On Street Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 199, February 2017
We simply must talk about street photography. This subject has been bothering me for a long time. It has taken me a while to figure why but I think am now approaching a conclusion: street photography as concept and genre should cease to exist – from this day forward the concept of street photography ought to be consigned to the footnotes of Wikipedia.
I’ll put this antipathy to a popular form of photography in context; first I should explain what I mean by ‘street photography’. This genre is defined by location – the street – and its haphazard nature. One could argue that the nature of street photography is simple and easy to define because its only concern is the interaction between a photographer and the people and events found in the urban environment. You could also say that street photographs are characterised by chance and the depiction of the interplay between humanity and the built environment. This form of photography is attractive, perhaps in concept, but not always worthy of the attention it receives in practice and I hope I can prove to you why we need to move beyond the empty concept that is street photography.
Now, here’s a bit of a non-sequitur but please follow me… the greatest English engraver of the 19th century was Samuel Palmer (often cited by British documentary photographers as a key influence). His Blake-inspired engravings established all the key objectives of street photography decades before photography. There may even be an argument to make that Samuel Palmer was the father of the documentary movement but that’s for another time. Although his work was decidedly bucolic his focus was ordinary working people in their natural habitat. He would show his very ‘human’ subjects in a dynamically depicted environment. Street photography owes a debt to him because his intricate engravings elevated the mundane – the everyday occurrences that the art (of the time) was not concerned with. Palmer died in 1881 as photography was making the recording of everyday life more accessible.
A mere 16 years after Palmer’s death Eugene Atget would start his ‘Old Paris’ series of street inspired photography which he would pursue for the next 30 years until his death in 1927. Atget wanted to capture all of Paris life before it gave way to the onslaught of modernity. Contemporary artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Man Ray where all drawn to Atget’s photographs of Paris life because they detected a surrealism in the imagery which reflected their own artistic concerns at that time. Unfortunately for Atget he was not to live long enough to see his work’s success. However, because of the work of this one man and the august crowd it attracted, an entire genre was born; street photography. What endures of Atget’s work is his dedication to document. That his images engaged his viewers and still do to this day is testament to the seriousness of purpose that underlined they’re making. Atget did not consider himself an artist rather a working photographer in the act of documentation. His important depictions of everyday people and life were to inspire generations of great photography.
So let’s name some of the great photographers known for ‘street photography’ who came after Atget. There are too many to list here comprehensively but here are a few; Walker Evans, Berenice Abbot, Cartier Bresson, Gary Winogrand, Harry Gruyeart, Diane Arbus, Alex Webb, Elliot Erwitt and Robert Frank to tag a random few. I pluck these names out of the air and no doubt you too could add many to them. I see no connection in the work of these disciples of Atget to the concept we now understand as street photography. All of these practitioners are serious artists, journalists and social documenters. Their approach is, respectively; particular, questing, intellectual, deep and deeply felt. Their work may contain some of the tropes of what we have come to expect from street photography (such as extraordinary juxtapositions between people and street typography, trompe-l’œil effects and animal/human interactions to name just a few) but these ‘visual gags’ are the by-catch of serious work.
In our age of super-shallow concept-aquisition – where cultural and historical memes are exploited and devoured by a restless, tech obsessed generation (vis Lomography for its commercialisation of the effects of the application of poor optics to film) we extract the visual ‘hooks’ from these great works of documentary and exploit them to the point that they become anti-iconic graphics of which the best that can be said is “cool”. And “cool” is to photography what salt is to slugs.
The current ubiquity of street photography and its acceptance as a valuable artistic exercise speaks so clearly of the ease with which it is partaken and the lack of commitment it requires. After all most of us live in a town or city. We can easily take a couple of hours to shoot the world around us. I have to admit it is an enjoyable way to spend time. Street photography has become a gentle pastime that can be successful by its own standards without delving beneath the surface of things. When street photography goes deeper it stops being street photography and becomes its more noble cousin, ‘documentary photography’.
I have not mentioned the names of any photographers whose work I think epitomise the hollow world of street photography because I only ever wish to write about the things I like. I reserve my ire for the concepts and attitudes I am uncomfortable with. I believe ‘street photography’ is a dead term describing an obsolete practice. In this way it reminds me of Don Quixote running his sword at windmills – a difficult and fruitless occupation.
We each have in us an ability to connect with the side of the world we are presented with in the same way that Palmer and Atget did. As artists and documenters we should attempt to go deeper and dare ourselves to commit to themes, subjects and concepts. We may fail, we may find ourselves inadequate to the task but just trying to delve further into the mire of humanity gives us the only chance of unearthing the odd, unexpected and precious gem. The street is not enough on its own – humanity is the focus and when the street comes first something is lost. As Oscar Wilde said
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”