Attitude and the art of street photography
Photo credit to Jeff Mermelstein
As I am discussing my thoughts in street photography, I have used some of what I would consider iconic images either from the street, or from some of the artists that I have mentioned in the post.
As a general rule I don't like to enter into the debate about what is and isn't street photography. It's a murky deep dark black hole of an argument that just isn't worth having in my opinion. I have however been having some thoughts about why this is such a contentious topic, and I thought I would write a little about it.
Photo credit to Boogie
Defining what is street is such a stupid thing because of one clear fact for me, it doesn't matter if what you take is or isn't street. It doesn't matter if it is or isn't landscape. It does matter if the image is a good image or a bad image. There is an argument that what would make an image good or bad actually holds true no matter what genre you chose to play in.
The only thing that has made these things actually matter is the need for people in random Facebook and Flickr groups to define the style of work that they expect from their members. I hear some of you arguing that I have a bit to do with some of these exact groups. I do. I am not here to ague about the role that I do or do not play in any of this debacle, but just to get some thoughts out.
Photo credit to Joel Meyerowitz
I am going to make one thing perfectly clear here. These are my thoughts and my thoughts only. If you don't agree with them, great!
Street photography. I will start with a bit of a statement that is likely only going to make sense to my Aussie brethren.
It's Mabo, it's the constitution... It's the vibe
To the non Aussies out there I will say 2 things.
1. Watch a movie called The Castle (you won't get it, but it's so Aussie it's funny)
2. It's an attitude.
Photo credit to William Klein
As some of you know I have collected a few books over the last year or so. As I take in the images in some of the books that I would place squarely in the street genre of photography I am noticing something. There is an attitude to the images that just isn't present in other work. This doesn't mean that other work is better of worse. It just means that for me, in order for something to be street it has to have this attitude. It's a direct reflection of the art is in most cases.
There is a famous Gilden quote about needing to be able to smell the street in the images. This I think is the same thing. The feeling of the grit, grime, and general vide of the street needs to be present in the photo. This is not possible unless the artist has the connection with the street that is required to actually capture this. I made the comparison to landscape work earlier in the post. I'm sure that if one was able to find from the thousands of defining images in the landscape genre a similar statement would likely work.
Photo credit to Bruce Gilden
Maybe the word attitude wouldn't be the word that would define the feeling from the landscape work but I'm sure there would be feeling to the work none the less. It would likely be one of serenity in some cases. In others it might be one of sheer awe at the size and shape of what the artists was able to capture. In a great landscape one might argue that they could almost smell the trees and the fresh breeze.
Notice I didn't argue for a connection with the subject in the case of the street attitude. To me this is a totally different conversation. I don't think that connecting with ones subject does or doesn't lend itself to street photography. This of course hinges on the fact that the attitude needs to be there. I try to disassociate myself and my work from what I think street photography is becoming.
A large portion of the people who call themselves a street photographer have no idea what the term is actually referencing. The only reason that they have found the term is through a Google search that contained a phrase like 'taking photos on the street'. Up pops 5000 blogs, a few decent websites, some Facebook and Flickr groups. All with guys at the head who are really good at SEO.
Photo credit to Gary Winogrand
There is no respect for what street photography once was or where it came from. In many cases there is just a modus toilets argument of: There is a genre of photography called Street Photography I took this photo on the street Therefore this is a street photo It just doesn't work that way. I am very conscious of the fact that I am sounding a little jaded at the moment. This is partly because I am.
Some will know that I admin at APF Street, and also help out as an editor at Urban Picnic Street Photography. This is likely where this thought process has started. I don't know how many times I have made the statement to people that just cause you took a photo on the street doesn't make it a street photo. In order for it to be a street photo it needs to have the attitude that I am trying to get across here.
I am not passing judgement on the quality of the image here. The quality of images and what digital media combined with the internet has done to the still image is something that could also be discussed at length. This is not that place for that. What I am saying is that it's even possible in my mind to make great images on the street, amazing images, and the images still not fit into the genre of street photography.
Photo credit to Alex Webb
A prime example of this for me is Alex Webb. I will never try and argue that the work that Webb does is not stunning. It is. He has an amazing eye. His attention to detail is second to none. The colours and textures in his images are so unique that you can usually tell that you are looking at a Webb image. This alone is something that is such an achievement. What his work doesn't have is attitude. It doesn't have that 'I can smell the street' flavour to it. It has more of a fine art flavour.
Maybe there is also an argument for fine art in street. Maybe this is a different genre all together. There is also the issue of perception. I guess the sensual perception that we are referring to here is once sense of smell. Webb's sense of smell may be revealing something to him that I just don't get from the street. His sense of smell seems to me to point towards a more documentary style of image, but this is a contentious and grey line in itself. This again is just a post outlining an opinion. Only one person's opinion. Mine.
Another example for me is the man that some would claim to be the godfather of the genre. Henri Cartier Bresson. Again, I would never argue against the strength of his work. It is amazing. His composition and ability to use candid subjects to frame images that even if shot in a studio couldn't be improved from a compositional perspective is something that others just don't posses.
But maybe it's this fact for me that removes that street smell from his work. The images are just too perfect in some ways. I am not saying that this is the case for all his work either, but the general feel that I get when I take in a lot of his work in a single sitting is one of perfection. I am taken by his talent as an artist more than I am taken by the punch and flavour of the street in his work.
Photo credit to Henri Cartier-Bresson
I mentioned in passing the impact that the growth of the digital medium has had on the still image. I have talked about it in the past to some degree. I also have a post planned on printing as a part of the photographic process, and my thoughts on that, a topic that is sure to touch on the impact that digital media is having on printed work and the fact that people don't see a need to print photos anymore. Why would you when you can look at them online. Look at them on a tablet.
What I will mention here though is how I think the development of inexpensive digital cameras, and even to some extent the camera phone, are bringing more and more people to what they think is street photography. So many people carry a device with them that is capable of making photos. It could be in the form of a phone, a tablet, or a digital camera of some sort. What do you do with these things? You make photos. Simple.
It seems to me that some of these stories play out in the form of someone going to buy a camera. They might do it to take away on a holiday. They might do it cause they have a few friends that also have cameras. Now they have the tools to make photos, they need to find subject matter. People on the street, and even still life type images on the street are sometimes just a matter of convenience. It's easy to take a camera with you when you walk down the street and snap a few frames as you go. Maybe adding to this with the digital medium is the fact that you have already outlawed the money on the camera here, so essentially making the photo is free, especially when you remove the printing process.
Photo credit to Diane Arbus
This technological development is one that is in no way one that we are able to assess its end result. I can't fathom where the art of photography will be in 15 years. This might be one of the reasons that I for one have become more insular in the work that I do. I do the work for me. I share it with like minded friends who's opinions I value. I don't have a need to share the work in the many and varied places that are available online.
I am going to finish this with one more observation. I have already said that I distance my work a a little from being classified in any way. At least I try to. If someone wants to try and say that they think my work is street, portraits, or any other label they want to apply, that's fine. It's their opinion, just like this post is mine.
Photo credit to Boogie
I don't associate myself with the attitude that I am trying to outline in this post. I don't believe I leave the house to go and take photos and my thoughts about what I am planning to shoot have the right attitude to be classified as street. I don't know what I would call my work. I don't really care. I take photos that show a small part of what I saw in a day. When they are paired together they show a slightly larger part of what I saw over a slightly longer period of time. The most important thing for me is that they are images of what I saw. No one else would have seen them in the same way. Every photographer has a unique eye.
There is no need to conform to something due to its popularity at any given time. If you love making photos then spend more time making them and don't worry yourself about on any level about what they are other than asking yourself one question.
Photo credit to Jeff Mermelstein
Are my images good images? If you can't answer that question then that's Ok as well. Research, learn, grow. Buy books not gear.