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:
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.
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.