Friday, 11 March 2011

Street Photography; How to lose friends and alienate people.

This seems to be the year of Street Photography. Format Festival, in Derby, has it as its theme, the London Street Photography Festival launches in July, there is a big street photography exhibition on at Museum of London, and this season's issue of fLIP, the magazine for London Independent Photography, has the theme streetlife. Last year saw the publication of a Thames & Hudson book on the subject, and in-public published a book in honour of their 10th anniversary.

But here's the thing. I'm about to issue a statement which may lose me some friends. I have a problem with street photography.

"Their first murder", Weegee, 1941
At the launch weekend of Format Festival, my friend told me that a mutual friend of ours, who's in his 50's, asked her "what's street photography?". This person is not completely alienated from the photography world, although he is not a photographer; he is an artist. But his question interested me because I realised that street photography is a fairly new genre. The term is new, but the actual type of photography it stands for has been going on since cameras were small enough to take out on the street (or not, if you count Weegee). Henri Cartier Bresson, Rodchenko, Robert Frank; all these people took photographs of life unfolding around them; but only now do we refer to them as street photographers. A l'epoque, they were just great photographers; a little later, they were reportage photographers.

Don't get me wrong, there are still some great photographers who are documenting life on the street. A lot of the Magnum photographers who are showcased at Format - Chris Steele Perkins, Ray Depardon, Bruce Gildon, and members of the street photography collective in-public are good examples. But it is my opinion that others who jump on this street photography bandwagon are exploring it not for the original ideas of reportage photography, but for the sense of humour with which it is often related. It is now all about visual puns or mismatched elements in the composition, and the fact that people go out to create these photos make it much less successful. They become a one trick pony, and all start to look a little same-y.

"Beer St", Hogarth, 1751
In his launch speech at Format, Joel Meyerovitz (another one who is termed a street photographer; although actually it seems he hasn't been doing that kind of photography for quite a number of years, certainly not since the term began being used) said that street photography was the one genre which was truly photographic, because it wasn't present in painting. And I have to disagree with this. Think of Hogarth's engravings of street scenes in London - ok, they were to make a point about the social classes, but they are still a document, or a report of street life. Likewise, Pieter Breugel's large paintings depicting carnivals and festivals are not exactly recorded in a fraction of a second, so not conforming to Bresson's Decisive Moment, but they are a document of latter day street life.

The Fight between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Breugel, 1559

My point is that documenting the streets has been a point of interest for centuries, because it is an interesting space; it's where life is played out for all to see. And I'm not saying we should stop doing this; it's true that photography is a perfect medium for it. I just think we need to question what "street photography" really is, and what the point of it is if it's in the form of endless visual puns. Can't we just go back to documenting life like the great photographers of the mid century?

I'm expecting a barrage of comments from people I know and like from the industry (you know who you are!). But I'm not dissing you - you are all great photographers. I just have a problem with the term, and the bandwagon it has created. Maybe I'm too much of a control freak to be hanging around the streets waiting for the decisive moment...


  1. I agree that good street photography needs to go beyond the superficiality of the visual pun, however the recent resurgence in the genre has been largely been due photographers re-asserting their rights as citizens in the wake of oppression by the Government and their agents. Therefore, in my view, the more the merrier!

  2. Good comments Carole - don't worry, I'll still talk to you

  3. This is ripe for discussion we need to have one at the next street show at Photofusion. Like your choice of illustrations.


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