There has been a lot of celebration in street photography in the past decade. Let’s face it, the genre is on fire. There’s also been significant discussion regarding the issues and shortcomings faced by street photography, including in my own HuffPost essay from 2015, “Street Photography Has No Clothes”, and the slew of derivatives and responses that followed. What there has been a lack of, however, is thought-through suggestions for maturing street photography, in its new expansive, pedestrian form, and addressing these various shortcomings head on. This article will offer just one radical suggestion – that street photographers collect street photography.
Let’s begin by identifying the problem I’m speaking of here. Essentially, in a nutshell (with a dash of hyperbole), everyone is making street photographs and no one is buying them. Indeed, the claim is not overly embellished. There are no reliable statistics easily found for street photography, specifically, but Instagram reported an average upload of 80 million photos a day in 2016. Using similar statistics, looked at another way, if just 1 billion of the world’s population has a camera (or camera phone) and takes less than 3 pictures a day (or around 1000 a year) the figure still equals a whopping 1 trillion photos annually! My point is that people are accustomed to making photographs and communicating visually. It’s our culture; it’s in our DNA, at least now, in the 21st century. Conversely, the idea of “buying” photography as art is much less ubiquitous. Indeed, we are becoming accustomed to the opposite – to being provided with a visually rich existence without cost, commitment, or permanence. In other words, photo come and go, in a quick stream of media, and are not only ephemeral but also free.
There is nothing wrong, per se, in making photographs, sending them out into the world, having them consumed on a screen (for free) and then relegated to the digital dump. This is us participating in our new world – which resides at the nexus between technology and image. However, the scene that is set by these habits is not wholly compatible with encouraging a culture of collecting. It is becoming harder and harder for photographers to convince others that their work is, in fact, worth paying for – whether in print or otherwise. Likewise, it is also hard to convince others that images are worthy of permanence, of being put into print. So how do we address this gap between making and selling in photography, most generally, and more specifically in street photography? There are various approaches and none is a one-stop solution. However, one central component would be to have photographers not only create but also consume, in a responsible manner (i.e. paying for the privilege), the work of others. In other words, we, as photographers, should also be collectors of photography. If we all proceed with the idea that someone else will be the buyer, then we quickly end up where we are – in a dire supply and demand dilemma whereby photographic prints become as hard to sell as sand on a beach.
Are there people who buy prints and photo books who do not also produce photography? Yes, undoubtedly. However, we must also be among those who collect and invest. We need to support all aspects of our community. We need to support each other. That’s how this works. Fine, some people will buy a Robert Frank or a Garry Winogrand, usually as an investment vehicle, without needing to feel a sense of “community”. The vast majority of us are not Winogrand or Frank and never will be. Our work will never have this kind of appeal to the wider world. That’s just how this cookie crumbles. That does not, however, mean that our work has no appeal, or that there are no legitimate markets for our creativity. I also don’t mean to suggest that buying each other’s work is the only solution or viable market. It’s surely not. However, buying from one another and, more generally supporting one’s creative peers, is definitely a part of a broader, more sustainable marketplace. It has to be, if not we’re flying in the face of simple mathematics. The only other alternative is to hedge our bet and go forward with the unabashed arrogance that our work will be desirable, marketable, and profitable, regardless of whether or not we give back to our community. In other words, we must believe that random people, uninvolved in the world of photography and art, will rush to consume our creations. The result of such a delusion, in the end, is sure to be reminiscent of the current state of affairs – as many street photographers as there are stars in the sky and not a paying customer in sight.
So, the next time you’re in a bookshop, or a gallery, buy a book or print produced by a peer – a contemporary, emerging photographer. Leave the copy of The Americans on the shelf. Don’t worry; such books can fend for themselves. If you don’t, and you continue to only buy copies of the classics and nothing from your peers, what does that ultimately say about the fate of your own work? Food for thought, surely.