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Tuesday, 28 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Street Credibility

picture: Colin Pantall - Does my bum look big 0n this?

First of all, I love street photography. The history of photography is powered and invigorated by the street. If it weren't for the street, photography would collapse under the weight of its essential vanity and self-regard. Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Klein, Henri Cartier Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Daido Moriyama, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Trent Parke, Paul Graham believe-it-or-not, Bruce Gilden, Mark Cohen (and I could go on ) are all fantastic examples of the broad spectrum of photographers who have used the street as their location.

At its best, street photography has an energy and vitality of its own, the photographer fuelled up on adrenaline and fags flits around the city capturing the nervous edge of the people and spacial politics of the city. The photographer becomes one with the street, personal, private and public merging into the amorphous mass that is the urban zeitgeist of a particular space.

The street photographer maps the psycho-geography of the built-up environment in other words. That's the idea anyway.

But it doesn't always happen like that. The street photographer has the street as his location for a reason; the street is anonymous, amorphous and impersonal. And sure, you can pursue your obsession with the amorphous for years and years, and if you are obsessive and hard-working enough you might end up producing something as great as the photographers mentioned above.

But most of the time, having the street as a location is an abdication of responsibility and choice. We forget the hard-work bit and use the street because we couldn't be arsed to do anything better. We don't have to choose, we don't have to focus, we don't have to relate to anything beyond a second. We photograph whatever comes into our rangefinder and rationalise it away with some mumblings about...? About...? About what exactly? I'm not sure really. Most of the time street photography is a cop out, a simple expression of our dysfunction as human beings, our failure to relate to each other, our limited attention span.

We can be in-your-face like Gilden and Cohen (and I love the work of Gilden and Cohen, but one of each is enough), but what is that apart from a photographic invitation to be at the end of a slapping. We can do the blurry Daido-thing (and I love the blurry Daido-thing), but then doesn't everywhere end up looking alike.

If we live in a really big city where lots goes on (aka New York or Tokyo) we can search out those random locations where shop displays, loading bays and wealthy women of a certain age collide to provide us with Winogrand-lite visions ofa lovable, huggable but essentially crappy Whimsy City. It's low rent slapstick, the photograph equivalence of the film scene where someone walks across the street holding a giant pane of glass.

Or we photograph the light, we try to do what Trent Parke did so brilliantly in his black and white work of Australia. We lurk on street corners waiting for the sun to come round and shine on the faces and bodies of those coming towards us. We can borrow some ideas from Philip-Lorca diCorcia's Heads and mutter something about "the individual" and "isolation" and "the loneliness of the long distance commuter".

But our pictures will be pictures of patches of light - because that's what all pictures are. Unless you tie them together with a visual web where environment, history, people and place combine to make a beautiful and cohesive whole (as Parke did with his Australian work or di Corcia with his heads).

And I haven't even mentioned typography, signs, or advertising hoardings. Or flags. Or dogs. And I'm not going to because that would be to go into such a dark place that I would never emerge into the daylight again.

Street photography is the ultimate cop-out. It's for people who are too lazy to engage with the real world, for people who are scared of the intimacy of meaningful photography so seek out the sequential one-one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth-second-stand of the street, for people who just want to hang around on street corners snapping strangers, smoking fags and drinking coffee with fond imaginings that they will be the next Cartier-Bresson/Winogrand/Parke.

I know this because I am lazy and think this every day. I forget the foot-slogging, brow-beating unrewarded drudgery of it, the endless rolls of film wasted hanging around waiting for something to happen even if it's nothing much at all.

I forget all that and think how I'd love to be a street photographer!


luis said...

oh I can totally relate to his post! :)

Anonymous said...

There is one major problem with your polemic.

Street photography doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...

You can find all of the above on my Street Photography site...


Stan B. said...

Can you take a college course to learn how to do it?

colin pantall said...

Thanks Luis - Street Photography does exist too, Anonymous #1 and there's lots of great stuff on Anonymous #2's site.

No, Stan, this is the one, and perhaps the only one of all these postings, that they don't teach at college - one reason why it is such a rare and valuable thing, the best!

Which main? What Cross? said...

So true. This will be something I will save and read every time I need inspiration.

marc said...

Great post! You're a very witty polemicist.

www.luxe64.com said...

The street is only a setting and the art comes from what you do with your setting and subject and how intelligently you wield your camera.

Any good photographer, like any good artist is always struggling with what he is doing. Always re-thinking what they are doing and pushing themselves to go to a higher, better place. Sometimes they fail grandly and sometimes they succeed.

See this post by me at: http://luxe64.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/thinking-and-acting/

Mikhail Steinberg said...

This makes sence. Street photography- is for people who chose to be an observers, maybe because they are afraid to be a participant.

MichaƂ Buddabar said...

great post