Sunday, June 8, 2008

At the risk of pouring fuel on an inferno, I'd like to add my two cents about the ongoing Flickr threads questioning street photography's legitimacy.

To get everyone up to date, the spat began June 3rd when Noel Rodo-Vankeulen explained why he never posted street photography on his blog We Can't Paint. "So much of this type of photography seems to only provide answers instead of questions," he said. Which was somewhat inflammatory, but it wasn't until Joerg Colberg excerpted the quote on Conscientious, basically agreeing with the statement, that the shit really hit the fan. Flickr's Hardcore Street Photography forum launched a long discussion, stirred up by Michael David Murphy at 2point8, who then created his own Flickr discussion forum on the topic. Fur flew, fingers pointed, feathers ruffled, etc.

Although I am not part of the eponymous Flickr forum I would classify myself as a hardcore street photographer, and so in these discussions my inclination is to sympathize with that perspective. It may surprise folks when I say I think there is some truth to Rodo-Vankeulen's statement. Some street photography, perhaps even most of it, attempts to provide answers rather than questions, and in doing so becomes rather boring. At its worst, street photography becomes the equivalent of a knock-knock joke.

Knock-knock. Look at this. Isn't it clever? Ha-ha. This sort of photo doesn't ask much, and whatever it asks is quickly answered with the only correct reply possible.

The image above is from a recent email of the type I receive fairly often from non-photographer friends who think I might like them. Judging by how often I receive them I think these images must be all over the web. I suppose that when people think of street photography, this is what they think of. And in fact, a lot of street photography tends to follow this pattern, the quick gag, the visual gimmick, the one-line joke. A few more from the same email:

My hunch is that Noel Rodo-Vankeulen and Colberg associate most street photography with this type of gag, which is why they don't give it much attention. Taken as a whole the contemporary photo art community leans toward the same dim view. They'd much prefer photos with no easy answers that can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, the pendulum has swung way too far into the mystery column. Browsing through the 20 x 200 site, which is a pretty fair assessment of what is young and hot in photography, there is no risk of finding any answers layout about. I'm not sure what to make of images by Brad Moore

Kirby Pilcher

or Rebecca Loyche

Sure, they've escaped the trap of the visual knock-knock, but it seems to me they've become too inaccessible. These are like knock-knocks in an obscure foreign language. Perhaps they mean something to a small number of native speakers, but most of us are left with nothing to get a handle on at all. We are forced to give the work our own meaning almost without regard for the work itself. Instead of being dependent on the photographer's expression, the work is more about us, the audience, and what we bring to it.

This approach may be fine for some folks. But for me personally, a photo it has to at least meet me halfway. I'm ok bringing something to the photo so long as the photo keeps up its end of the bargain. For me, the best photography has a balance between the question and answer that is similar to a zen koan. Like a koan, a good photo may seem blank and inapproachable, yet it pricks the brain in a certain definite way. It has an answer. It isn't completely wide open. I'm thinking of photos by Eggleston,

Carl de Keyzer,

or Henry Wessel,

to take just three examples. It's no coincidence that --at least for me-- the photos that best strike this balance tend to be documentary or found objects, often of people, in nonstatic environments. In other words, street photos. At their best, as in the three photos above, the tie to a real scene prevents the photo from being completely mysterious. Whatever questions the photo brings up, the fact that the scene existed brings everything back down to earth, and anyone who looks at the photo can generally agree on the scene's original visual elements. On the other hand, photos like the three above have enough ambiguity to avoid any easy answer. There is no punch-line to these photos, just as there is no punch-line to life or general reality. Street photos in the form of knock-knocks may seem real, but don't really reflect the world.


thechrisproject said...

Thanks for your perspective. I like the knock-knock joke analogy, especially the foreign language variant. I'm gonna use that...

Paul Russell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tomé said...

only one thing occurs to me when i think of this discussion, right from the beginning. GANG BANG.

Ulrich said...

I know it is not the main point of your blog post but I first must say I do not see the point in someone making a statement about street photrography where he states mainly that he has nothing to contribute to street photography. To me this kind of discuissions are somewhat typical to flick. There is nothing in it for me.

I like your point about questions street photographs transport, contain or rise. However, I think street photography is not necessarily bound to such questions. To me street photography is about the moment, let it be special or mundane. A mood, the atmosphere, an instant in time. It may be aesthetic, boring, ugly, but a street photograph freezes all kinds of objects together in that one frame it captures. A true moment of people or items that otherwise might or might not have any relation with each other.

Simple, no mysteries or interpretations attached.

John said...

Rebecca Loyche's piece is part of a series and it makes more sense in the context of the whole set.

Blake Andrews said...

You're right, John, that it's not really fair for me to grab a shot out of context and then complain about not understanding it. So for that I apologize. I just pulled some photos from 20 x 200 that seemed particularly conceptual and that was one of them, but this shouldn't be taken as a critique of Loyche's project as a whole, only as an counter-example in relation to street photography.

Michael David Murphy said...

It's interesting how the top three examples of crap street photos all contain advertising that was expressly made to interact with people in a "funny" way.

What's surprising is that people find these ads (& bags) funny enough to photograph and email to their friends.

While the most pervasive, no-duh street photography tends to rely on easy visual puns and juxtapositions, it seems to me that the worst of it would avoid gags that are *this* set-up, don't you think?

John said...

No problem Blake, I was really just drawing attention to Loyche's work. I like her Legs series, even though I feel like I've seen similar work by other photographers and am not sure how original it really is.

BTW I agree with Michael David Murphy that making photos of things that are designed to look exactly as they look in the photos is kind of trivial. This goes for everything from shots of advertising pieces like you point out to night photographs of public buildings that are especially lighted for night-time viewing.

Anonymous said...

great post.
first time i come here and you reflect exactly what i had been thing quite some time ago.

now its time to continue reading your blog :o)