The Art of Critiquing Street Photography
By Michael Ernest Sweet
Over the past decade I have judged more than a dozen street photography contests. In those contests, I looked at thousands and thousands of photographs. And yet, with all of this experience, I still run across photos that cause me pause – that bring me to a standstill. Sometimes it is because the photo is obviously good or obviously bad but more often it is because I do not know what to think, exactly. You see, there is no set recipe for critiquing a street photograph. There are guidelines, you might say, but these do not uniformly apply to all images. Given these facts, how should someone judge a street photo? In this article, I will discuss some of the approaches I have used in the past and make my argument for why I believe judging photography to be both a subtle art and a personal experience.
Lots of articles appear on the internet with rules about street photography. For a while, not so much now, this was the “trendy” thing to write about. I’m likely guilty of it myself given that I have written dozens and dozens of articles for a wide variety of magazines and websites. But the question remains – are there any actual rules to street photography? I mean, real rules? Probably not. You see, a good photograph is a good photograph because it is a good photograph. Easy enough? End of article. Well, okay, not quite. But that sentence is a true sentence, and the situation here really is that simple. Photographs are good if they elicit a good response when viewed. A “good response” may be an emotion, often it is, or it may be heightened interest or a disruption in a way of seeing, etc. The photograph should, in sum, both enrapture and disrupt. One photo may, for example, be a good photo for me but not for you. So it goes. The point, or at least the important idea here, is for me to be able to articulate why a particular photo is a good photo for me and for you to be able to do the same. This is where the guidelines come into play. It is important for us to have some common ground, some common language, when we share our critiques.
Copyright ⓒ Michael Ernest Sweet
Okay, so let’s recap. All photographs have the potential to be a good photograph, as the viewing judgement is always subjective. The rules of street photography are concerned not with what is in the photograph, so much, but how we share our experience of viewing the image and articulating that experience. Put differently, we need to learn a common set of rules for talking about photographs. What is it, exactly, that we should try to evaluate when we view an image? What things should we be prepared to speak to when defending our judgement?
Firstly, does the photograph make you feel anything? If so, what? If not, why? Can you put your finger on it? Emotion is important, as visual art should move people in some way. Even photographs I hate move me. Photographs that don’t move me, in any way, often go “unseen”. Secondly, does the image tell a story? Is there a narrative or message? If so, can we follow the story? If not, does it matter? Asking these questions is important because some photographs lack a narrative or strong concept (in the usual way) but still affect us. They may still be good photographs. Next, is there some originality in the presentation? In other words, does the photographer’s unique voice or signature come through? If the photograph could have been made by anyone, the photograph can be made by anyone. Finally, we also want to evaluate and discuss the technical aspects of the capture, at least to some degree. I admit, this is not a preoccupation of mine when I am judging. By the time I get to the technical side of things I usually already like or dislike the photograph. That said, some photographs are simply executed so badly as to ruin their value, regardless of how interesting the subject may be. One example would be street photography shot with a long lens. Very rarely does this work for me. Sometimes I see what could have been a great subject, but the technical skill was just not present — no one should be shooting street, generally speaking, with a 200mm lens and expect to capture my attention. Shoot birds.
Returning to our beginning premise, that any photograph can be a good photograph, depending on its consumer, how should we make such a case? Well, I put forward that we should make our case in favor of a particular photo based on a shared language, a language which discusses emotion, story, originality, and technical approach. If you can make a case that a particular photo is a good photo based on a strong argument that accounts for these basic categories of evaluation, then such a photo is a good photograph. There is no need for it to align perfectly with a set of static “rules of street photography”. Indeed, when we all follow some list of “10 Rules for Street Photography”, we all end up making derivative images. Be different, street photography has too much sameness. A good photograph must only be defensible against a shared language of evaluation which, ultimately, will be the result of a subjective experience.
The Professional Photographers of America has a 12-point rubric used to judge photographic images (https://www.ppa.com/events/photo-competitions/the-12-elements-of-a-merit-image). I have entered several PPA competitions and paid for a critique by a competition judge whenever offered. Initially, I thought that the critiques would make me a better street photographer. All they did was annoy me because the rubric misses the point of street photography in many ways. Many of the objects and people in my images that I consider context are considered as distractions by the PPA judges. There is nothing wrong with their approach to judging the work of most professionals. That work is mostly posed and heavily edited. The 12 points may at least partially apply to street images with some modification. As it is, it just does not work for street photography. My approach would be to use the 12 points edited as a starting point and see whether or not they would be useful.