Image credit: Jill Freedman
When I recently sat down to watch the exclusive Jill Freedman interviews, available here on StreetPhotography.com, I was not really prepared for what followed. Not only did I end up realizing that I absolutely love Freedman’s work, something that escaped me until then, but I also realized that her work, her philosophy, and her approach all help to illuminate exactly what’s wrong with street photography today. Let’s look at a few of these elements of Freedman’s work and philosophy, in turn, and see what they have to offer us as contemporary street photographers.
Although it should be noted that Freedman is really more of a documentary photographer than a street photographer, it is precisely this distinction that brings me to point number one. Street photography has somehow become its own genre with a whole bunch of unwritten but apparently sacred rules. One of those rules seems to be that one must make photography of people doing random things in public places. In other words, photography with a severe lack of focus. As we see from Freedman’s work, indeed her entire life as a photographer, her focus remained and remains on projects with overarching themes. I think many street photographers, myself included, could learn a lot from Freedman when it comes to developing projects and not just photographs. I think about my own first book, The Human Fragment, and how much better it could have been had it had a tighter overall vision and not been simply a collection of “one offs”. I’ve also seen many a street photographer with the very same problem – lots of great photographs, but no overarching thematic vision.
Another element that Freedman brings to the table is that of personal investment. In order to make truly great photographs, especially as a documentary photographer, one must go all in. There is no half effort that is going to produce award-winning results. Freedman immersed herself in police precincts, circuses, foreign cultures and so on. She went all in, even when it meant personal sacrifice or extreme discomfort. More of this kind of resolve is sorely needed in street photography. Not only would it address much of the underwhelming street photography being peddled around social media, but it might further nudge some of the weakly committed street photographers out there to take up another hobby more suited to their talents, or lack thereof – growing roses, maybe.
When it comes to that arbitrary demarcation between street and documentary, Freedman makes one think long and hard about whether we’ve pigeonholed street photography into a container much too small for its own good. Isn’t public documentary street photography? Sure, not all street photography is public documentary, but that doesn’t mean the reverse isn’t true. Street photography, in my opinion, suffers, profoundly, from a lack of precision when it comes to its objectives – its vision. It’s fine to press on with the notion that any photograph taken on the street is a street photograph. Yet, such a simple criterion leaves us, most often, with nothing more than a pile of weak and unfocused photography. Sometimes we find a gem. The question is: When we find these gems, do they not fit more securely into a more precise category than merely “street”? Isn’t that beautiful shadowy image of a woman on a bridge with an umbrella not really a fine art photograph that just happens to have been made on the street? Isn’t that compelling and candid look into the workings of the local firehouse not really a documentary photograph? Isn’t the up close but unaware capture of a pensive pedestrian waiting at the cross light not a portrait? In the end, all these images might be street photographs too, but it seems to me that it is not that designation which gives meaning to their aesthetic substance. The takeaway from Jill Freedman, here, is that we should not be too hung up on the term “street photography” and, certainly, not allow it to shape our work or, worse, prevent our work from taking shape.
Jill Freedman also prompts us to consider time in relation to our work. Becoming a noted photographer takes time, patience, and self-discipline – all things that are lacking in many emerging photographers. Freedman herself reminds us to not show work that isn’t good enough. How does one know if their work is good enough? Time. There must be some measure of time between you and your work for you to judge its quality with any measure of objectivity. As time passes our emotions in relation to a particular capture begin to diminish. How often have you looked back on something, a few years later, and said to yourself, “Oh my gosh, what was I thinking?” Of course, knowing this and effecting it are two very different things. This is where the quality of self-discipline comes into play.
If it’s not good enough, don’t show it. Many a street photographer could learn from this statement. Yet, we run out and make a thousand photos a day just to show them all over our social media. We don’t think about editing, about time, about allowing our work to mature. Surely, we’d all benefit from taking this lesson to heart, myself included. Finally, Freedman allows us to see the benefit of access when it comes to street and other candid photography. This aspect ties in with the notion of persistence. Gaining access to unique places or people to photograph is not an easy task. Getting into Rikers or the 9th precinct is darn hard work, especially in this era. Yet, we should try. It is this access that allows her work to stand above and beyond the vast majority of the work being produced by the droves of amateurs. Gaining access to restricted areas or peoples will be hard work but it will pay off in that your photography will be much harder to emulate and replicate.
In the end, Freedman makes it clear that today’s generation of candid photographers should work harder at forming project-based work, gaining access to restricted areas and peoples, as well as increasing their personal investment and perseverance. Nothing comes easily, most especially good photography. Grabbing a camera and snapping away on the nearest sidewalk is sure to produce very underwhelming photographs. If you doubt what I’m saying, just open your Instagram and take a look around.