Sunday, October 3, 2010

Street Photography Now?

I've just received a copy of Street Photography Now a new photobook edited by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren and published by Thames and Hudson. I bought this book because it has work in it from Bruce Gilden, who will be here in Auckland in January for the annual AUT workshop. Also there is work from friends Jeff Mermelstein and Wolfgang Zurborn.
A number of the photographs, I have to say, strike me as more THEN rather than NOW. Included are pictures that rely on "clever" irony and shallow visual jokes with picture elements mirroring other picture elements. The book's cover image is a good example, a low angle picture of people walking, the angle of their legs duplicated by those of the pigeon in the foreground.
Of course one of the most famous examples of this sort of picture making (with this same visual joke) is Cartier-Bresson's 1932 photograph (Paris, Place de l'Europe, Gare Saint Lazare) of the man leaping across a puddle and his stride picked up by a figure on a poster in the background. But then Henri's picture was made 78 years ago and is a much better photograph than Street Photography Now's cover photograph.

Surely street photography has moved on from 1932.

I like to think that there are two sorts of photographs. Those that I call "so what" photographs where the moment of engagement is fleeting with nothing much of interest in the picture for the viewer or reader to use to construct their own narrative. Then there are the "what the" pictures, those that have strange mystery, intrigue, enigma, where the viewer is left wondering what is happening, what has happened, what might happen. Those sorts of pictures can be read and interpreted, viewers can bring their own experience and subconscious to make a narrative that goes way beyond the photographers original intentions.
In my view photographs that rely only on tired, overworked and dated visual humor fit squarely into the "so what" category and are certainly not NOW.

But this is just my opinion. If anybody else has another take I'd like to hear it.


Eric Perlberg said...


Sophie Howarth works at Tate Modern and has been organising photography workshops at the Tate Modern here in London for several years and they all revolve around this antiquated view of "street" photography. These workshops feature a group of street photographers called in-Public who work very much in this vein, the cover image of this book is one of their images.

Photofusion, one of the progressive London photography galleries recently did a show of in-Public photography also.

It seems that the digital photography revolution has created a new audience of relatively unsophisticated viewers who see what you accurately (IMO) termed "tired, overworked and dated visual humour" as accessible and interesting and this is being catered to by audience hungry galleries at least here in London. And now this book... And another to follow... sigh.

Harvey's Blog said...

Thanks Eric for the back story..... am pleased somebody else shares my view, I thought perhaps it was only me!

davidstraight said...

Hey Harvey,

Good post. I think you're right. There is a very strict formula for what many of these photographers will consider a 'Street' photograph. My problem with that thinking is that it limits the genre and into a non evolving medium. It locks it all into a narrow box which creates a retroactive way of thinking. Some of it works, much of it doesn't.

It is a genre that celebrates the past but does not seek to further it.

Julian Ward said...

What may I ask is wrong with being ‘then’? Also, what is wrong with clever irony or visual jokes? Why, if Bresson made a good street photograph in 1932 does this make future (similar) work, dated?

I also own the new book Street Photography Now and it’s a breath of fresh air. Because, unlike many photography books published these days, it doesn’t try to intellectualise the simple act of seeing (thus justifying ordinary work).

The cover photograph is very clever. It has all the elements of a skilled observer - place, light, moment, geometry and curiosity. Bresson would have been impressed by it.

Julian Ward

Harvey's Blog said...

Because it's NOW not THEN and CLEVER does not make a great even good photograph!

Julian Ward said...

Yes is can and often does!

NOW is only a word used to explain the content (the lack of new street photography for many years, which ever gets exposure) or, to try and sell the book, which is OK. It is very good book.

Harvey, I really enjoy your blog and especially your links. Welcome to the PF committee. If you are in Wellington we should have a coffee.

Cheers Julian