Where Will the Street Photography Boom End?

Posted on September 6, 2013

Street photography is booming right now, and I think that this raises a few questions. Some of these questions in my mind will lead to desirable results, others however may not.

Backlit Poser

In the years gone by there have been a wealth of very talented artists that have walked the streets of the various cities and locations of the world with a simple camera in hand, and a very simple goal. The goal was to document and record the world around them. Some were doing it for different reasons to others. Some were doing it to preserve memories of their life, others as they loved to interact with their subjects and record life of people in the places that they either lived or visited. Others still as they were simply obsessed with the still image and its wonders. I think that even the later needed to be draw in some way to the people around them though, it was a requirement of the trade for most.

So there are names… Winogrand, Erwitt, Friedlander, Moryama, HCB, Gilden… The list is long and I wont run through more than this, we get the point… What was different then though?

Digital images were not available. The internet was not even thought about. There was no social media. There was no mobile telephones. The world was a very different place, both technologically, as well as culturally. These are the aspects that I think worked to the advantage of the street photographer of the past, and they are also the things that are generating the current boom in street photography. Lets have a look at some of these things in a little more detail.

I have already covered some of my thoughts about the need to let your images marinate before editing, and I think that these things are related as well. Its all about how fast everything happens in the world we live in, and how people interact with each other these days, and I am going to ramble a little on what I think about it… So the deal is this… If you dont like ramblings then leave now. I will let you know when I have stopped.

I am going to start by sharing something with you that I read a while ago. This is a blog post from a friend of mine Jamie Furlong. Jamie is one of the founders and curators at Urban Picnic Street Photography, and he has written about social media and how it can kill your photography.

Jamie Furlong

Photo C/O Jamie Furlong (Copyright Jamie Furlong Photography)

Jamie raises some really interesting points that I will let you read in his blog post rather than covering off on them again here. But I think that what he has to say hits at the core of what I am attempting to get across in this post.

So, that was a really long lead in to what we are about to cover off here, but we might start off with a look at the artistic environment that we are operating in at the moment.

We live in a world of technological advancement. The massive boom in the dot com era might have cemented this, but it was in place in small ways way before this. It was in place in a photographic point of view when we saw the SLR overtake the rangefinder camera as the consumer camera of choice. Maybe the fact that the greats of our time stuck to the tried and true in rangefinder technology should have been the first clue, but as a society in general we are not great at seeing the cues when they are laid out in front of us.

So the race to being the fastest car, sharpest lens, biggest thingymajig, longest other whats it, and bestest whos it jiggy is well and truly on. People want to build bigger, better, and faster, no matter what the medium. I dont think that street photography is immune to this. I also think that there is something else at play… I think that the current generation has this hipster wanna be like the old times type deal going. Things that were cool before are now cool again, and this is the second factor that is also playing a hand in the current boom. This is evident by the processing trends. Digital images made to look like film. Film being used more and more, and the whole lomo type image trend that is all over the place. Intagram filters being the best example of this. Hell, I have a friend that was even adamant to show me that doilies are back in at the moment so tagged me in as many doily images she could find till I agreed with her.

Lets got through the standard day in the life of a current street photographer… Get up, have something to eat, go through the morning routine, and grab their high tech digital camera. Walk out the door, spend the day grabbing some shots. Searching for the right moment and the right scene to capture. Nothing really different in the process just yet yeah, the greats would have done something about the same in the years gone by… But this is where things start to get a little different.

The modern day street photographer has just walked in the door from the days shooting. They wander through the house, walk to their computer, slip their memory card into the computer, and their ‘film’ is now processed. No waiting right? We are modern tech dudes and we want things right now remember… So my images are now in my computer, they are downloaded to a post production program of some sort and I am ready to edit things down already… No stewing of the images here, straight to the point. I need to get these shots out so I can post them online remember.

So they stick a few preset filters on the images in Lightroom, put them in the right upload library and away we go. The images are out there for the world to see. I get the point. I understand the need to instant gratification that so many of us have. And I think that I get where this comes from. It comes from the ease at which we can access everything, and the fact that so many of us take this access for granted.

Tap

Tap

This is one of the reasons that I am shooting more and more film. I am also sharing less work. I am internalising my work and going through what I have done in the last 9 months or so since coming back to photography and working out what it is that I want to shoot. I dont know if what I will come away with is going to be street photography. I guess I dont know if a lot of the things that we see in the Facebook pages and online sites at the moment would really be classified as street photography either. But then there is the other issue of defining street photography. Many people have tried to do it and struggled. But really, the bigger question is what does trying to shoot a specific genre of image do to you as an artist. Who cares about the genre… The important thing is that you enjoy what you are doing, and you do it for the right reasons.

These reasons are core to the issue that we are discussing. I do know that I am struggling to stay on track a little, but this is key to the issue at hand. When you go out shooting do you have a thought in your head about getting that great shot to give youself the satisfaction, or is there a requirement for some sort of justification of your work by others that you have. Do you think about getting home to share that shot online to get all the likes you can muster. Stars on Flickr, and shared round various other platforms… I hope thats not the driving force behind your work. If you are shooting to try and make others happy then this is a great thing, dont get me wrong. The issue starts to raise its ugly head when you are searching for something that you wouldnt usually try to shoot. You are trying to fit some site moderators ideal about what you should be submitting to their page… This comes through in your work.

I should probably add a bit of a disclaimer to some of this as well. I admin on a couple of these pages. I am an admin at APF Street Facebook page, and I am an editor at Urban Picnic Street Photography as well. So I dont want people to stop sharing their work, and I also think that the social aspect of social media can do wonders for your work and growth as an artist if exploited in the right way. What I would like to see is an improvement in the caliber of work that is shared in these sites. This comes back to the need to share. Even some of the great street guys of the current era have a tendency to share sub par work at times. I have done it a tonne and its why I am trying to reduce the amount of work that I post for a while. Its why I want to really get a hold of my editing skills and be my harshest critic…

The other thing that plays a hand in this is GAS. Many people have written about Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I am hopeless… Just one more lens, just another body… They are so shiny and pretty! This is an extension of the speed of technology at the moment as well. Just like computer tech, digital cameras are the same. You buy something and within a very short time there is an even better model available and offering something new. Better sensor sharpness, better low light performance, higher resolution images. I like to think that I am basically done with this though. Its OK, I can hear you laughing… But I am actually serious. I dont have a massive need for a new digital camera as I shoot film more and more at the moment. I dont have a need for a new film camera as I have all that I will ever need in what I have at the moment. I have a great SLR, and a couple of great rangefinders. I get the gear thing, and I love to look at gear sites as well. But you know what… My Leica M6 is never going to be outdated and super seeded by the newer and better model… That happened already in about 2002 when they released the M7. They still make them today. But many would argue that the M7 took things a little too far anyway… I am not going to get swayed by faster auto focus speeds, the M6 is manual focus anyway. And better sensor performance… I can change my sensor anyway, can do that with your spiffy digital camera! I can safely say that I will never need another camera again… Not rulling out a lens purchase at some point, but the 35mm focal length thats on the camera at the moment is perfect for what I use the camera for, so for the moment I am free from GAS.

Headless

Headless

So, what can we do to try and control some of these issues? Heaps! We are the ones that have control over this exact situation. Lets just make a really quick list hey!

  1. Buy books not gear. Looking at great images will make you a better artist. The newest sensor might be a little sharper, but a bad shot is still a bad shot.
  2. Let your images stew before sharing them.
  3. Use social media to be social and find a trusted network to get honest and harsh feedback on your work.
  4. Provide feedback to others on their work. Being critical of others is an important part of your growth as well.
  5. Shoot more film. The whole process slows you down and reduces the instant gratification that you yearn for and are likely addicted to.
  6. Learn to process your own film. Its really easy to process black and white and it will teach you a lot.
  7. Explore genres outside of street. Diversity will improve you as an artist.
  8. Shoot images because you love to do it, not because you love to share them.
  9. Print your images instead of only looking at the on a computer screen, Images look better on paper and its why you should buy books.
  10. Hang your work in your house. If you take an image that you love, make a print of it and frame it. This is what we used to do.
  11. Make a photo album. Print images and put them together in an album, a REAL one, not a virtual one.
  12. Involve yourself with passionate people who share your love for photography.

So there was a question asked in the topic for this post… Where will this boom end? I think that we have covered off a lot of information on what is causing the growth, but I dont think that we have been definitive about an answer to the question. I also dont know if we can be definitive with a response, but lets have a go at making some assumptions.

This might be a bit of a contentious statement, but I am going to make it anyway…

Photography as a whole is in a little trouble!

The smart phone has brought image capturing to more people than ever before. And the ability to share said images with the rest of the world at the press of a button. This means that people take images of anything. Their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Anything that is even slightly amusing… And maybe worst of all, themselves. There was a stat that I read about the fact that “20% of the 3.5 trillion images that we have captured since the first photo was taken in 1838 were taken in the last 2 years”. This statement is from this article, and its well worth a read. This is a massive number of images, and it starts to paint the picture of what youre dealing with in order to sift through the number of submissions to some sites trying to find the great images that are still out there. Its like the great images are being diluted by the sheer number of photos that are just taken as a way of communicating with friends about what you are doing at any given moment.

There are other signs that photography is going through a transition at the moment as well. Reduction in photography staff numbers in a number of previously strong media organisations. The still image doesnt have the same sense of wonder that it used to. We need to work out how to get that back. Great photos are a wonderful thing. They create a sense of emotion in the viewer, and this needs to be salvaged.

I will leave you with a final picture. I read on a blog a while back that Bellamy from Japan Camera Hunter wrote. In the post he told a story about a friends small child asking to take some photos with one of his cameras. He gave the camera to the child and let them shoot off a couple of shots, and then the child came over looking at the back of the camera asking where the screen was to view the image. He didnt know what film was. His expectations were that he would be able to see the shot as soon as he took it. I think this little story says much about where we are as far as still images are concerned.