A few weeks ago I took over the reigns as submissions editor at In-Public. People send me their photos and if I think they would be of interest to the group I pass them on to everyone else. I'm sort of an online doorman.
So far it's been interesting. There are numerous submissions coming in daily from all over the world, and through them my insatiable need to see new photographs is somewhat met.
The flip side is that most of the submissions tend to be of mediocre quality. Many are from people relatively new to photography. Since In-Public specializes in street photography, the same street cliches tend to appear in submission after submission. The tendency is to aim for one line jokes, quick hitting gimmicky photos without much depth. The billboard mocking the person next to it. The bum next to the high-heeled fashion model. The gesture which blends in or mimics the environment. The window display reflection showing whatever. Manikins. Etcetera.
The funny thing is I have taken many of these same photos myself. Not only that, I continue to look for these photos, as I suspect all street photographers do. So seeing them over and over again in countless submissions has made me recast an eye on my own work. Is it so different? I hope that it is, but now I have been forced to examine exactly how. What separates good street photos from average ones? Is there much difference, for example, between this photo by Magnum great Richard Kalvar
and this one from a recent In-Public submission?
A slight change in composition perhaps, but both photos basically recycle a cliche we've seen time after time.
So what is the difference? One conclusion I've come to is that fine street photography is poetic in a way that one-hit wonders aren't. What may look at first to be a one line joke is instead a Zen Koan. Just as there is a qualitative difference between The Far Side and Family Circus, there are subtle yet wide difference in superficially similar street photographs. Consider another Kalvar photo
At first glance it seems to be a one-liner. The popsicle matches the harmonica. Ba-da-bing! Yet looking closerthere is a poetic absurdity to the whole image that makes it work. What is the foot doing there? The beer sign is fantastic, so misplaced that he couldn't have thought it up. How did he see all these elements at once, and how did he coordinate them so carefully into a visual jigsaw? I think what's most wonderful about the image is that it's absolutely meaningless. There's no story here. It's just a moment. It's not meant to back up any article or be included in any grand project (about popsicles perhaps?). It just is. Or was.
Here's one of my favorites by Jeff Ladd
What is going on here? Nothing. Everything. Life. This photo hits the mark without aiming, because there's nothing in the photo to aim at. Bullseye.
I've been told by several people that my own street photos resemble one liners. There may be some truth to that. But I like to think of them more as koans. For example, is this photo a one liner or an absurdity?
In one sense it's a visual gag. The mouth looks like a pupil, end of story. Yet for me this photo brings up issues of coincidence and timing that I can't explain. What are the odds of that kid holding his mouth just right for a split second? It's downright mysterious. When you see it this way you've hit the bullseye.