I’m sure we’ve all taken part in conversations where a discussion strays in to the topic of labelling music or art genres, more specifically, the problems that arise when something doesn’t quite fit.
As elements of our culture expand the dynamic subverts, experiments with and produces variations of the material. Defintive classification can become problematic, demarcation lines become blurred and new or sub classifications are born.
The most common example I can think of is music. It all started off very neatly didn’t it? Folk, Baroque, Classical, Opera, Jazz, Blues, Pop and Rock and then things started to unwind. If we parallel this to photography, as a nascent technology, any image made chemically/mechanically using light sensitive material was referred to not by a genre but by its particular process i.e. Talbotype, Dagurrerotype and Calotype etc. Ultimately though it was all simply ‘photography’.
The first real category to emerge, flourish and gain prominence was portraiture. This made sense, if for no other reason than the monetary gain possible by those able to cash in on their ability to acquire specialist equipment and understand the technicalities and processing techniques involved.
It wasn’t long after its invention that photographers also ventured out in to the street to chronicle architecture and people both home and abroad, basically capturing anything that didn’t move. So at this very early stage in the mediums history we already have those ‘blurred lines’ appearing. Did these pioneers produce documentary, travel or street photographs?
On a personal note I’ve never felt compelled to shoot one particular subject matter and, in some ways, this mimics the habits of early photographers.
The fact is street photography was right there at the start. A photography timeline based on camera utilisation would look something like this: still life/portrait/street photography /travel and war.
Constrained by equipment design and heavy construction candid photography was a little way off therefore the results of on location photography were set pieces, scenes staged for the photographer and we can assume that permission was indeed sought. But the moment cameras became more portable all this changed. Compare the work of Walker Evans produced using large format cameras to those made with a 35mm model. With miniaturisation the photographer and his equipment became mobile, agile and allowed access to previously unrecorded and candidly taken moments of human activity.
With this new found mobility subterfuge could be utilised to gather images, if the photographer wished to adopt this way of working. So these technical developments introduced ethical considerations to the photo taking process. There are a number of ways that images of everyday life can be collected, other modus operandi include blatantly accosting people with cameras and flashguns, and I’m not referring to the paparazzi but a strategy that can be seen here. Alternatively one could actually engage with the person being photographed and this offers us the opportunity to discuss whether or not that actually counts as street photography, documentary or street portraiture? As I’m not much in to categorising I’ll leave that question with you and move on to explain why I work the way I do.
I’m generally interested in fleeting moments such as subtle gestures or a telling glance, the image may be the result of a naturally occurring and interesting juxtaposition between a person and the environment or a scene that not only carries an aire of ‘this is now’ but also leads to the question ‘how will we read that image at some future point?’ To record these scenes I normally have to adopt the candid approach and this is solely to avoid my presence influencing the action.
If I merely end up recording someone reacting to me, then I’ve failed. This is merely an illustration of that person interacting with a camera and, in my opinion, it’s a pointless photograph. A success would be an image that resonates with most that view it, in the best case scenario a universal narrative based on visuals rather than text, to some degree devoid of any language barrier.
What they show and the depth of poignancy varies from shot to shot and, to an extent, is in the eye of the beholder. The images are typically difficult to capture and the actual subject matter varies vastly but in the majority of cases they are the result of either luck, anticipation or a simple convergence between me and the subject matter. I’m not playing a ‘game’ and there is no ‘hunt’. As stated in the last paragraph of my personal ethics versus moral opinion post, I am not out to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I don’t follow anyone, have some penchant for lurking about bushes and my motivation has nothing to do with ‘macho posturing’.
I’d like to highlight the broad, and sometimes defamatory, remarks made about this area of the medium along with articles and remarks that object to its very existence, the examples here are merely a start. Only detractors are included as the blog itself is a defence of street photography. I hope this will be complimented by debate from those within the photographic community along with any comments members of the public would like to add.
By attacking ‘street photography’ specifically I feel that it’s more accurate to say that it’s photography itself that’s being devalued, undermined and could be severely constrained. As a by product of categorisation a genre can be pointed at, marginalised and attacked. A metaphorical tourniquet can be applied, a restriction that eventually leads to a slow, withering demise. I don’t want the medium to become truncated and harnessed for purely functional commercial commissions, a producer of throw away images used within social media or for conceptual projects at the fine art end of the gamut . One of photography’s strengths has always been its range of use, I’d like it to be keep it that way.