On the street

Although I take almost all of my pictures on the street I’ve never really though of myself as a street photographer, largely because I think of it as a meaningless category. If you disagree I think it is worth going back to what many think of as the ‘bible‘ of the putative genre, Bystander, and read through it carefully and critically looking at the examples. Of course there are plenty of photographs we can say are definitely not street photography, but nothing really emerges which amounts to a clear definition of a genre.

Yesterday I watched a couple of videos about street photography, both of which were mentioned on PetaPixel. For some reason the link to ‘Cheryl Dunn’s highly-regarded 2013 documentary Everybody Street‘ which is now on YouTube refused to display in the PetaPixel page in my browser, but a search on YouTube found it without problems and I was able to watch it full-screen in fairly high quality and I didn’t notice the ads.

It contains a number of photographers who have worked on the streets of New York speaking about their work, and shows them taking pictures and some of the pictures they have taken. Some are very well-known, while others less so, and their work covers a fairly wide range of practices. There is some attempt to give a historical perspective, with Max Kozloff talking about a number of other photographers from Alfred Stieglitz on.

One of the featured photographers, Rebecca Lepkoff, talks a little about the New York Photo League which brought her into photography, though it would have been good to have had a interviewer drawing her out more about this. She was one of the photographers I wrote about years ago in a series on the Photo League, but it would have been good for the film to have looked in a little more detail on some of the others, though few now survive. I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of this organisation in what later became known as ‘street photography.’

Some of the work shown and discussed in the film is quite clearly documentary photography,  and the rest seems to me too varied for the overall category of street photography to have any real use.

I think the film was about 80 minutes long, and it is certainly a very professional film, with some nice footage of New York, making me feel I should have gone there and lived and photographed on its streets, but there were times when I felt it dragged and I did skip forward a little at times. The making of the film was made possible by over $45,000 of crowdfunding but it looks as if it cost considerably more

The second film featured on PetaPixel was the curiously capitalised ‘Why you SHOULDN’T do STREET PHOTOGRAPHY‘ by UK photographer Jamie Windsor, which I have to say I found far more difficult to watch. Not because of what he said, which in part echoes things I’ve said and written in the past, but because of the production and personality of the presenter. He looks at the work of several photographers, particularly the late Hong Kong photographer Fan Ho, Nan Goldin and Martin Parr.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of Fan Ho, but by the time I’d seen a few pictures found it extremely repetitive, and failed to see that it represented in any real way the changing times of the city. If you like pretty, arty photos it may be for you.

Goldin of course did as he suggests live the life of the subjects she photographed, recording moments in the lives of her friends and their particular subculture, with her work something of a ‘family’ album.

I share some of Windsor’s misgivings about Martin Parr and his depictions of working class life. His approach was clearly rather more distant than that of – for example – the Picture Post photographers, and sometimes appears to be very much as he suggests reflecting he prejudices of a middle-class photographer, making judgements about those he photographs.

But not all those Picture Post photographers were Bert Hardy, who grew up a working class kid in the Borough and some who managed a much more empathetic approach came from rather more patrician backgrounds than Parr.

Despite Hardy’s working class background he appears to have had no problems relating to and empathising with people from all walks of life and all levels of society. The nature of Parr’s work came from his intention to be a social commentator rather than to engage with the people he was photographing.

Taking a photograph always implies a point of view. We shouldn’t pretend to “accurately represent a culture” whether or not we are part of it, and I’m not at all sure what that means. For me, empathy with the people I photograph is vital, and to that extent I agree with him.

Much of the uneasy interest I have in, for example, Martin Parr’s New Brighton pictures, comes from knowing that his is a rather snooty middle-class exploitatative view of the working class. It gives them the edge that makes them stand out, just as Bruce Gilden’s photographic street assaults do, though in Gilden’s case I find the approach soon gets to be rather boring, the pictures more about his antics rather than the subjects he photographs. I want photography to be about the world, not about photography.

And it is perhaps empathy that I find absent in Fan H0’s work, which uses people as tokens or ciphers, something which the presentation in this video emphasizes. They remind me of my least favourite of Cartier-Bresson’s work, what another photographer called the ‘waiters’, where the photographer had clearly identified a situation and then waited for a person to put themselves in just the right spot. It’s a side of ‘street photography’, particularly loved by amateurs, that I find just boring. But I wouldn’t want to proscribe it. By all means let a thousand Fan Ho’s bloom, just don’t expect me to spend much time looking at them.

Both for the people who do it and for the audience (if any) for it, photography can be many different things. It’s fine for Windsor to state what he thinks and to ask others also to think about their own practices, but not, as his title says, to try to impose a straitjacket on others.

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