It is a good distinction so I will continue to promote it. Push or Pull or somewhere in between? Here is the story. Or part of the story. A couple of years back, I was given a chance to exhibit some of my street photographs at a fine gallery not far from where I live. Historically the gallery had not done much for photography. I had to sharpen up not to let people down since it was kind of a new thing.
Initially I had no idea how to prepare the task. I was not into printing and I was not into framing. I considered both to be special crafts or even arts, that I did not have much experience in. No experience at all is a better formulation. Best leaving that to others, I though.
I started a virtual tour to find out how to know the game. I spent money making test prints with different printers both in Denmark and elsewhere. I made an effort to find out who could do the best woodwork from frames. I wanted best standard in both.
I ended up with doing the frames locally since other options were too expensive. And I ended up with doing the prints in England since they seems to have a good grip on it. Mind you, not all printers do silver prints from digital. IlfordLab in the UK, do.
I ordered 30 small prints from that company. It was the first professional prints I ever had made.
Prints in hand, I had to sort the 12 I was going to use for the exhibition. I made a row with all prints on my dining table, moving them around at the table to make a good selection and sequence.
During the process I discovered that the photographs belonged to different categories. Some fell in what I would call a Push category, others in what I would call a Pull category. Some were a combination of both. I kept the distinction since it seemed to be useful.
What is the difference between Push and Pull in street photography?
Like the terms suggest: In a Push photograph you push your theme. You make choices for the viewer in regards to what you want him/her to see, and how you want him/her to see it.
In a Pull photograph you let your viewer select a theme in your picture. You minimize your own presence as a selecting photographer and leave more choices for the viewer.
A Push photograph is a closed image. A Pull photograph is an open image.
Realizing that in both cases the categories would be fleeting and overlapping. Nevertheless a useful distinction to have.
I wondered if I, as a photographer, could place myself in any of the categories? I am still in that process. Not that I feel it to be a must to be in one of the other but I found it an encouraging experience, that I probably could do both types.
It was like adding new tools to the toolbox. A way to better understand what I saw when I looked at things.
Is knowledge like this necessary if you pursue street photography? It is more of a nice to have than a need to have. I realized that.
I see it, roughly, this way: The more knowledge you have, as to how visuals work, the better you are in position to seek what you want to show in your photography.
And: The sooner you start training for Push and Pull photography the faster the activity will move from your left brain to your right brain. From being a conscious activity to being an unconscious activity.
Doing Push or Pull street photography could soon become part of your gut knowledge. That type of knowledge that serves you without you having to think about it.
Now it is your turn:
Here are four things you can do to raise the knowledge of where you are on the push and pull scale. Four simple suggestions:
Make prints of let’s say 20 of your best photographs and place them side by side on your dining table or your floor. Take a closer look at them and decide if each is push or pull or maybe something in between.
Reflect on Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. Decide who of the two is mainly a push photographer, and who is mainly a pull photographer. Or select any famous photographer you know for this exercise.
The five photographs you find in this post, how would you place them? Push or Pull? Or a bit of each.
The photo are: Blow Up, Berlin 2015 (Above); The Conversation, Berlin 2015; Bleak Moment, Copenhagen 2014; French Connection, Paris 2013; and Road Runner, Berlin 2016. (Below).
Go out into the real world and take a few pictures that are mainly push photographs. And some that are mainly pull photographs.
© Knut Skjærven. Text and photographs.
Knut Skjærven is a Norwegian photographer, blogger and researcher in visual communication. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. He runs, among many others things, New Street Agenda. He started doing street photography in 2010. In 2015 Knut was nominated for the prestigious HCB Award by Council of Europe, Strasbourg.