Walking Photographs

Any photographer working in the analogue world would regularly and correctly repeat the mantra that “wherever you go you should have a camera with you”. Of course, at that time the taking of a camera was a deliberate decision that usually required a camera bag, and a few rolls of film.

Today few people are without a camera in their pocket. The mantra is still important but the reality of the instruction is more nuanced than it once was. The nuance comes with the shape and form of the camera and the acceptance of a smartphone as a camera worthy enough to be a principle form of image capture. It still amazes me how many photographers decry the smartphone as camera or feel the need to describe images created with it as ‘smartphone snaps’. To me this is as ridiculous as identifying a photograph as a Nikon, Canon, Sony or Fuji image. Who cares? I know I do not.

The fact that we now have that camera and that digital images lack the need for a financial outlay I believe encourages a type of photography that has a sense of fluidity and experimentation. Images captured whilst walking seem to be most prevalent, and interesting in there documentation of the small things that surround us. The details of life that are so easily ignored and forgotten.

I’m going to call them ‘walking photographs’. Images of the mundane and ordinary, documenting shape, form, light and texture. Images of the unusual and the non-sensical. Not street photography but walking photography, captured in one frame, maybe two, but rarely more than that, before the photographer moves on. Images seen on a walk and captured quickly and easily. It is a process that I describe as ‘photo sketching’.

An edit may occur and some of the images may appear on social media sites such as Twitter or Instagram, easily uploaded from the same tool used to capture the image. Others may be quickly deleted. Walking photographs do not make a demand on the photographer to achieve excellence each time they press a button. They are part of the walking process, a walk for enjoyment or part of a daily routine, it does not matter, the walking photograph can result from both.

I know that for for some photographers the walk leads the work and for others the work is the reason for the walk. Some use traditional cameras and follow that credo and others adopt the smartphone as an appropriate tool. All practices are of course, acceptable, the idea behind the walking photograph is not defined by a dogmatic set of rules.

If you are unaware of the current explosion of walking photographs then I hope I have made you aware of an approach to the medium that has a certain honesty and appropriateness to the times in which we live. Where the daily walk is recommended for physical health and mental wellbeing. If you are engaged with the process then I hope that this short article raises the recognition of the practice. As the photographer Alex Webb stated “I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heat of the known awaits just around the corner”. I suggest that you keep walking…

You can read more about the practice of photo sketching in Grant’s book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography published by Routledge.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014)The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Taylor Francis 2015)New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Taylor Francis 2019). His next book What Does Photography Mean to You? will be published in 2021.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd47549knOU&t=3915s.

© Grant Scott 2020

4 comments

  1. Great topic Grant, and with our restricted movements I’m sure that many photographers have been compelled to record more of the quirks and nuances of light, form and colour that they see on their walks. We yearn to compose and consider and, with less commissioned work, Photo-sketching is a satisfying way to maintain and nourish our love of the medium.

    I tend to use a smartphone, as you say it’s in my pocket more often than my camera is round my neck but everyday I yearn for a light handheld camera to replace the instinctive reach for my phone. It’s not that the phone isn’t suitable, more that it’s inadequate or clumsy.

    I love that the phone allows me to record the moments and memories as I pass them by but the restrictive nature of the glass and sensors can force intrusion into scenes that might be otherwise recorded discreetly or composed more accurately with what I first saw

    anyway, as always thanks for such engaging writing x

  2. ‘Photo-sketching’ is a great phrase! I have a little Panasonic Lumix that I’ve always referred to as my ‘city camera’ for exactly that, Photo-sketching my way around a new location, on holiday, or at a boisterous event and its utterly battered as one could imagine. Its my go-to device and because i’m not worried about it getting me mugged or losing it in general, I have no issues digging it out and boshing off a few shots with it. I disagree with you when you say that walking-photographs do not require 100% competence as I think this style of photography needs you to get the best out of your camera that you can and if your device is digital, then you can walk-and-edit and reshoots if need be…

    Enjoyed your article on demystifying what makes a good photograph or photographer, trying to remember if it was Cartier Bresson who said your best lens is your feet !

    1. Thank you for your response and positive comments. I was not suggesting that such work does not require competence, however. I was suggesting that it does not matter if the image succeeds or fails. Best Grant

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