Friday, September 18, 2009

Streetwise

Nick Turpin has spawned an interesting dialogue about the nature of street photography over at Seven Seven Nine, leading to a longer discussion at HCSP. Both posts and comment threads are well worth reading for all street photographers. (Although the word street photography is a bit of a misnomer I use it here to mean any unplanned handheld photographs made in public)

Nick claims that 99% of the street photography that he sees is not worth looking at. I would put the figure slightly higher, perhaps closer to 99.98%. In other words the world is awash in crappy street photography. As the submissions pointman for In-Public, I see a lot of it. Yes, we get a fair amount of interesting work but the vast majority of it looks more like this:

In Public submission, 2008

or this:

In Public Submission, 2008

Now maybe these photographs have merit on some level. They could be part of a larger project on bikes or homeless, e.g., or the photographers could be working through various versions of the final shot, or perhaps the photographers are using these subjects to hone skills or test equipment. I'm not sure. But I do know that as stand-alone "look at me" street photographs, there doesn't seem much imperative to send them off into the world.

Multiply this photo by a few hundred million and you have the current world of street photography. Like suburban shopping plazas these millions of photos have no integrity or style. They're just taking up mental space, 99.98% of it to be precise. That's a problem.

So what's to be done? According to Nick, more editing. "Edit, edit, edit," he says, and I have to agree. If street photographers paid better attention to what they distributed, it would improve the lot for all of us. If we could get that crap percentage down to just 90% I would be stoked.

I think, however, that that is unlikely to happen. The ease of photographic capture and distribution today has totally flooded the visual marketplace, and I see that flood increasing in the future as these tasks become even easier.

But let's back up a moment. Maybe the question to ask isn't "Why don't people edit better?" but "Why do people take street photographs?" What motivates all these folks to pursue a relatively narrow, obscure, highly challenging avenue of photography? Why don't they shoot landscapes or portraits or barns or something? Indeed people pursue all these avenues, but street photography in particular seems the most attractive to casual shutterbugs. Why?

I think one reason is that street photography has become a sort of catchall for much of the non-project oriented photography out there. If you're not a conceptual artist and you like to let your camera guide you, what do you do? You wander around with a camera and shoot what you find. If you're in an urban setting, this becomes photos of pedestrians and bums and pets and billboards and whatever. By default it becomes street photography.

But categorizing all of these pet shots and billboards as street photography is a bit like calling a child's drawing abstract expressionism. Technically the description is accurate but there is a huge gulf separating the photos above from, for example, this one by street master Helen Levitt:


This photograph could enchant anyone into pursuing street photography. All Levitt did was wander around with a camera and no plan until she found this. No special equipment, no studio, seemingly anyone could do it.

Malcolm Gladwell says that to master a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. That's roughly 5 years working a 40-hour week. For street photography, I think 20,000 hours is probably a more suitable figure. In other words, to make a photograph like Levitt's requires decades of shooting. Yet Levitt's photo seems to mask this effort. And indeed that is part of street photography's magic, that it seems so directly accessible. As a result we get many people wandering with a camera and no plan, with results that often don't hold up.

I think another primary reason street photography attracts many shutterbugs is that it's become a style. HCB's man leaping over the puddle may have been original at the time but it's spawned a cottage industry of shooters waiting for pedestrians to get in just the right spot. The same thing could be said about all the common street motifs, the figure making the same pose as a background figure or the spatial disruption creating visual ambiguity or the anthropomorphized pet. We all shoot these things. I'm as guilty of it as anyone. Why do we do it? On some level it's because that's what a street photograph is supposed to look like. You hang out on the corner and look for certain things because the tradition of street photography contains them. There's a history out there for folks to emulate, something to aim for, and it winds up drawing photographers in.

Behind the Gare St.-Lazare, 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson

HCB Knockoff by Blake Andrews, 1999

I think the first two photos at the top of this post are probably results of this instinct. The photographers had seen some well-known photos of dogs or of a sleeping bum, and so it became ok to cover this subject matter. It's a well worn path, yet one which inevitably leads to dead-ends. Followed over and over by many people it will result in a crap percentage pretty near 99.98%.

I realize this is a fairly negative take on things and I don't say any of it to be mean. I admit I am a photo snob. I'm simply calling it like I see it. Most street photography that I come across is not yet ready for primetime, and the ideas above are an exploration of why that is.

23 comments:

Waxy said...

As long as were throwing around random numbers, last year HCSP did a rigorous, robust and rugged scientific study which found that only 0.1 to 1% of the photographs submitted to the pool were approved.

So.. there you have it. Prove positive that at least 99% of street shots are crap! ;)

Ulrich said...

Thank god we got a handful of brave people that save the planet from crappy street shots. Roll on, there still is hope.

gacetillero said...

There's Frenchman called Paul Virilio who wrote a book a few years ago called the Information Bomb. One of his (rather obscurely written) ideas was that, through new communications technology, we're striving for a sense of achievement through essentially non-constructive behaviours.

There are two things he quoted that I think help give some idea of his argument -

Kafka - "The masses are rushing, running, charging through the age. They think they are advancing, but they are simply running on the spot and falling into the void, that is all."

and

Dr Touzeau (a specialist on treating drug addiction) - "By behaviour equivalent to suicide attempts, such as anorexia, mutism, drug abuse and also risk behavriours (excessive speed, riding motprcycles without crash-helmets, etc), individuals believe they can overcome their own impotence. The backdrop to these violent confrontations with limits is the classic phantasy of being at last able to domonate one's destiny - the phantasy, in short, of total accomplishment."

I'd argue street photography (as practiced by most) is often a very mild version of this desire to achieve self-realisation without too much effort - it rests upon a conceit that by wandering around with a camera and some fast glass and taking pictures, you're going to create art just by wanting to - without having to go through all the hard graft of editing.

And to be fair, the camera companies do exploit that. I watched a video on street photography yesterday that turned into a faintly-disguised ad for Leica, which made out that having the right camera would make you a street photographer - after all, hadn't the best street photographers used Leicas? (As a counterpoint, I note that Salgado is now shooting with a full-frame DSLR because he got sick of his films getting degraded by airport scanners).

So perhaps to an extent the explosion of poor street photography is just a symptom of our wider cultural predilection to seek quick and easy routes to enlightenment, rather than realising that true accomplishment is 99% hard graft.

To put it in perspective, Robert Frank shot 760 rolls of film - 270,000 photos - to produce the 83 pictures that made his book The Americans (according to an article in the New Yorker this week).

gacetillero said...

PS - which would mean that 99.9692593% of his photos were crap, too!

(I jest...)

waxy said...

@gacetillero:

That Leica video you mention is ridiculous. Someone needs to tell the photographer about Magnum photographer Alex Majoli using point and shoots while on assignment for Newsweek (see link below).

I'm sure a lot of Majoli's shots were crap too but, as you know, making nice pictures is less about technology and more about the photographer's skill -- both in the field and at home doing post-processing.

http://www.flickr.com/groups/onthestreet/discuss/72157594269832933/

Blake Andrews said...

I've just posted some climbing shots on WTD. I think climbing is another activity which is non-constructive and perhaps driven by unconscious impotence. So maybe the fact that I enjoy climbing and street photography says something? But I've never been to a therapist so all that stuff is still a mystery packed in my head, and will probably remain there.

Anyway, I think the urge to replicate or imagine oneself as a famous street shooter is a motivation for some. When you're out with the Leica as in the video, stalking life, you can be HCB or Frank or anyone. Often, the resulting shots make that motivation all too clear.

Michael Sebastian said...

Blake, I think you've hit on it exactly. Street photography carries a patina of cool, Leica-toting "lone genius" cachet that attracts people. And it does seem superficially easy. Not to pick on digital per se, but the cheapness of each image (once you've eaten the acquisition cost of the gear and amortized its quick obsolescence) means there's no financial penalty imposed upon impatience, or mediocrity.

Doesn't help that many people shooting today have no idea what makes a great photograph; and have been suckled since birth at the loving mammary of self-esteem, which holds that everything they do is wonderful and above reproach. Why edit, when everything I produce is simply awesome?

Prepare to be lacerated by your readers on this on, though; your words will be unwelcome to many.

Anil P said...

Fair point yours. Could identify with much of what you said.

On the street, live the moment as if you belonged there, and chances are you'll see a picture that belongs on the street, and it might just make an interesting picture.

Even in a static image of the street there're possibilities of stories. I suppose that more than anything else makes a picture 'talk'. Else it will lean to still life.

I doubt if anyone understood street photography better than Raghu Rai did. Raghu Rai is a Magnum photographer.

Ben said...

Blake,

"...I use it here to mean any unplanned handheld photographs made in public."

Must challange your assumption about "hand held" now that I read "In Flagrante" (Book on Books version) by Chris Killip (ed. Jeffrey Ladd). Unbelievably, all view camera work! Of couse, had I looked closely enough at the picture on page 1, I would have known that but did not realize it until the notes at the end.

Ben

Blake Andrews said...

Ben, you're right that my definition of street photography is arbitrary. As you point out, street photos can be made using a tripod. And as DiCorcia and Clark have shown, they needn't be unplanned or made in public. I was merely trying to form a working definition for the essay, mainly with the goal of showing that street photography doesn't need to be made "on the street". It is a style that can apply anywhere anyhow.

Diarmait said...

Ben, I thought that Chris Killip's work was made with a tripod and always marvelled at his ability to take such candid photos with a view camera... until I saw a talk by him a few months back when he revealed that he shot 'In Flagrante' with a Linhof (?) handheld field camera... Maybe the first photo is an exception...

Ben said...

I hear ya Blake.

Diarmait, thanks for info. I guess Killup more a modern day Weegee with Linhof in lieu of Speed Graphic.

I think we all agree it's a state of mind more than a technical problem.

ulf f├ągelhammar said...

Have a look at the blog entry about this topic
http://www.591photography.com/2009/09/discussions-about-street-photography.html

New Channel Media said...

Completely agree with the statistics. Getty is welcome to Flickr. There is so much crap, on there, that it seems to be a waste of internet bandwidth and disk space. Same with YouTube. And most of the blog/publishing sites that promise to pay you out of ad sales. It would seem that the internet is driving acceptance of mediocrity. I hope that this is the start of a wake-up call.

Evan W. Isnor said...

If I understand this article (and comments) correctly, the issue here is that Street Photography carries a natural facade that offers an allure to photographers who are looking for something that will produce positive results effortlessly. This causes the photographer to lazily compose their images or continue to re-create images they've already seen.

I agree! However, this can be said about any form of art that takes 1/1000th of a second to produce. I think the bigger problem here is that most photographers (read: people brandishing a camera like a phallus) are unable to derrive quality from their work as a result of their lack of effort.

Photography is no different from painting with oil on canvas, or designing a sky skraper. You get what you put into it, and with the advance of social media and user-contributed content, there's bound to be a lot of crap muddying the waters. This won't go away, but we can at least be thankful that some of the photographers producing the garbage will place enough energy and effort into their work to master it, ensuring fresh enjoyable images for the decades to come.

Greg Yarmit said...

I would like to point out another aspect of candid street photography. Taking unplanned shots can be compared with poker. It is common opinion that rules of Holdem are extremely simple but it takes years to master the game. A Lot of it depends on pure chance. It is the gambling but some players consistently win others lose. Why? The major difference is losing in poker cost you money but taking bad photos and publish them is virtually free.

Greg Yarmit
www.candidstreetphoto.com

Jonathanjk said...

The best bit about painting is that it takes time, even to make one picture, the actual act of moving the brush even with one stroke teaches so much to the beginner; hold it properly, move it exactly how you want, etc.

The engagement with the medium is 100% active.

Whereas the act of pressing the shutter button is no different to changing the channel on the TV as setting up a scene takes time which the camera doesn't give the learner.

It also doesn't separate the beginner from the professional in any recognisable way that causes them to question their practice.

That's why people think they can just go out and take pictures. Even then, people have to realise why one picture is better than another to a degree where they need to admit they are not good enough and should improve.

Tobias Weisserth said...

@Waxy. Since 99% of HCSP images which make it into the pool are utterly boring and forgettable, the percentage must be much much higher.

Seriously, does anybody look at those images?

How did this image end up in the pool for example? It's not worth looking at for more than a second. There is no story other than a guy on a cellphone and body parts in the left corner without a context to the image.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/provlepe/5835273801/in/pool-94761711@N00/

Or how about this one:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bform/5676002677/in/pool-94761711@N00/

Just another pedestrian scene without any instance worth captioning - or looking at for more than a second.

This one doesn't have a point either:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/edalban/4977647633/in/pool-94761711@N00/

And this one certainly is no bad photograph but is it unique street photography? It's a scene that can be witnessed EVERY day the same way at Niagara Falls:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonpaulkossoff/5784594347/in/pool-94761711@N00/

In all honesty and with respect, I find HCSP to be no good and most of all no authoritative judge for what's good street photography and what's not.

St├ęphane said...

Hi Mr Andrews,

Just fell back on this. Still relevant to this day and not being able to go back shooting some I was shooting ages ago is definitely because, sadly enough right now and it's been for some years now too (yep! I am bitchin' about that for sure!!!), I don't have senses nor commitment of some sort or approaches to get something decent out of the public space. Decent being out of using all graphic and fast food recipes for visually successful photographs, using bums, good pair of legs and lipstick, kids and whatnot. There are a pretty decent amount of good cooks out there (and 10 is a decent number) as far as what I saw, but they too must feel by now feel like they start serving the same meals all around when cooking around.
SP is a b..ch! and it takes being a good pimp to milk it correctly.

Stephan

SamC said...

So, Blake, how much of the 99.98% do you account for?

Blake Andrews said...

More than my share.

SamC said...

Me too.

Coffee Drinker said...

I know this blog is a few years old, but just stumbled across it.

The figure that gacetillero gave for Robert Frank shooting 760 rolls for his 83 picture books is one zero too many. It comes out to 27,000+ shots versus his figure 270,000. Still, point taken.

Secondly, I've come back into "the fold" of photography after a 30 year hiatus(!), so I'm having to relearn things. When you're talking about strict editing, are you referring to curating? So, let's say I go out and snap 1000 pictures. After returning home I choose 2 from that collection. That's what you're talking about? If so, how do you go about separating yourself from the photos since they do have an emotional attachment? Didn't Winograd leave his film undeveloped for more than a year before deciding to look at it?

Similarly, in the literary world, Stephen King finishes a novel and puts it away for a minimum of six weeks, then edits the crap out of it. I've done similar things with my writing and the time between the writing and the editing is worthwhile.