Monday, November 29, 2010

Street Photography Now

I've had a month now to sift through Street Photography Now and I still can't decide what to make of it. As a quick coffee-table read, it is amazingly fun to browse. I can turn to any page at random and be immediately drawn in by the photographs, not to mention the impeccable layout, design, and reproduction quality.

Photo by Johanna Neurath

I've read the book straight through and it holds up quite well that way too, full of interesting perspectives and anecdotes.

It's only when held to a slightly more demanding standard --as a component in contemporary photo history/criticism-- that the book's beauty marks begin to show. In the words of one online commenter,
"this ain't scholarship… more like a collection of 3-point shots and flying lay-ups...T&H is trying to ride today's street photo craze with a relatively inexpensive book of eye work designed to appeal to semi-casual practitioners rather than scholars"
I don't know if I'd go that far, but there is perhaps a grain of truth in that sentiment. SPN seems intended more as a glossy survey than a probing one.

In comments on 2point8 Joanna Neurath and Sophie Howarth both make it clear that the book was not intended as a serious academic study. Instead, according to Neurath, the target audience was three-pronged: "1) Those who study the history of photography or those who are dedicated street photography fans. 2) another audience, a more general reader, one who doesn’t have as much knowledge as the people who read these forums for instance. 3) A reader who mainly wants the images."

Fair enough. But even if the aims of the editors were clear, confused reactions were perhaps to be expected. As the first broad street photography book to be published since Bystander in 1994, comparisons to that book were inevitable, especially considering the title which seemed to play on that multiyear void. You've waited 16 years…until Street Photography Now. But SPN is not a sequel to Bystander. Its approach is quite separate, and I think the differences between the books illustrate changes not just in street photography but in general photographic scholarship.

While Bystander came at the tail end of pre-internet era, Street Photography Now seems intimately tied to the web. Maybe I'm wrong but I'd speculate that most of the research for the book was done online. I say this not just in response to various citation snafus (documented here and here) but in response to the material itself. The selection of photographers seems young, global, and web-savvy, with a substantial dose of HCSP, Flickr, and In-Public members.

Meanwhile, some street stalwarts who aren't daily participants in the online world are left out, e.g., Charles Traub, Sylvia Plachy, Daido Moriyama, Friedlander, and Henry Wessel, not to mention the patron saint of candid street photography, Elliott Erwitt. Joel Meyerowitz is included even though he hasn't been an active street shooter for 40 years. Could it be due to his strong online presence? If it's an homage to his pioneering streetwork, the other exclusions seem odd.

The selection of resources in the appendix also seems peculiar. Why is Papageorge's Passing Through Eden included instead of his much more streety American Sports? Mermelstein's pedestrian Twirl/Run nudges out his brilliant No Title Here? If you're going to list Paul Graham, wouldn't you choose Beyond Caring rather than Shimmer of Possibility? Or Meyerowitz's Wild Flowers instead of Legacy? Does Uncommon Places really belong on a street list? Or two entries for the same Friedlander book? My point isn't to quibble over particular selections but to show that the list of resources seems scattered and arbitrary. To me it looks like the type of info that often results from a quick online search (maybe of this list?).

Well, so what? What's wrong with online research? Nothing. I use it all the time, including many times in this post. But as I've noted above it does color the general tenor of the material. Whereas Bystander was dense with historical background, SPN (true to its title) doesn't have much memory. In many ways the book feels like a simple byproduct of the online street photo community, with that tie continuing after publication. Bryan Formhals makes a similar observation: "there’s a synchronicity between the planning of this book and the rise of the vibrant street photography communities you find on the web today at places like HCSP and others." Would the book be better titled Street Photography Online Now?

Perhaps an internet-centric book is appropriate. After all the web, not the street, is where many Street Photographers Now congregate. Alec Soth's recent From Here To There seems to derive similar inspiration from the web, and maybe these are two of the first books in a growing movement. If people are still reading books in 50 years, my guess is that they'll look like these. But I can't help wondering what this movement is leaving behind. Don't street photographers need to visit the real world occasionally? Isn't that the whole point of it?

I don't mean to come down too hard on SPN. In case I haven't been clear, this is a book worth owning for anyone interested in street photography. The photography is generally great and, as many have noted, you're virtually guaranteed to discover work that'll be new to you. If you enjoy looking at street photography online you'll love reading this book. Just bear in mind, those are two very different activities.


Droid said...

An interesting review of the book, which I haven't purchased yet. To tell the truth I'm still surprised that there is another book out on Street Photography at all since it seems to have fallen out of favour in the past couple of decades. What I find confusing is that they would consider both Paul Graham and Moriyama as street photographers. I guess I tend to view street photography as mainly visual and superficial, but not in a bad way. Often it's lyrical and humorous but tends not to delve too deeply. Graham and Moriyama, on the other hand, always seemed to have a much deeper motives behind their photography. I have a feeling from what you've said though that this book may not settle my confusion.

Blake Andrews said...

Just to clarify, neither Graham nor Moriyama is featured in the book.

Anonymous said...

Yes interesting review Blake.

I've enjoyed the book too for what it is; a survey of current street photography.

Whilst I agree, in part with Ken Tanaka's point that SPN "ain't scholarship", I'm not sure I want street photography to take itself too seriously.

If indeed it was the publisher and author's intention to produce a book for "those who study the history of photography or those who are dedicated street photography fans", then I think they achieved that.

These survey type books are the visual equivalence of the "Hottest Hit's of the '80's" compilation albums. They are designed to provide a taste of what's out there.

And like all music compilations we all know the band has much better music than what's on the album.

Anonymous said...

I sat down and read this book at a local bookstore and was very impressed... at first. A few days later I came back and had intended to buy the book and revisited it, and was less interested. The '3 point shot' pyrotechnics were more obvious and jarring, and there seemed to be an in-public site-mafia tilt to the proceedings. Not a bad collection, but not as exciting as I'd thought at first glance. I decided to buy something else instead.

joy said...

hi blake. just found your blog and i find your voice and your passion for photography reads loud and clear.

I happen to know one of the photographers in the book, Melanie Einzig, and she's part of another great photography blog. I find the work on this blog more experimental and poetic, especially since it's a forum for visual conversations between the three photographers.

Justin Sainsbury said...

I get your review - totally. I just think they had to make it a greatest hits stylee as its going to have crossover appeal and sell. It might never have come to the shelves otherwise.
Having met one of the authors a couple of times, I know they are passionate and knowledgeable about the genre.
The best bit though is I can give my copy to family / friends outside of photography and they get it. I guess this means they are likely to inspire a new batch which is all good.

Blake Andrews said...

I check G-Road occasionally. I agree they have a good thing going.

I hadn't really thought of it as a crossover book but I guess it could fill that role. For me it's hard to judge the appeal to non-photographers. Do you they even care about this stuff? I know that If I gave this to my wife or other family members, it would just gather dust. I think the main audience for it has to be street photographers.

Anonymous said...

... and I like your quote which was inserted in the book - which echoes some thoughts from Papageorges.

I find the book is of very good quality. I don't own it but did browse it a couple of times at local bookstores. Speaking of quality there is e.g. a Pulitzer photo book thta I saw today which has very poor print quality IMO. That is worth to be mentioned, not all photobooks are of good quality, but SPN definitely is.

I too feel the book has some community vibe, as opposed to the myth of the solitary street--photographer (most historical SP did monographs instead of being involved in such projects - maybe with the exception of the "Family of Man"). SPN has something of the "Knights of the Round table", with each photogs sent around the world to get his/her holy grail. That has to do with how the project was assembled more than it reflects the individual situation of each photographer by the way, but that is how the book was made. Nothing wrong with that.

And indeed: probably more proselytism than scholarship intended.

J. Karanka said...

I find the book very approachable and exciting, which is the sort of approach I think is right for a book that a book that satisfies a large audience. If anything, I miss some of those photographers who do street photography but try to distance themselves from the 'tag', like Moriyama' Tom Wood or Boris Mikhailov in it. They have been able to direct their photography in public places and their street ethos in very concrete and pesonal ways. It's definitively worth digging deeper into the selected photographers work to not find them arbitrary or void as some comments suggest, there's more to see than a few of their best known images.

Blake Andrews said...

@jophilippe, It was nice to have a quote in the book but I have to admit it was misattributed and thus I can't claim credit for it. Another casualty of internet research I guess.

Nick Turpin said...

Street Photography Now is a different kind of book to the kind that Bystander was but I don't find that difference terribly significant of either the age we live in or of street photography itself.

Ken Tanaka is, of course wrong on a number of counts, T&H had this book planned for a number of years largely because of the passion for street photography of its senior designer Johanna Neurath, it has not been rushed out to ride any current craze. I don't think the book is inexpensive compared to Bystander either....and what is all this talk of scholars? Photography is actually not a complicated medium until it gets into the hands of scholars, it is exactly the scholarly input that many street photographers are keen to avoid.

If anything the book is typical of the approach of T&H, they did the same thing with Art Photography Now, they introduce as many artists as they can and show as many images from each as they can, you can always go away, by the monograph and be scholarly afterwards if you want to.

At the end of the day the book is a force for good and they have done street photography a favor in producing a record of its much maligned contemporary practitioners.

astreetphotographer said...


Droid said...

Nick Turpin - Just out of interest sake I was wondering why contemporary street photographers are maligned? Is it a problem with following in the footsteps of giants, or the increased sense of personal privacy and exploitation that many people feel these days? Perhaps a combination of both and/or other factors?

Blake Andrews said...

I'm not sure I'd use the word maligned but I don't think street photography is a good fit in the contemporary art world, for various reasons.

But I see that as a badge of honor for many street photographers. We are happy to revel in the role of outsiders and misfits, and I think that attitude comes through in a lot of street photos. There's a sense of alienation, isolation, and voyeurism that is best conveyed from an outsider's perspective.

To the extent that SPN seems to confer respectability on street photography and encapsulate it into a broad movement, it could be seen to work against our identity as outsiders. Sort of like when mainstream music discovered grunge and promptly killed it.

Droid said...

I guess the main reason that it's not a good fit in the contemporary art world is the fact that's not contemporary! Street photography suffers the same fate as all other genres when it comes to being in the spotlight. They all have expiry dates. That's why I was wondering if the main problem is that the past masters are so well-known and revered that it's an almost impossible act to follow - especially if there hasn't been much substantive change in approach. I guess that's why the mere presence of a new book is surprising....and fortunate.

Anonymous said...

To the extent that SPN seems to confer respectability on street photography and encapsulate it into a broad movement, it could be seen to work against our identity as outsiders. Sort of like when mainstream music discovered grunge and promptly killed it."

Well that is interesting, and is not far (indeed very close) from the little post I wrote yesterday. But I guess that that "respectability" is probably what some SP actors wanted to get, hence why the book was so expected and is warmly welcomed by the SP community.

Anonymous said...

@Droid said: "I guess the main reason that it's not a good fit in the contemporary art world is the fact that's not contemporary!"

You see plenty of portraiture and landscapes in contemporary fine art photography. How are either of those more contemporary than candid photographs of people in public?

Haven't portraiture and landscapes been around since the dawn of photography?

I think what street photography may suffer from is a lack of articulation. I mentioned this to Nick when he was visiting New York, but I don't think street photographers have really done the best job of articulating the philosophy of their practice.

Then again, articulating that philosophy might be counter to the street ethos.

Droid said...

BryanF - I think it's more a matter of approach (as I mentioned in the same posting). On a superficial level they are portraits and landscapes but their intent and approach are different, and I'm not trying to defend it either. Jeff Wall's set-up photos are nothing new in their execution but the concept is (arguably) new. Is that what you were referring to? Although I haven't spent a lot of time on modern street photography I haven't really noticed much difference from the 60's and 70's other than clothes and hairstyles. If there is a different philosopohy, or any philosophy, behind the new street photography then I'd be sincerely interested in hearing it.

Droid said...

I should also add that my definition of contemporary art would be basically the art you would find in today's art magazines. I've read that a broader definition would be art produced after WW2.

Blake Andrews said...

If street photography seems dated, maybe it's due to its simple roots: Take a camera, walk around, see stuff. Although people have been doing that since photography began, the formula still works. There are actually quite a few variations on that theme within street photography, and the art world has latched onto some (e.g., computer morphed street montages, use of Google streetview, controlled street work ala DiCorcia) but you're basically right that the old standby of walking around cities with a camera (the majority of SPN) is seen by the art world as old fashioned, and I'm ok with that assessment.

Anonymous said...

Yep. It's like sitting, thinking and writing. Very out-dated stuffs.

Droid said...

Blake, it seems dated because the classic form (flaneur with camera) has been around for such a long time and there is nothing new to show - generally speaking. But as you said there have been some clever new variations on the theme that are getting attention. Contemporary art thrives on novelty and finding imaginative, new ways to present ideas.

Ken Tanaka said...

You've presented a deeper review of the "Street Photography Now" than Mike Johnston's heads-up fly-over. Since I've not spent any more time with the book since my TOP comment I can't really offer any new opinions.

To the issue of my using the word "rushed" in my TOP remarks, two years is "rushed" for Thames & Hudson! (I was involved in a T&H project for longer than two years only to have them eventually bail. We ultimately published the project with Hatje Cantz in about nine months.) T&H is a very "thoughtful" house that sometimes suffers from its conservatism.

But back to the subject, yes, I stand by my opinion that SPN is a survey piece designed for quick easy sales. But don't misunderstand me: there's nothing at all wrong with that. Publishers these days need all the high-margin projects they can get, and I suspect that the margins here were much, much higher than normal. (I have reason to suspect that most participants did so for gratis.)

"Phillhunt"s remark, "...I'm not sure I want street photography to take itself too seriously." is very valid and noteworthy. (It is an opinion presented nearly verbatim in many grand art circles about photography in general, by the way.) One of the important differences between SPN and, say, an accomplished photographer's monograph is that SPN seems entirely built around a rather narcissistic fascination with the guys pushing the button. It's basically an unsubstantial Flickr-like collection of greatest hits.

Conversely, monographs of the work of the best "street" photographers are principally constructed to present what was captured by the photographer. Shutterbugs will marvel at, say, Helen Levitt's candid camera skills but what ultimately fascinates a reader of "Crosstown" is what she's captured.

And ultimately that's the bottom line for SPN; its focus is behind the lens. It's a book solely designed to challenge young male amateur photographers by asking, "Can you make this shot?". That's what makes it dull and shallow -for me-.

ari salomon said...

It was a very fun book to browse but your point is well taken that it's not as deep as it could be and not as well considered in its selection. But we're holding it to a high standard because we love street photography, right? And what does it if we call it a "coffee table" book? It's a step above the cliche Doisneau photos that we see too often, that's for sure.