Street Photography: What’s in a Label?June 25, 2014
Let me start with the bad news: there’s no such thing as street photography—certainly not as a serious category of photographic stylistics. If you look around for a definition, you’ll find many attempts to explain the phenomenon. They invariably conclude with the critic’s admission that the definition of street photography remains elusive and a matter of personal interpretation. Still, street photography is in fashion, and the Internet abounds with websites, forums, and platforms dedicated exclusively to this ostensibly cohesive style. You’ll also come across rosters of photographers who have been identified as leading street photographers. But I don’t think Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and all the others who regularly make it onto these lists would even think of describing themselves as street photographers. A more likely explanation is that fans and amateurs confer this distinction on them because the neat label lets them associate their own output with the oeuvres of these icons of photographic history.
At the same time, the moniker “street photography” carries a semantic charge: it brings ideas of “freedom” and “independence” to mind. It often appears that the aspiration is to create a sort of photography from below. The term very “street photography” itself suggests as much: the street photographer, in this reading, makes common cause with the street worker, the street fighter, the streetwalker, the street dog—hardly a glamorous character, he or she roams the streets, free of worldly attachments, his nose close to the ground, committed only his own longings, desires, and chance inspirations.
That’s an appealing picture in light of the bewilderment that has descended on documentary/artistic photography today: photographers can’t see straight because they always have an eye on the market, and commercial considerations inform every shot. What’s more, in the northern hemisphere of our world, photography carries a great deal of cultural cachet, perhaps in the way being able to play the piano or read Latin used to. Being in the know about photography and able to shoot reasonably good pictures has become part of what it takes to be a respectable member of the middle class. So the street dog attitude or the lonesome rider/drifter/loser pose is also a defensive reaction against the relentless commercialization of photography. The aspiring street photographer is a self-identified underdog, one of the few genuine artists left in a world of what he or she believes are phonies.
If I may venture a guess, that’s exactly what prepared the ground for the increasingly feverish excitement over the discovery of the picture-snapping nanny Vivian Maier and her subsequent anointment as one of the street photographers of the past century. Maier, who cared for the children of various families for four decades and took photographs during her time off without ever showing her work to anyone, seemed the embodiment of independence and selflessness—it helped that, by the standards of her time, she’d made good pictures.
If street photography exists at all, it’s at best a subdivision of artistic documentary photography. Its practitioners usually operate in urban public space, and their work touches on virtually all genres: portraiture and photo reportage, landscape and architecture photography. It marshals the means of photography to study social realities while also observing life as though it were a play: the street is the stage, the passersby are the actors, and the city they’re in provides the sceneries. Its products include standalone pictures as well as series. Beyond compositional brilliance, what’s crucial for the quality of a work of street photography is that there’s a subject of some kind that the photographer considered from a highly personal (and perhaps emotional) perspective and translated into photography. Another term for this kind of work is auteur photography, implying that the author expresses a concern that lies beneath the purely aesthetic surface: what may also be described as the picture’s content or relevance.
Photography grants me the unique privilege to scrutinize and be curious about everything; being a photographer means I have the right to peer behind what’s going on in this world and demand explanations concerning the how and why. Photography, to my mind, is less about seeing than it is about reading a society that I am inextricably part of and understanding how it works. It is only when I understand that the transformation into photography becomes possible. They say that you can explain in a few words only what you’ve truly grasped. Pictures are my words, if indeed I explain anything: pictures that I find, that I sometimes look for, and pictures that find me. Pictures that capture a pattern reflecting the simultaneity of this world—with all the contradictions, yearnings, seductions, triumphs, and defeats that roil the societies I explore.
There’s a whole cluster of notions that seem inseparably linked to street photography. One of them is “the right moment,” which is usually taken to mean an unrepeatable instant or detail in life. With few exceptions, that’s nonsense: it is the essence of the documentary photographer’s observation of our society in operation that he or she has penetrated its rules and behavioral codes well enough to be that crucial second ahead of events. However complex contemporary life may seem to us, much of it is repetitive, and when I write that I find pictures or they find me, what I mean is I’ve worked hard to make that possible: the recognition of almost predictable patterns of sequential actions. This, then, is the great moment at which I fuse with my emotions, my camera, and what surrounds me: when I’ve found the rhythm, attain an almost transcendental perceptiveness, and begin to understand—with photography.
Let me conclude with the other piece of bad news: what’s called “street photography” is nothing more than the photographer’s modus operandi, just as “studio photography” designates photography produced in enclosed spaces with all sorts of auxiliary gear such as flash devices, etc. That seems banal, and it is. Just as the quibbles over the label “street photography” are generally banal and mostly about purely technical and formal issues. They’re a good way to dodge the question: What is a good picture? Or, more to the point, is my picture good? This question is only too often drowned out by the debate over street photography.
Little wonder—it’s a debate solely about method.