. The hunt will continue for this motif …
Update, May 17th: “Chicago’s First Lady” … and now my first flash one (fresh off the boat, zing!), captured in Chicago’s Loop at State and Lake—one of my favorite intersections downtown.