Street Art in Photography – Combining the two mediums for effect
Until relatively recently, before social networking spread across the globe, Street Art [and it’s origins in graffiti] was simply considered thoughtless vandalism and was generally frowned upon by society. One would think of hood-covered misfits defacing the side of a train, or lurking in a dark tunnel as they would mark their territory in urban gangland. Not to be confused with the ugly ‘Tagging’ that we often see around our inner-cities, Street Art [more often than graffiti] is nowadays considered a serious medium in the art world, and another form of artistic expression. As well as bringing new life to dull concrete in urban environments, the colours, designs, textures, patterns and lettering can also serve as an excellent element to your photography.
Apart from the aesthetic aspect, graffiti is often used as a form of rebellion or to bring attention to current events with it’s indispensable social messages. Slogans, statements and political aspirations are another form of expression from this underground culture. Compared to Street Art, graffiti is more widely known as a literary art form, with stunning lettering and logotypes. But it is also the meanings in what the artist conveys that can make the public take note. Just imagine what would be sprayed on the Berlin Wall in 1989 as the Cold War ended, or perhaps the West Bank security barrier, a wall somewhere in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, a store shutter found anywhere in Europe bringing attention to the subsequent migrant crisis, or how about a facade in Barcelona with their strive for independence?
With the exception of specific areas legally allocated to Street Art, it is generally an illegal practice, though the authorities tend to look the other way for the most part. The difference between Street Art compared with other art forms is the fact that it is largely temporary. As well as being removed by the council, other artists would often paint over previous works, and so on. A good example of this are the so called “Graffiti Wars” between the famous British artists Banksy & Robbo. A documentary was made about this affair, such was the competition between them.
Because of it’s transient nature, it is easy to see why Street Art would be photographed, if not only as a way to archive the work before it is washed away or painted over. Documenting works by photographers or the artists themselves ensures that they will receive more exposure to a wider audience, as well as being recorded for the long term. But for us photographers, we are usually more concerned with how to incorporate Street Art into our own photography. Street photography and environmental portraiture in particular will benefit from this element, either as a background to add context to a main subject, or by including a person to add context to the background.
And there are so many more ways to incorporate Street Art into your photography. Fashion photographers use Street Art to effect in low key photography. Getting up close to the subject with a wide angle lens from a low angle, combined with a narrow street with graffiti or Street Art clad walls in full daylight and with high speed flash sync can give a dynamic and gritty feel to a photoshoot. The creative options for this genre of photography are endless.
The work of Keith Haring in the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona, bringing attention to the worldwide AIDS epidemic. I like the use of negative space to emphasise the message.
Street Art at the port entrance of Essaouira, captured during one of our Morocco Workshops. Colour can sometimes be a distraction in an image, so converting to monochrome can often improve the results.
A depiction of an IDF soldier & Palestinian militant in a pillow fight in the “Walled Off Hotel”, by the separation barrier in Bethlehem. Including the bed into the scene adds context. Work by Banksy.
For Street Photographers, journalistic and documentary style photography, adding a large part of a wall, warehouse, bridge, train or anything else covered with Street Art or graffiti into a scene can give the viewer a sense of social decay and an air of cultural discourse in an urban landscape. These elements can be excellent for story-telling type shots as apart from filling the frame, they can be used effectively as a juxtaposition for another subject. An obvious choice for locations of this style of photography to be used to such good effect are areas of urban decay. Because of the nature of this art form and it’s association with gangs and anti-social behaviour, using these backgrounds can be an excellent complement to what the photographer is trying to convey.
In terms of which camera techniques to use when incorporating Street Art or graffiti into your images, you will first need to decide what you are trying to achieve. If you are planning to shoot works specifically without other elements in the scene, remember that you need to use your creativity in order to shoot art without it simply looking like a recording of someone else’s work [unless that is your objective].
For example, slow-shutter speeds can be invaluable when you want to bring attention to a specific area of an artwork. Using the zoom effect or turning the camera on it’s axis while pressing the shutter can produce interesting shots, especially when combined with a tripod and neutral density filters in strong light. Likewise, shooting at an angle with a large aperture can create amazing bokeh effects with specular highlights turned into circles of light. Or when the light gets low, you can practice light painting with a torch, LED’s or other artificial lighting. This technique can give amazing results when outlining fonts.
One of my favourite photography styles when shooting Street Art is incorporating it into a larger scene that will give the viewer an idea of where it was taken, such as in a city with iconic architecture, but without making it cliche. Imagine a train covered in graffiti, passing on an overhead bridge through an urban area of red-brick buildings. The viewer will undoubtedly imagine the image was captured in New York.
Now think of taking the same shot but panning the camera with a slow-shutter speed. This will bring the viewer’s eye directly on to the train. For me, that’s the difference between taking and making an image. With some effort and creativity, including this art form into your photography can result in a fun and rewarding experience!