Many people run out and buy a camera and then hit the streets. This is okay, and you might even get lucky and make some great photographs, but know that being an artist, at least in the traditional sense, is a lot more work than that! One important element is knowing a bit of the history of street photography and then figuring out where your work fits into that bigger picture. This is a critical aspect of street photography success that is often overlooked or undervalued. Imagine joining a conversation without knowing anything about what’s going on – knowing anything that was said before you joined in. Making art, and indeed photographs, is no different. So here goes, the quick and dirty history of street photography.
Although we often hear of Henri Cartier-Bresson as being the father of street photography, this is not really accurate. We have to go back a little further into the annals of history to really locate an adequate beginning. Like all history, clearly demarcated lines only exist in textbooks. Regardless, it is usually accepted that Eugene Atget is the rightful father of the genre. Atget worked the streets of Paris beginning in the 1890s and continued into the 1920s. He was really the one to establish the street as a meaningful location for photography. Interestingly, his photography mainly consisted of non-human subjects. So there you go, the father of street photography made street photographs without people. So why is it so hard (and even discouraged) to do so today? A quote from Susan Sontag’s wonderful book, On Photography, will help us better understand. “Photographic seeing has to be constantly renewed with new shocks, whether subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision.” In other words, pictures of parks, store windows, and other non-human street subjects became too familiar to us, too common to disrupt our way of seeing in an artistic way. Of course, we are now in danger of having the street photograph of a person fall to the same fate.
The next big name to enter the scene would be Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom nearly every photographer is familiar with in some way. HCB was one of the first to focus on human action in the streets and to photograph what he termed the “decisive moment”. This is the idea that there is a “perfect” moment to take a photograph in any unfolding human scene on the street. A split second before or after this golden moment, following his line of thinking, will greatly diminish the aesthetic value of the photograph. Interesting concept but hotly debated. I feel it is sometimes useful, perhaps often even, but not universal in its application. That is, what moment (rather, fraction of a second) appeals to my aesthetic taste may be quite different from yours. To suggest that there is an objectively definable correct moment may be difficult to establish, to say the least. Regardless, the concept stuck and remains a central and defining contribution to the genre.
Next, enter Robert Frank. Frank was a member of the New York School of Photography – a mid 20th century group of photographers that helped to popularize street photography in the United States. Frank published a book called, The Americans in 1958 and it remains on of the most popular and best-selling street photography monographs of all time. Franks photographs had a raw, edgy, and often haphazard quality, which challenged the world of photography in general at the time of its publication. This was arguably the moment that gave birth to much of what we would term street photography today – raw, gritty, candid moments of people doing everyday mundane things.
Later street photographers who would achieve fame were usually direct decedents of Frank. – Gary Winogrand, Mark Cohen, and Joel Meyerowitz, to name but three. I single out these three, specifically, because they too made noteworthy contributions to street photography. Furthermore, all three contributed elements to the genre that still remain hot topics for debate. Gary Winogrand should be considered the father of “machinegun photography”, a widely popular technique with street photographers today. Although Winogrand used 35mm and simply wound on and shot in rapid succession, contrasted with today’s burst mode and hold the shutter button method, the two are really one in the same. This way of working often comes under attack from those who claim that the good photos emerge by chance or luck, rather than skill. Mark Cohen was among the first to make “no finder” shots. In other words, he aimed the camera and fired. No viewfinder, no careful framing – what has become termed “shooting from the hip”. Again, this technique comes under fire for leaving too much to chance. Finally, Joel Meyerowitz ushered in the use of color film in street photography. Once more, an issue that is still largely debated – is a color photograph a true street photo? Well, yes, of course it is, but not for the purist who lives in the age of black and white analog photography. I always find this argument amusing. Somehow monochrome images are supposed to be superior in conveying reality – despite the fact that we all see in color.
Is this a comprehensive history of street photography? No, of course not. What is here is a number of starting points for further reading. Begin by looking up some of the names I’ve mentioned and you will quickly find yourself submerged into all the history of street photography you could ever want.
Contemporary Street Photograph Has No Clothes
So, where are we? Having sorted out what a street photograph is, or isn’t and getting a brief introduction to the history of the genre, let’s now turn our attention to where things started to go wrong.
Street photography has become such a popular pastime that the genre now produces hundreds of thousands of dull, clichéd candid images of random strangers by so-called street photographers every single day. Is that Bruce Gilden knockoff of someone’s grandmother on her grocery run, currently making the rounds on Facebook, actually of any artistic value? Does this kind of image bear any relation to the work of Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Frank, Meyerowitz, or Arbus? I’d argue no, it doesn’t. Not only has the content of the image become worn out to our eyes (thanks to our visual culture where everyone now literally carries a camera in their pocket) but the vision behind making the image is also lacking or even absent altogether. I think much of what we know and call street photography today is in for a serious moment of truth. The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, and sooner or later someone will have to speak up.
One of the greatest issues with street photography today is a compound problem; there is no barrier to entry and, once in, there is no subjectivity to criticism. Let me explain. Today, all one needs to become a “street photographer” is a camera, even a mobile phone, and then a platform to “publish” – Facebook, Instagram, or even a website. Voila! You’re now a street photographer. Things weren’t so easy for Frank or Winogrand or even Gilden. They had to invest in the idea of making street photography (by this I mean there was commitment on their part that just seems to be missing today) and then they had to subject their work to critics and publishers whom I assure you were much harsher than your Facebook friends. More importantly, unlike those who “criticize” street photography online today, these critics were real. They were expressing criticism, not merely personal taste. These critics understood the history of photography and the philosophy of aesthetics and situated (or rejected) the work into that larger conversation. Today, we just count Facebook likes and accept that as an expression of aesthetic value or artistic worth. Truly a case of the blind leading the blind, and it’s beginning to show.
So why does all this bad street photography exist? The answer is not a simple one. Let me attempt to illustrate what’s going on. People grab a camera (a minimal investment in today’s terms), hit the streets, and haphazardly make photographs of strangers doing, well, usually nothing. These same “street photographers” come home and sort through their 9000 frames (thank you digital photography) and pick out a couple they think are good. They post these online and sit back and wait. Next, their friends or “followers” come along and hit the like button. Then, the trolls, usually people who are jealous of all the attention someone is getting, come along and throw a little shade. Often, full-on comment wars break out. The problem: none of this has anything to do with the aesthetic quality of the photograph. It’s a bunch of people either expressing praise or hate for the photo based on their relationship with the photographer (friend or follower) or their jealousy (troll) of the attention the work is receiving. At best, someone might express their “personal taste” – I don’t like the photo – but, sadly, this is of little value either. There is no true criticism anymore. This is how so much of the banal, clichéd, over-worked street photography makes its way into our lives. Facebook likes are a truly magical thing. Now, don’t misinterpret my words, you can make truly engaging banal street photographs. Eggleston does this authentically and famously. But there is a plainness, a banality, that we are seeing more and more in contemporary street photography that is unintentional – that is, there is simply no artistic vision behind it. Eggleston shows us the banal in a way that renews our way of seeing. The difference is immense; simply take a look at William Eggleston’s work to immediately see what I mean.
I’m reminded of one well-known street photographer who’s images receive thousands of “likes”, despite the fact that every image she makes looks like an iPhone photo taken by a child – shots of the sides of people’s heads, people strolling down the sidewalk with umbrellas (somehow the umbrella has become more photographed than the Queen), and other trivial nonsense. In fact, many of the images look like they are simply frames from a CCTV feed. That would be more fascinating somehow. Despite all this, she’s a “famous” street photographer, who people hail as brilliant. The problem is she’s not brilliant. And, if her bad photos aren’t enough, she now teaches others how to make street photography. And round and round we go. Getting the idea?
Finally, there is the issue of editing. Seemingly no one edits his or her work anymore, at least in street photography. Someone once claimed that a great photographer makes about a hundred good images in a lifetime, maybe a dozen truly great photographs. This seems congruent with the history of photography, but plainly incongruent with the current street photography community where it is common for a photographer to upload a dozen or even two dozen images a day! This is simply not sustainable, not as art anyway. There is simply no way that millions and millions of banal photographs of strangers doing everyday things is ever going to be recognized as art – despite the number of likes I can garner from my friends and the village idiot. And, if we’re not making art, then we need to ask ourselves what it is that we are doing. Where is all this so called street photography headed? What is the point?