12 Lessons Trent Parke Has Taught Me About Street Photography
All photographs in this article are copyrighted by Trent Parke / Magnum Photos.
Trent Parke is one of the most phenomenal contemporary photographers around. What I love about his work is the strong emotional and personal connection he has in his photographs, as well as his fanatical passion to street photography.
One of his seminal books, “Minutes to Midnight” recently got republished– and I wanted to write an article on Parke, and how he has inspired my street photography.
1. Look for the light
“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.” – Trent Parke
One of the most stirring things you see about Parke’s work is the breath-taking light he captures. In his earlier works: “Dream/Life” and “Minutes to Midnight“, light is what makes his images come to life. Parke is able to masterfully play with light to craft his images to look like his signature monochromatic images: deep contrast and brilliant light.
And it is certainly light what makes ordinary photographs extraordinary. Even the definition of photography is “painting with light.”
One of the mistakes I see a lot of street photographers starting off is that they don’t pay enough attention to the light. Parke’s images truly come alive with light– whether he is shooting in the rain, during sunset creating long shadows, or creating surreal images with a flash.
So when you are out shooting in the streets, don’t just think about your subjects and the background. Remember the importance of light– and how it can transform one of your images from average to extraordinary.
I also suggest trying to avoid shooting with the light is poor. Meaning, try to avoid shooting around mid-day, when you have harsh light and shadows– which creates tons of blown highlights. Try to shoot when the light is pristine, like during sunrise or sunset.
Another solution is to shoot with a flash (even during mid-day light). Martin Parr does this really well– by exposing his camera to the ambient light and using his flash to fill in his subjects.
2. Shoot a lot of shit
“You shoot a lot of shit and you’re bound to come up with a few good ones.” – Trent Parke
Trent Parke is fanatical in his photography, and is constantly shooting. I think his philosophy is that by going out and shooting a lot, that hard work will pay off with some good photos.
Parke explains the hard work it took him to get a certain image in particular (above):
“I went each evening, for about 15 minutes, when the light came in between two buildings. It happens only at a certain time of the year: you’ve just got that little window of opportunity. I was relying so much on chance – on the number of people coming out of the offices, on the sun being in the right spot, and on a bus coming along at the right time to get that long, blurred streak of movement. If I didn’t get the picture, then I was back again the next day. I stood there probably three or four times a week for about a month. I used an old Nikon press camera that you could pull the top off and look straight down into, because I was shooting from a tiny tripod that was only about 8cm high. I had tried to lie on the ground, but people wouldn’t stand anywhere near me. I finally got this picture after about three or four attempts. I shot a hundred rolls of film, but once I’d got that image I just couldn’t get anywhere near it again. That’s always a good sign: you know you’ve got something special.”
“The fact that the images of the people on the bus have stayed sharp, and that you can see through them, is something that still baffles me. People can’t understand what the image is, or how I was able to obtain it, and I can’t work it out myself. It’s something that the eye can’t see when you’re walking along. It’s something that only photography can capture.”
To get this one image, Parke admits having to take a hundred rolls of film (~3600 images) to get it exactly how he wanted it to be.
Street photography is hard, and to get a good single image takes enormous amounts of work (and tons of bad photos).
When we go out on the streets, it is very unlikely we will get a good photograph in one day. Or even one month. Or even one year. There is so much chance and serendipity in street photography that we can’t predict. Even the small little details can either make or break an image.
So realize to become better photographers (and to create great images)– we need to (in Trent Parke’s words)
“shoot a lot of shit.”
So whenever you look at your images and you feel depressed that your images are shit, I think that is the first step to becoming a better photographer. That means that your standard for your photography is high. But by taking enough bad photos and being vigilant of always being on the streets, you will sooner or later get some good photos.
Street photography can often be a numbers game at the end of the day. Like what Seneca says, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” So create your own luck by shooting more, and creating more opportunities for yourself.
3. Channel your emotions into your images
For me, the most memorable and meaningful images I see from other photographers at the ones that elicit a strong emotional reaction.
One of the things I love about Trent Parke’s work is the raw emotions I feel from his images. His photos show a sense of loneliness, wandering, anxiety, as well as hope.
Parke shares his personal story and how unfortunate events in his life lead him to using photography as a way to channel his emotion into his photography:
“My mum died when I was 10 and it changed everything about me. It made me question everything around me. Photography is a discovery of life which makes you look at things you’ve never looked at before. It’s about discovering yourself and your place in the world.”
Parke further explains how he was able to use photography as a form of self-expression and self-discovery:
“I grew up on the outskirts of Newcastle where the suburbs meet the bush. When I came to Sydney at the age of 21 I left everything behind – all my childhood friends and my best mate – at first I just felt this sense of complete loneliness in the big city. So, I did what I always do: I went out and used my Leica to channel those personal emotions into images.“
Parke expands on this concept by explaining how photography isn’t about capturing an “objective reality.” Rather, he wants photography to be personal to him. And he always shoots for himself:
“I’m always trying to channel those personal emotions into my work. That is very different from a lot of documentary photographers who want to depict the city more objectively. For me it is very personal – it’s about what is inside me. I don’t think about what other people will make of it. I shoot for myself.”
At the end of the day, nobody is going to care how well-composed your images are if they don’t elicit some sort of human emotion. Emotions stick, fancy compositions and geometry don’t.
Granted you need strong compositions and strong emotions to make a great photograph– but let us always remember how we want to also make our images personal.
All of us have certain life experiences that influence or affect us in a fundamental type of way. Not only that, but sometimes we have really tragic (or happy moments) in our life– and photography is sometimes the best way to channel those feelings and emotions.
So as a photographer, think about the emotions you are creating in your work– and how your work is a self-portrait of yourself. How do you express yourself through your images? How does photography better help you understand the world? How personal is your photography? These are some questions you can ask yourself to better channel your emotions into your images.
4. Don’t settle for mediocrity; Give it your 100%
One of the things that drives Parke in his photography is to avoid mediocrity and to give his image-making his 100%. Initially Parke started off as a professional cricket player, before transitioning into focusing on photography full-time. Parke shares his story:
“When I was offered a job on The Daily Telegraph and made the move to Sydney I thought I would still be able to train and play on weekends. I realised after my first week at work that my sporting career was over – the paper demanded so much. And if I can’t go 100 per cent at something, it’s over. I need to live what I do from the moment I get up to the moment I fall asleep (and then to dream about it some more). I didn’t play sport to be average I played to be the best that I could be. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about making sure you are giving it your best shot with the abilities you have been granted…”
Parke knew that he couldn’t give cricket and photography his 100%. So he made the difficult decision of leaving cricket behind, and giving his full energy and attention to photography.
Furthermore, he brings up a great point how sports (and photography) isn’t about winning or losing
but achieving the best you possibly can, “with the abilities you have been granted.”
Parke explains in another interview how he is constantly trying to push his boundaries of making great images:
“There’s definitely that point where you know you’ve got something special, but it’s when [you're doing something such as] using the camera with movement or where you take a chance on something. You think, “that’s a great picture, but how do I make an even greater picture?” Often it’ll be something that I’ve been trying for maybe weeks before, that I’ll be working up to in technique, that might all of a sudden come to fruition in that particular picture. But I’ll push something, and push something and push something, until I get it.“
Parke never gives up and never relents in his photography. He doesn’t want to create second-rate work– he wants to achieve the best he possibly can. And he knows by constantly pushing himself– he can achieve it.
Not only that, but Parke has greater ambitions to push the genre of photography forward too:
“It’s not enough for me just to be out on the street and shooting people – I need to be trying to push medium of photography as well. I want to create new and interesting pictures rather than stuff that has been seen before. It’s a multi-layered thing. I don’t feel I’m clever enough to be able to set images up. I’d rather see them happening around me, grab them and let chance play a part in it … And when the photograph works it has a kind of epic quality.”
I wrote in a prior post, “The 7 Deadly Sins of Mediocrity in Street Photography”
how to become a great photographer is to simply avoid mediocrity.
Parke lets his personal vision drive him in his photography– and is constantly driven to create greater work. He doesn’t settle for second-best for himself. He wants to achieve the best he can possibly do in his photography.
I would say have the same philosophy for yourself. Sure you might not become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank, but you can become the best photographer you possibly can. The same goes in sports– if you are only 5 feet tall, you will never make it into the NBA. But you can become the best damn basketball player of your own ability.
I think it can be dangerous to see photography as some sort of competition or sport– in which there are clearly defined winners and losers. We can easy fall into this “sport” of photography by comparing ourselves to others by the number of favorites, likes, followers, comments, exhibitions, books, or awards we have.
But don’t compete with others in your photography. Compete with yourself. Have the inner-struggle that drives you to create the best possible work that you can. The most important person to impress is yourself. And don’t disappoint yourself in your photography, keep pushing forward.
5. Don’t stand still
I’ve never met Trent Parke, but based on interviews I’ve read and photographers who have met him in person– they all describe him as not being able to sit still– and is constantly wired. Parke himself describes himself as the following:
“I’m always ‘wired’, always awake, things are always rattling through my mind. I suppose I’ve started to calm down a little bit, but in that first ten-year period that I was on the streets of Sydney I was just manic. Insane.”
Parke shares how he channels this energy into his street photography:
“That’s how I approach street photography: watching everything. If I think something might happen, then I will hang around. But most of the time I’m rushing from one corner of the city to another, just looking for stuff.”
Another reason why Parke describes why he doesn’t like to stand still when he is shooting is to not draw too much attention to himself:
“I also don’t like to stand still because you attract attention to yourself. I’ve never been pulled up on the street and it is simply because nobody ever sees me. I’m there and I’m gone. If you spend too much time in a place you tend to start affecting what’s happening around you. And I just want to capture things as they are without influencing the action in any way.”
Even when he isn’t taking photos, Parke constantly sees potential photographs:
“You can be standing there and you’re just seeing stuff. All the time [I'm seeing] compositions coming together. The whole time I’m looking, everything is stopping and forming into still frames. Like people walking across the street and all that sort of stuff. Every tiny little thing… I find it very difficult to turn it off. If I’ve been out shooting for a couple of days, I can’t sleep for days on end because my mind is still going a hundred miles an hour.”
Photography is deeply embedded into his body and soul, and keeps him going:
“The fabricated world is what interests me most: the mass of people, the dramatic light from the buildings. It mesmerises me; gets my blood racing. There is so much happening on the street. You cannot possibly know what will come along next.”
Trent Parke is a photographer who is always thinking about photography, always shooting, and can never stand still. He embodies the soul of photography– and it isn’t just his passion, it is who he is as a person.
Not all of us have the personality trait of Trent Parke
to always be constantly wired. Some of us are more low-key.
We don’t all need to imitate Trent Parke in terms of his mannerisms and shooting style. But I think what I personally learned from him is that you can’t become a great photographer just by sitting down. You need to constantly be thinking about photography, and out there shooting to create great images.
I used to fall victim to spending too much time on the computer and not spending enough time outside taking photographs. I made excuses about my gear not being good enough, or not having enough time. But those were all excuses– I just needed to go out and shoot. By standing still, you will never achieve greatness– certainly not in life and photography.
6. Simplify your scenes
One of the most difficult things in street photography is to make sense of all the chaos out there. Parke too, identifies this problem– and shares how he solves it. He simplifies his scenes, with the use of his light, shadows, and contrasts:
“Dream/Life was really about finding myself and my place in life. I wanted to present a truer version of Sydney – with lots of rain and thunderstorms, and the darker qualities that inhabit the city – not the picture-postcard views the rest of the world sees. But I also wanted to make images that were poetic. Trouble was the city was actually quite ugly in terms of the amount of advertising and visual crap that clutters the streets. I found I could clarify the image by using the harsh Australian sunlight to create deep shadow areas. That searing light that is very much part of Sydney – it just rattles down the streets. So, I used these strong shadows to obliterate a lot of the advertising and make the scenes blacker and more dramatic. I wanted to suggest a dream world. Light does that, changing something everyday into something magical.”
One of the common mistakes of street photographers starting off is that their scenes are too busy and cluttered. There are too many random heads in the shot, busy backgrounds, ugly cars, etc.
A good way to simplify your scenes is by using light to your advantage: shooting and creating strong shadows by exposing for your highlights (something you can easily do with spot-metering). You can also shoot your subjects against simpler backgrounds, and frame tighter to remove clutter in your shots. Also by using a flash, you can draw more focus to your primary subject– and darken the background which may be distracting as well.
7. Ignore single-image images; focus on making books
What drives Trent Parke in his works? It certainly isn’t single images that might get him a lot of love on social media. Rather, it is making books. He shares his passion for books in the excerpt below:
“Everything I do is working towards the next book. Books are what drive my work. I am not interested in single photographs. From the moment I started Dream/Life I knew that it had to be a book in order to get across my feelings for the city. Making books teaches you a lot about your own work. Every trip I do I make a one-off book from the work just to see where it’s going and what might still be missing to make it work as a whole.
He also shares why he published his first body of work: “Dream/Life”
even though it was extremely expensive:
“I self-published Dream/Life because, in the end, I wanted complete control of the finished product. It would have been almost impossible to find anyone in Australia to publish a book like that. It cost me about $65,000 and, even though I am never going to make a lot of that money back, I couldn’t begin to place a value on how much it has helped my career.”
One of the things that I love about the internet is how social media has helped us connect with other photographers from all around the globe. Not only that, but it has created an outlet for us to share our images with millions of people from around the globe.
However the downside of social media is that it sometimes becomes a contest of who can get the most favorites/likes/comments on their images. And it ends up being very single-image driven. Very few photographers I know who are active on social media work on books, which often take a lot of time focusing on a single project.
I used to be a more single-image driven photographer as well. I wanted lots of social media love on my images to have a sense of validation.
However, at the end of the day– I think that single-images aren’t nearly as strong or powerful as books, projects, and bodies of work. A single image can’t tell a story
whereas photography books can. And single images can’t create narratives– whereas photography books allow you to go deeper into your subject matter.
Therefore I am currently working towards publishing my first photography books, hopefully on my “Suits” project or my “Colors” project. I have gotten only about 10 good images (each) after 2 years of working on each project. That is about 5 good photos a year. Assuming that I want my book to be around 50 images, I have around 8 more years to go.
It is a bit frustrating how long it can take to work on a photography book or a project– but I think at the end of the day, it is far more meaningful. After you die, will your Flickr or Facebook still be around? Probably not. But I’m certain your photography book will still remain.
The great thing about technology nowadays is that you don’t even need to get a book publisher anymore. Great services like Blurb or Magcloud allow you to create professional-looking books without having to invest tens of thousands of dollars. Granted they aren’t as good as what a traditional publisher might make– but I think the tradeoff in terms of price and availability are definitely worth it.
So consider focusing more on photography projects, and even publishing your first book.
8. Create social commentary
Another aspect I love about Parke’s work is how his images and projects focus on social issues. They aren’t just pretty images– he is trying to say something greater about Australian society as a whole. Parke explains:
“My work always grows out of what is affecting my life right now. I see myself as an average Australian and the issues that affect me are usually the issues that are affecting a lot of other people too. I want my work to comment on what it was like to live in this country during my lifetime.”
Parke explains also what statement he was trying to make through “Minutes to midnight”:
“The book is almost a fiction where I’m creating a story from these documentary pictures. It’s basically making a statement that the world’s going crazy.”
When you create projects or bodies of work– think about what kind of statement you are trying to make through your images. Think about the deeper meaning that your project can say about yourself or about society. Make it personal, and make it meaningful.
9. Be influenced by outside arts
When asked about Parke’s influences– he shares how some of the melancholy in bands like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead affected his work:
“Those sorts of bands and their music videos have been a great influence. There is this Icelandic group called Sigur-Ros and their music is just very sad and melodramatic. They have this kind of dark dreamy quality and I suppose that is what I am trying to evoke in my photographs, although I am not really conscious of these influences when I am taking pictures.”
Don’t just other photographers influence you in your work. Think of how other channels of arts such as music, sculpture, painting, film, humanities, social science, etc can influence your work. Don’t limit yourself– visit museums, exhibitions, and talk to other artists. Let them influence you and open up your world.
10. Have a sense of urgency
One of the philosophies I have in life is: “Live everyday like it were your last.” After all, we never know when we will die. Even though we are young and healthy, we might get in a car accident tomorrow. I want to live without regrets. Even Steve Jobs used this as his life’s mantra:
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, some day you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005
Trent Parke also has a similar sense of urgency in his life and his work, which was drawn from a personal tragedy in his life:
“[My] mum died quite suddenly one night from an asthma attack. That was it. It was all over. It was the turning point in my life that left me desperate to grab hold of everything while I can. There is no certainty of tomorrow.”
The uncertainty of life is certainly what drives his street photography:
“I went out shooting every day – it became like a drug to me. I loved the ‘rush’ of getting out amongst all the people and I just needed to get the images on film.”
It is always difficult to make time for us to pursue our passions. We are all busy. Busy with work, busy with our families, busy with other obligations. Busy, busy, busy.
When it comes to street photography, it is the most democratic and easily accessible types of photography. Regardless of how busy we are, I think we can all make at least 15 minutes a day to just go out and take photos. You can do it from a quick lunch break at the office– or on the way to the grocery store.
Don’t put your passion on the back burner. If we keep delaying our passions because we are “too busy”
we will one day end up being on our deathbeds and regretting not spending more time on what mattered to us the most.
11. On black and white vs color
Trent Parke’s images have a certain look to them. In his black and white work, there is an epic and melancholy look to them. His color work also has a searing color that screams off the pages. Although Parke is mostly known for his black and white work, he has recently focused more on color. He shares why that is:
“With black and white, or colour, I have to be shooting one or the other and just pushing and working and working and trying to get it to another level. When you shoot colour, you’ve got to think colour. You’re thinking great colours as well as great moments, getting that all to come together in one frame is awfully hard to do.”
Parke also shares how he has switched from shooting his black and whites from 35mm on his Leica and moved up to shooting medium-format color on a Mamiya 7:
“The Minutes to Midnight pictures were lyrical and timeless, but there was nothing that really identifies Australia in a physical sense, so I wanted to do something that looked at urban Australia, that used signs and advertisement that would date the country in a particular time. I wanted more detail so people can read signs. That was why I had to go up from 35 mm to medium format. At the same time, I started going through our family albums and I found all these old kodachromes and I was amazed by the colour. That was the main catalyst for going into colour.”
Even though Parke was well-known for his black and white work and mastered the medium, he didn’t let himself become complacent with his work. He could’ve easily stuck with black and white and kept making new work that looked like his old work.
But he continued to push forth– taking his photography into new boundaries, which is working in color.
Parke also shares that by working in color– you have to see the world differently. And one cannot focus on shooting both black and white and color at the same time. You need to focus on one or the other.
Personally I can attest to this as well. The first 5 years I shot street photography, it has all been in black and white. I swathe world differently. I saw the world in abstractions, in forms and shapes, in contrasts, shadows and light. But when I switched to shooting in color, I specifically looked for the color– and the description and context color added to my images.
At the end of the day, black and white and color are different mediums. Neither is “better” than the other. But I would recommend sticking with one medium or another for a certain project. Because you will see the world differently. By trying to mix both, you won’t have enough focus to create truly great work.
12. On being a photographer and parent
I don’t have any kids– but I have heard how they change the way you live your life in a dramatic and profound way.
Trent Parke shares how having a child changed his life– and especially his photography:
“I used to shoot pretty much every day or any spare moment. Narelle and I gave up any social life we had to be able to continue doing our personal work. Being a street photographer means you never really stop taking pictures. And when I’m not shooting, Narelle is shooting. When Jem came along it changed everything. Both our parents and families live in different states and as we don’t have any friends with children here, there is no real day off (we cant afford the ridiculous prices of childcare).”
However even though Parke has a child, he still has been able to find ways to shoot:
“There was only one real option if I wanted to keep taking pictures and spend time with my son.Push a stroller as well as take pictures.“
Over time, Parke has found how he has been able to balance having a family and child with his photography:
“Jem hates our two bedroom dogbox flat and loves being outside, so when the light gets right we head out. I spend an hour or so shooting and when the light goes we head to the nearest park. He gets a tour and then gets to play somewhere different at the end of it so it works out ok. I’ve missed some great pictures along the way, but I have also managed to knock a few good ones off that I wouldn’t have had any chance of taking had we been at home. It has completely changed the way I work. But I actually think it’s for the better.“
If you have a child and find it difficult to make time to go out and take photos, incorporate your lifestyle as a parent into your photography. Don’t think of your child as preventing you from creating great work. Go out with your kid and explore the world together– camera in hand.
I admire Trent Parke greatly both for his phenomenal work and his infectious passion for photography. He has truly helped push the genre of street photography forward with his relentless goal of making exceptional images.
Personally Parke has challenged me in my photography– to focus more on making books, to creating more emotionally-driven images, as well as not settling for mediocrity.
I think if we all follow his lead by never quitting in our work and striving to be the best we possibly can be in our photography
we will die without regrets.