The improbably named American judge Potter Stewart (1915-1985) famously said in Jacobellin v. Ohio (378 US 184) that although pornography was extremely difficult or perhaps impossible to define, “I know it when I see it”.
Street photography has a lot in common with pornography. Not only do we know it when we see it: there are also very wide variations in what we perceive as either. Is the picture above “street photography”? If not, what is it? Still life? Reportage? There are probably those who might even classify it as pornography.
This is part of an ongoing series taken at a vide-greniers, the French equivalent of English car boot sales or American swap meets. The best translation is probably “attic-emptying”: vider is to empty and a grenier is an attic. It’s hard to imagine quite who might have such a thing in their attic, but I’ve seen things at vide-greniers that are even stranger.
The fact that it is part of a series is important. To be sure, many pictures can stand on their own, but almost all are more interesting, more resonant, deeper, when they are part of a series. For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous Rue Mouffetard (the little boy carrying two bottles of wine) makes us seek out more of his work. En route we are likely to discover more about French Humanist photography: not just HCB but also Doisneau, Ronis, Brassaï and others.
Conversely, a picture that is little more than a curiosity on its own – such as this one – can gain a great deal by being part of a series. Merely knowing what a vide-grenier is will enable us to understand the picture better, and if we see other pictures of vide-greniers we can learn a lot about history, consumerism, cultural differences, the things that we do and don’t value, the price-demand curve, and indeed life in general.
Some, though, will no doubt say (quite assertively) that this isn’t street photography. The reasons for their dissent are unlikely, however, to be consistent or unanimous. Many will complain that there are no people in it. Others will object that it is in colour. “Real” street photography, according to them, is always in black and white and always has people in it.
Well, no. It’s simpler than this. Art, according to either Andy Warhol or Marshall McLuhan (take your pick – no-one is sure), is what you can get away with. If I think this is street photography and you don’t, well, who cares? I can’t impose my interpretation on you any more than you can impose your interpretation on me.
This is part of a wider debate. There are still plenty who will say that photography is not and never can be art. Such people are not exactly on the cutting edge of art theory or art history, but again, who cares? I regard their views as bigoted ignorance, but it’s not exactly a matter of life and death. Others will grudgingly accept that although some kinds of photography can be art, street photography isn’t. This immediately invites two questions: Why not? and What is it if it isn’t?
Another definition of art, a trifle circular but still rather appealing, is that art is what artists say it is. Think of R. Mutt’s famous urinal (Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917) or Picasso’s Tete de Taureau (“Bull’s Head”, 1942, made from a bicycle saddle and handlebars). The definition I think I like best, though, is no definition at all. I’ll let others decide whether what I do is art, and whether they think it’s good or bad art. All I ask is that they enjoy it. And, ideally, I suppose, buy it.
In this sense, I don’t separate street photography from all the other kinds of photography I do. I just take pictures. Most of them can be grouped into series, though a few can’t. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Photography isn’t something I do. It’s part of what I am. Unless you can say the same, are you sure you can call yourself a photographer?
You can see more from Roger on his website – Roger Hicks