I really can’t think of any other discipline within photography that is more challenging, more demanding and more rewarding than street photography. With New Street Agenda, I am trying to build on that idea. It is a learning community and I am the first student.
Think about it: a painter has all day, all week, all month. As a street photographer you have a split second. You have to apply the sum of your experience and knowledge into that split second. That is a tough task to accomplish.
It started in Berlin in June 2010. I needed a project; it became street photography. At that time, I hardly knew what it was all about but had a vague idea that Henri Cartier-Bresson had something to do with it, so I made him my house mentor. I searched the Internet for general resources on street photography but there weren’t any that met my wishes. I ended up making my own resources. Eventually it was named New Street Agenda.
New Street Agenda is not a project. It is a process that goes way beyond the limited ambitions you normally see related to street photography. While the project was named in 2014, the forerunners go back to 2007. It includes several sites.
To me street photography is definitely an art form. Art is engagement, stamina, continuous training and going all in. It is not an activity you leave for weekends, vacations and walking the dog. It is about knowing a craft and getting better at it.
The first thing you have to do is to look away from street photography as it is practiced on social media, and direct your gaze towards art in general. Your classrooms for learning should be the finest galleries in Europe. Your masters could be Matisse, Rembrandt, Picasso and Munch. Once you have done that, you can dive into Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and a few others.
The history and learning of street photography does not start with photography; it ends with it.
Because you will like it.
I have a partner who runs marathons. One day, coming back from an event in Berlin, she told me,”You have to go to Berlin”. I asked why. She told me it was “because you will like it”. That’s settled then.
In 2008 I arranged my first photo summit in Berlin. In late 2007 I went to Berlin to check the area. I started walking the streets to find a suitable place. We ended up all staying in Motel One close to Kurfürstendamm in the old west.
Today it seems like a good choice since that area is emerging as the new east with great galleries close by: C/O Berlin reopened in October 2014, Camera Work, the most prestigious of them all, not to forget the iconic Newton Museum. They are all a stone’s throw away.
That area soon became my area of operation with easy access to the rest of Berlin. It takes six minutes and 17 seconds on a sunny day to reach Hauptbahnhof with S-Bahn. I have timed it. Within a few years I have come to know more about Berlin than I ever knew about Copenhagen, where I live.
In more than one sense Berlin has become the hub for New Street Agenda. I did not know much of it in the beginning, but it gradually dawned on me: Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) all had their seat there over the years at what today is Humboldt University.
I make it my plight to visit Humboldt University every time I go to Berlin. It reminds me that science and innovation indeed have a stake in visual communication; that is what you do when you do street photography. It is hard to avoid since the main building is central on Unter den Linden.
The bookshops on photography were a mere delight too. The galleries, and the appreciation of photography in general, are very different from what I experience further north. I definitely feel that Berlin has plenty to give in this area.
More Than Meets The Eye.
If I should choose one word that labels the inspiration from Humboldt, it is that there is more to perception than what meets the eye. I am sure that most will agree with that but it was not always so.
If you start to unfold this basic wisdom, and to apply it to photography, new and fertile land opens up both for taking photographs and for evaluating and analyzing them.
Searching the bookshops I, however, soon found that inspiration was forgotten land even in present Berlin. I could hardly find a book. The gestalt inspiration, for instance, seems to be lost even if it is one of the basic areas for understanding visual communication.
I found the low-hanging fruits so I started picking them since no one else was around in that garden. That is how New Street Agenda and its forerunners came about.
As I could see that there was not a proper vocabulary for describing the new influence on street photography, I had to start The Wordbook as part of New Street Agenda. The Wordbook is in the making and will continue to be so. Mostly I make it for myself. Of course I am happy if others read along too.
Change the words and you change the vision. The history of street photography in Europe is related to the words you use to describe it. Take the expression “the decisive moment”, that still hovers over the area. It is, however, not of much use until you also realize that moments are of different kinds. Cartier-Bresson was excellent at it, as we all know, but many think that every click is another decisive moment. That is not so, not at all so.
What are the inspirations of New Street Agenda?
As New Street Agenda is developed on the go, the inspirations are not fixed nor there for all times. They are varied and pragmatic. It is more of an approach to things than anything else, just as street photography is.
Inspirations are from the areas of science, art, advertising, painting, visual communication, classical street photography and other stuff that have proven useful for street photography. The palette of inspirations is wide and colourful.
Things are not necessarily presented in a systematic way. Success is dependent on you bringing in your own passions, excitements and ambitions. Without that, inspirations will not amount to much.
It is fairly easy to describe, for instance gestalt factors, but without you testing things out on your own skin they will not progress as part of your private toolbox. Working up a gut capacity based on experience from New Street Agenda, will only come to those who work with it.
Once you step into the entrance of this new universe, you will not get away from what you find there. It is a different way of thinking and once you get a grip of it, it will serve you blindly. Give it a try and you will see.
Let me add, the inspirations are not only valid for street photography. You will recognize that many of the things included in New Street Agenda, are also useful in many other paths of life. Even life as such.
For example, being able to make a distinction between signal and noise in a photograph is an expertise that is valid in many other areas of life where signals and noise are part of the challenge. New Street Agenda thus gives you much more than you bargain for. It is not only about street photography; it is ALSO about photography.
– Knut Skjærven
Knut Skjærven, is a Norwegian photographer, reporter and researcher working out of Copenhagen, Denmark. He runs a number of sites on street photography and visual communication. He does workshops and private coaching in street photography and visual communication.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his emerging website New Street Agenda.