Does Street Photography Have an Image Problem?

Does Street Photography Have an Image Problem?

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Street Photography Image Problem Cover

ATTENTION

The following views do not necessarily represent the views of the whole StreetHunters team.


As I fire off another frame because I’m out ‘shooting on the streets’ and I feel compelled to, I often wonder just what the point of it all is. The same feeling often pervades me as I browse through my Lightroom catalogue. Hundreds and thousands of street photos but just what am I striving for? When I get into this kind of mindset I often begin to think about the concept of street photography as a whole, and the more I do, the more I begin to wonder about the genre itself, whether there are some real issues that need addressing, and specifically, does street photography have an image problem?

I edited this blog post on 6/5/2017 to include a reference to an article by Michael Sweet which I had forgotten about – thank you to Karen Commings for the reminder!

It’s not easy – but we still need to be critical

Let me start with what I feel is the biggest challenge with street photography, and the factor which I feel makes it so difficult to be hyper-critical of street photos as art in the same way as you can be of say, landscape photography or fine art photography: street photography is unplanned. That is not to say I am denigrating the former two photographic genres – far from it – but those two genres do allow the photographer to exert a degree of control and planning with their shots. Street photography also, in comparison to say, sports photography – which also relies largely on capturing spontaneous ‘moments’ – requires the photographer to behave socially in a way that is unusual and challenging. As street photographers, we work covertly, snapping candid moments of our subjects without their permission, and invading their privacy in the process (more on that later).

Street photography demands “obsession, dedication and balls” according to Martin Parr. It requires guts to take a photo of a complete stranger in the street, and crucially to the casual observer (and often the subject), seemingly entirely out of context. Street photography often requires that we use our human subject as an intrinsic part of the story of our photo, and it’s a challenge to articulate the relevance or reasoning of this approach effectively and succinctly when accosted angrily in the street by someone who wants to know “Why did you just take my photo?”, and that’s before we move into the often stand-offish position of explaining that, more often than not (though be sure to check the rules the country you’re in), you have every legal right to be taking photos in the street of whatever you like despite the widely-held misconception that you are not.

So street photography is difficult, no one can deny it. It is not necessarily hardcore photojournalism (although at times it is), but even photojournalism can create a safety net of legitimacy that affords the photographer certain protection. Examples being “I’m shooting for X newspaper/website/magazine”, or “I’m working on a project about xxxxx” (the worthier the better), or even in the form of organisation or pre-planning – be it introduction to key players (through ‘fixers’), attending events, etc. None of these are available to the street photographer. But, despite all these challenges, we still need to be critical about the street photos we see on artistic grounds, which brings me onto my wider point.

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Context – Random People in the Street

It’s scary taking photos of strangers in the street without their permission, we’ve established that. And the more often you practice with it, the more comfortable you will become with street photography. Plus, everyone needs to start somewhere. But, I feel very strongly that one of the big identity issues with ‘street photography’ as a genre is the way it is prone to celebrating almost any photo of a person in the street because it’s a street photo and because it took courage to make. That is not to say of course that we should not encourage anyone and everyone to practice, and, most importantly to make the photos they enjoy, but if we are speaking about the genre as a whole, and particularly about its image and identity, we need to encourage ourselves and one another to always aim to create photos of both strong visual merit (read artistic), and ideally with some kind of meaning or story. Worthwhile reading here is Michael Ernest Sweet’s thought-provoking article, ‘Street Photography Has No Clothes’, which touches on this and several other points in depth, with Sweet asserting:

“there is a plainness, a banality, in contemporary street images that lacks any intent of banality – that is, there is simply no focus, no vision.”

In many respects, he has a point. I am not trying to denigrate others here – I am as guilty of this of anyone, and I know it, but such is my fear of returning back from a photo walk empty handed or leaving my instagram account languishing without a regular post that I feel compelled to just take photos of ‘random people in the street’. Sometimes it helps me get in the groove too. But once I’ve taken those photos, I need to learn to be more ruthless, and leave them on the cutting room floor (but more on that later).

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Projecting

Walking hand in hand with street photography’s ‘context’ issue (random strangers in the street) is the thorny issue of ‘projection’. We all naturally make pre-judgements about everything and everyone we see constantly as it is an aspect of our nature, but one of the frustrating issues with street photography for me is when these pre-judgements and projections are foisted onto our street photos in the desire to turn our oft out-of-context street photos into something more meaningful and relevant, and with a story. The trouble is, because street photography does not encourage us to interact with our subjects (save for street portraits, a wholly different kettle of fish), we often don’t know the truth behind our subject’s lives, so we turn to our projections to create an interesting back story.

A classic example may be a slightly clichéd photo of a homeless person sitting on the street as a smart businessman walks by in a suit. The projected message behind that street photo might be a desire to show the juxtaposition of urban life, inequality, and the haves and have-nots. But that’s a stretch, and we don’t know for sure what the reality behind that scene is, and as street photographers, it shouldn’t be our place to start crowbarring our attempted messages into a scene – we should be making art!

The projection issue often raises its head in tandem with the titling and naming of street photos too – again, no problem in of itself, but when we see captions like ‘young love’ accompanying a photo of two teenagers cuddling, or ‘life’s not fair’ under a photo of a crying child we’re not thinking much about the ‘art’ of a photo, more seeing a document of one public incident that the photographer then attributed their own interpretation to without really pushing the envelope.

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A Lack of Immersion

Slightly contentious perhaps, but I also feel street photography has a real issue with immersion, or lack of it. Much like the problem with projection, when a photographer fails to immerse themselves in the scene it comes at the expense of creating an effective street photo that is relevant for the audience, or at least in my opinion. Bruce Gilden famously said that “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph”, and I feel that maxim is a good one to live by. The out-of-context-random-people-on-the-street-effect is often at its most prevalent in a photo that has been shot from miles away with a long telephoto lens. That’s not to say there are exceptions, but I feel that street photography needs to demand an immersion that almost goes hand in hand with the photographer being directly involved in the scene.

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The Challenge of Privacy

However, this immersion does come at a price, and it brings us to one of street photography’s most sensitive issues, and perhaps the biggest problem with street photography’s image and identity, at least where the general public (and its candid subjects are concerned) – privacy and intrusion. The issues here are twofold.

The first, and perhaps most damaging to street photography’s image is the slightly creepy aspect that can infiltrate some street photos. I personally think the genre can largely do without photos of random people (often women) shot from miles away with captions like ‘beauty’ or similar. Edgy photos that are provocative (aka show flesh) of course work in street photography (within limits), but there is a fine line to walk between creating powerful photos that show a gritty urban scene (street fights, table dancers, red light districts etc) or even an average day at the beach, and photos that show a random person (that the photographer just happens to find attractive) just going about their daily business on the street out of context. The very nature of street photography is always going to make it err towards voyeuristic, but that must never be at the expense of the artistic or the story.

The second point of contention surrounding privacy and intrusion cuts to the very core of street photography’s identity – how far do we go? Each ‘case’ (read subject and moment) has to be judged on an individual basis and with sensitivity in order for street photography to maintain a positive image in the eyes of the public and non-street photography fanatics. Street photography generates a bad rap for itself when it verges on the exploitative, invasive and aggressive. The photographer has to use their own judgement, and most importantly empathy, to decide whether or not to click the shutter each time. Street photography should show photos of quirky and unusual characters, but not at the expense of their dignity. We need to always push the envelope and stay relevant and current, but not exploit people with mental health issues, addiction, who are homeless, or just having a really shit day. As street photographers we will all make mistakes and misjudge situations and make photos that upset our subjects – and, at the same time, encounter people who are aggressive and belligerent at times – but that is part and parcel of the genre.

Regardless of where one stands of the flash street photography divide – I personally adore the seminal work produced by the likes of Bruce Gilden and Dougie Wallace – it is not an approach that always works. Gilden’s famously aggressive style of utterly in-your-face shooting cannot be applied unilaterally, and needs to be carefully used on an individual to individual basis. Likewise, one’s behaviour and attitude when shooting in a more ‘outgoing’ and combative style needs to be carefully modified towards the gentle, easy-going and relaxed to avoid tarring the whole genre with a bad brush.

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Oversharing, the Need for Editing & Editors

If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend you read Thomas Stanworth’s excellent article: ‘Is Street Photography Killing Itself?’ in which he articulates several of the points I’ve made here far more effectively than I can hope to achieve to. Notably, his point about the issues surrounding street photography’s accessibility (aka the fact it is egalitarian) is superb. It is a genre with such an easy barrier to entry  – we can all become street photographers with an urban scene and a camera – once we’ve overcome our fear of taking photos of strangers of course! This, coupled with the absolute ease of sharing our street photos online means that one of the biggest issues facing the identity of street photography today is the simply overwhelming mountain of street photos that assault us on a daily basis on social media. With the barriers (and with them the gatekeepers and editors) firmly smashed down by a democratic web and multitude of photo sharing sites and different social platforms, we face a flood of street photos. The brilliant and inspired mixed with the mediocre and banal. The genie is out of the bottle, and in many cases that’s a good thing, but it does require a careful approach to preserve all that makes street photography powerful, relevant, and artistic.

No one can deny for one second that we should deprive ourselves of the ability to share our work online (and most importantly learn and develop from critiques as we go), but at the same time, we need to take on the responsibility of becoming gatekeepers and editors of our own work, and turning that critical eye upon ourselves. A beautiful analogy of this is outlined by Thomas Stanworth, who says:

“Too many street photographers don’t edit. They share everything, perhaps because they think the world wants to know what fifty different takes of groups of random people walking down the street looks like at 8:56 in the morning, on their way into work. I applaud the enthusiasm, but photography is like selling your house. You show the best bits, while trying to avoid scrutiny of the bad bits… You curate the impression you want to leave people with.”

Never a truer word was spoken! And herein lies perhaps the greatest challenge in street photography. We invest so much time, effort, energy and often money in our passion that we feel compelled to share the fruits of our labour with the world – our photos are our babies after all – but we simply have to be ruthless. As Matt Stuart points out, “you have to be ultra-selective. You have to be your own harshest critic.” Far better if you can, to let those photos marinate on your hard drive or as negatives for a while until you can bestow upon them the objectivity they and you deserve. Your portfolio and personal development will thank you for it!

There’s an important role too for us to play as the curators of one another’s work too. Flickr and Facebook afford us amazing opportunities to join groups and even work as moderators, creating and curating groups of photos that fit a certain type of street photography and showcase the best of that particular style. It requires though, that we develop a thick skin both as moderators (you can’t make everyone happy all the time by approving all photos), and as participants – we have to accept that not all our photos can make the cut all the time, but we shouldn’t get discouraged, instead we should use it to fuel the fires of self improvement!

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Candid vs Posed, Staged, & Portraits

While street photography can be seen as being apart from photojournalism and documentary photography to some extent, in order to safeguard its image I feel we as street photographers must be careful to signpost our work when it has been posed or staged. I have no problem whatsoever with carefully arranged street shots or crazy double exposures, provided it is made clear. The traditional assumption with street photography has been that it serves to document the urban life and street around us, so we owe it to our viewers to make it clear when we have had more influence in the scene than they may otherwise expect of us.

Happily, in an age of social media captions and particularly hashtags, this has never been easier for us. There’s a lot to be said for movements like Nick Turpin’s #canpubphoto initiative which seeks to differentiate between street photos that have been composited or posed, and those which are utterly spontaneous and can serve as a document. Though I would disagree with any suggestion that compositing (if done in traditional double exposure style) or posing (ie street portraits) does not fit with street photography at all as it adds extra variety to the genre.

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Diversity (or lack of)

One of the best things about street photography is its ability to unite so many of us from different backgrounds by our common interest. We only need to look at something like the Streethunters Local Guides project (growing month by month) for proof that ours is a truly global genre, bringing together people from all over the world. It’s truly great that street photography encourages us to travel to new places, meet new people, form new friendships, and broaden our horizons. But more needs to be done to improve street photography’s image and make it more diverse as a genre.

For one thing, it is a source of enormous disappointment that female street photographers seem under represented. It is always a surprise to us that our crowdsourced lists of the most influential street photographers do not include more female photographers, though hopefully 2017 did mark something of a watershed moment, with more women photographers featuring in the top 20 than ever before. The fact remains though, that street photography appears to be a heavily male dominated genre, which cannot be a good thing when we are seeking to be part of a movement that showcases the very best documentary and photographic art created on the streets. The more eyes looking at a scene informed by their own unique viewpoint, background and identity, the more diverse and interesting the pool of photos for us all to admire and benefit from. We need to see more of communities and projects like Casey Meshbesher’s Her Side of the Street blogzine and accompanying @womeninstreet Instagram account that organise and promote female street photographers so the genre can move towards more of a parity of the sexes. Street photography needs more Vivian Maiers, Diane Arbuses, and Mary Ellen Marks! Art should be a genre without barriers, where we celebrate merit, talent, and vision above all else.

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Do You Agree? And What Can We Do?

Hopefully you’ve found some food for thought in some of my points, though I must stress that my article is entirely made up of my own interpretations (and crucially, insecurities) around the image and identity of street photography, so should be taken with a pinch of salt. I have been and continue to be guilty of many of the indiscretions I have outlined above, so no one should come away from reading this at all discouraged or disheartened. My goal is merely to add my opinions into the debate, and to ask you how you feel too. Many of the issues I have outlined facing street photography can be addressed quite easily. From a personal point of view, I am seeking to reach a state of mind where I can come to terms with the fact that I may return from a photo walk empty handed (and feel OK about it), and also striving to not fall into the trap of over sharing my work and really consider what I put out there with the goal of creating a unified body of work with some kind of force behind it (and perhaps here, are longer term projects the way to go?). This of course though should not be at the expense of promotion – the world would be a far worser place if we didn’t share our photos with one another after all. I’ll leave the last words for Matt Stuart, who’s managed to succinctly sum up what we all need to remind ourselves about street photography:

“You are looking for that brilliant moment that 99% of the time you don’t get… That is exactly why it is both the most accessible and the most difficult kind of photography.”

16 COMMENTS

  1. One of the articles i read by Michael Sweet in Huffington Post, “Street Photography Has No Clothes,” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-ernest-sweet/street-photography-has-no_b_7842038.html) is one i totally agree with. So many photos i see online are ones totally lacking in imagination, craft or insight – people walking down the street with no clear subject or even something to tie the random people together, people on cell phones, just people crossing the street or even standing, people on subways doing nothing interesting. Unfortunately, the silly titles are added because nothing in the photo elicits an emotional response or even begins to ask the viewer to look at the photo for more than a split second so the photographer feels compelled to explain it. Yet the multiple likes such photos get on social media are like a drug inducing photographers to post more and more of them. I personally had to disengage myself from such “street” sites because the the tendency to be critical was too overwhelming. I realize we all start somewhere, but street photography as an art (and i believe to do it well is an art) is being sabotaged by the weight of its own popularity.

    • Nice point Karen and thank you for the Michael Sweet article suggestion – I read it when it was first released and I can’t believe I forgot to mention it here – I will add it in as an edit! As far as popularity goes I think it’s great that more people are making street photos than ever before, but as you say it does present some problems. That said, we do all have to start somewhere, and better to encourage than dissuade!

  2. Every street photographer has their ideas on what makes good street photography but in truth it is nothing more than a random snapshot of life as it is happening. Personally speaking I don’t see it as “art” and never will. The act of doing it is a craft however and that cannot be denied. When people ask me how they can get into the craft I give them two simple pieces of advice: love people and buy a camera. If you don’t like people-watching and interacting with them, then don’t bother pointing your camera at them because your images won’t work.

    It’s true, street photographers are obsessive people. They need to know what is going on behind the chintzy curtains and partially open doors. They just have to know what is happening around the next street corner and have the urge to always go find out. I prefer candid myself and don’t see the point of posed pictures.

    I see my targets as actors on a stage. I look for expressive moments, a split second where life isn’t predictable. Elliott Erwitt sums it nicely for me: “Street photography is finding something interesting in an ordinary place.

    I shoot little and edit a lot. The old adage still works for me – only show your best. I take my time on the street rather than machine gun everything in sight. I prefer the style of Cartier-Bresson than I do some of the modern street photographers. My portfolio over the years runs into hundreds rather than thousands but my keeper rate is very high.

    Diversity is a good thing, it keeps the interest flowing and stops us from getting stale. I prefer it when I have a project to do but enjoy the free days out when I get them.

    My advice: forget the art bit, enjoy people and taking photos of them, look for the story behind your shot and capitalise on it (the story may only be in your own head), work out the composition before you move in and then take the shot and move on.

    If anyone wants to look at the images I used for my book and some of my London portfolio then go to my linked website, find the Enthusiastic Eye gallery and enter the password TEE2017 My E-book can be found here: https://goo.gl/SR5cQ6

    • Thanks Keith, you’ve got some interesting ideas. I definitely agree with you about street photographers being obsessive (I think you really need to be too in order to get the results you want!), and a thousand times yes with regards to editing. It really should be only the best (unless you’re after feedback of course). But of course the temptation is always there to share, and of course we need to market ourselves too. Plus tastes change over time too, I often look back on my older photos and cringe, and I’m sure I’ll do the same in a few years for those I’ve shared recently as well!

  3. As an aside to my previous post I would like to say that Gilden’s approach to street photography is disrespectful to the people he targets. If anything at all it gives street photography a bad name, especially from those who are subject to his camera-up-nose treatment. For me, we should have some respect for the people we photograph. After all, the shot is about them and not us [the photographer].

    • Keith, in what way do you specifically think it’s disrespectful? Have you actually seen him work, or are you judging from the assumed proximity in his photos? There are a couple videos on YouTube I’ve seen, which show him getting no closer than any other passersby on a crowded NYC sidewalk and generally being in the flow of traffic. I actually think he’s really adept at not making physical contact and barely slowing subjects. Certainly not “up the nose.”

      • Well, I think that pushing a camera into someone’s face and firing off a hand held flash is quite disrespectful. I have never found the need to do this with my street photography and try hard to respect the targets I take pictures of. They are not there for my convenience and our photography says more about us than it does them. Yes, I get close, but in all honesty I have been lucky enough to go about the craft without being detected. The few times I have been detected I have always struck up a conversation with them. We all have our style, his is not mine. You can check out some of my work here. http://keithtowers.zenfolio.com/p512624529
        Use the password TEE2017. The images are from a collection of London shots and images that are in my E-book.

  4. Art is art and does not require scrutiny. Shoot from the heart, enjoy your passion and do not search too deeply for reason or recognition. Life is short. Be happy to be part of it.

  5. Appreciate your article .. with your words and the links it’s a resource, not just an article. My passion for street photography is fueled in part by that genre’s insistence that I improve some interpersonal skills that do not come naturally to me .. assertiveness, brevity, humor, tact .. and that are on my bucket list even without photography. so thank you and one question:

    What are you thoughts on why the public, in general, singles out the street photographer while ignoring everyone else on the street who has a tiny camera as part of their smartphone?

    • Thank you Jim! Yeah street photography does force one out of one’s shell a bit.

      I think with regards to the casual attitude to smartphone cameras, I think there are several factors. One is that smartphone cameras are often used in touristy spots – so you expect cameras there. Another is that maybe people assume they’re being used for selfies sometimes too. Plus there’s also the assumption at play that the smartphone photographer is only a casual photographer, not a hard core street photographer lurking in a strange place with a ‘professional’ camera!

  6. I guess too many street photos taken with candid/documentary/photojournalism-like approach in mind.
    Of course, when I started learning street photography, I also did this.

    Seeing Rupert Vandervell works (check http://rupertvandervell.co.uk/man-on-earth.html or http://rupertvandervell.co.uk/geometrix.html, for example)
    broadens my perspective. Instead of the typical random, unplanned street candid shots, the guy took peoples photos from a certain distance, which
    in turns composed nicely with the architectural patterns/buildings and lights/shadows around. It’s sort of intertwining street photography with fine art.
    His geometric taste is really awesome, I think.

    Judging from his photos, I think the majority is taken with careful planning. He knows on which position the subject should enter the scene to make interesting
    photo. No doubt he is very familiar with the places where he take his shots.

  7. Digby, I applaud you for addressing this topic which no doubt anyone who truly enjoys street photography can relate to. I think most of us have questioned the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of this craft just as you have outlined. I think it’s an impossible task to have everyone follow a set of rules on the topic of street photography but I do think that self policing ourselves is a great way to cut through the noise of images we don’t enjoy. For instance, on Instagram only following those we are truly inspired by as well as only liking images that we truly enjoy. No likes given in kindness! The challenge is judiciously editing our own content and aspiring to get acknowledgment from those we admire and follow. It may seem elitist, but that’s not the intention. It’s really about careful self-curation and insulating ourselves from what we don’t like. Thanks!

  8. Digby, thanks for giving this so much thought. I wrestle with many of the same questions and concerns. One ancillary point in regard to Street Photography’s identity issue: for the last few months, I’ve been checking on the #streetphotography tag in comparison to other genres (like portraiture) on Instagram. Usually, only one or two of the “Top Posts” even qualify as the genre, and they’re mostly sub par or generic. You’ll see fashion, travel, urban environmentalism, architecture, etc. all featured as top “street” shots. It seems people are genuinely confused about what it is, to the point of watering it down collectively to mean nothing.

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