It seems to me that the biggest problem with street photography in the Flickr era is an absence of editing. Documentary photography has always had a much lower hit-rate than other genres, but these days most people just upload everything. "Engaging with the genre" can be hard when so much of what's on offer is chaff rather than wheat.
When Richard's comment above came in, I was just beginning to write a short post about this very thing. I've always had a peculiar but distinct relationship to street photography myself, and it's this: I don't respond to a lot of it; it just seems dead, and leaves me cold; and yet, when I find one I like, I tend to really like it.
The hit rate can be low, but the hits can be very rewarding.
Being an editor by trade, I have this problem in that I edit things in my mind. In my head, I edit song lyrics, movies, books, all sorts of things, whether I'm imagining taking advantage of opportunities I think the artist(s) missed, or to get rid of something I think is an obvious artistic mistake. (Example: in the otherwise brilliant The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, I thought it was just a woeful misstep for him to make the villain at the end be the very same person he'd accidentally witnessed committing an act of rapine as a child. What is this, some 19th century English novel? Are we Jane Eyre stumbling into her own long-lost relatives on the stormy moor? That guy can out-write me in his sleep, but that was a beginner's mistake.) When I consider one of my longtime favorite street photographers, Juan Buhler, I have to admit that I don't even like the majority of his pictures. But then every five or ten pictures there will be one I just love. Like this one:
It's true that I often respond to light-in-darkness pictures, but in this case I love the tension between the central figure and that big bright spot tempting the eye to wander out to the very corner of the frame for no good reason. Those meaningless bright areas tempting the eye, those dark faces you want to see better. It's a deep shot, for me.
But here's the thing about street photography (and yes, Juan's photography is "street" even when it's inside a theater): you might not like this one. I could see that. You might like another one...one that I don't like.
That's the problem with Richard Alexander's complaint. Yes, it's true that a tightly edited set of pictures is going to be stronger (example: take a look at the twelve pictures on Jack Simon's bio page at Burn My Eye: tough to find a weak picture there, though I still have my favorites). But when a magazine editor once asked me to pick a portfolio of Juan Buhler's street photographs (he's got several thousand online), she ended up rejecting my choices and making up a completely different portfolio of her own. So even if we can both agree that Juan's site should be more tightly edited, what if your edit would remove all of my favorites and my edit would remove all of yours? It's true that editing is a major artistic control for a photographer—Walker Evans' American Photographs (to name just a seminal example among many other books) was a very tightly and deliberately edited construction—but it seems to be one of the problem with street photography that all of us respond to different things.
All other things being equal, I'd prefer to see more finished, tightly edited sets of work than the sprawl of the web generally encourages...as long as the photographer is a good editor and makes the choices with artistic purposes in mind. But then, as Ctein is fond of saying, all other things are almost never equal. I don't mind "editing in my mind" and segregating the wheat and chaff on my own (as long as there's not so much chaff that that the job is just too big). It's what I do. I'm used to it.
But it's always been this way for me in this genre. Ignoring the pictures that miss for me doesn't bother me. And hunting for those occasional extremely rewarding street shots that I love is just another mile I have to walk for the payoff the pictures give me. It's worth it to me. Your "mileage" might differ (as they say). And that's okay too.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Richard Alexander: "Wow—if I'd known I was going to be quoted in this fashion I might have thought about it a bit more. I feel honoured. Or chastised. Or something.... Anyway, Mike's relationship with street photography sounds a lot like my relationship with my own street photography. I've got lots of decent pictures in other genres, but despite taking hundreds of 'documentary' pictures I hardly have any—maybe a dozen—that I actually like. Somehow though, almost all of my favourite shots come from that small group."
Featured Comment by Juanbuhler: "I guess it's a matter of degrees. Yes my photoblog has lots of photos and it's underedited. But I am very far from 'uploading everything' as Richard's quote at the top says (of course I know he wasn't talking about me, but I clarify because you used my photo to illustrate this counterpoint). I started Water Molotov in 2005, mostly as an exercise. I wanted to have something to force me to shoot, and posting a photo a day is a good way to do that. Every now and then, I edit some shots into my 'main' galleries.
"Thanks for the nice words Mike. By the way, you seem to like a higher percentage of my photos than even I do! :-)"
Featured Comment by Steve Rosenblum: "I am of the opinion that there are few public artistic expressions that I encounter these days that would not benefit from better editing. Many movies I see seem 20–30 minutes too long—they run two hours or more, but would be better at 90 minutes. Many books, both fiction and non-fiction, seem poorly edited and way too long now. I thought that perhaps I was becoming an old impatient curmudgeon, but, I have asked my friends about this (many of whom have not yet reached my age or state of curmudgeonliness) and they agree. I am not sure why this is. It seems to be worse with film makers and authors who are already well established—it seems that perhaps no one is allowed to say 'no' to them anymore, they retain complete 'creative control' on the final cut or edit. I think that is to the detriment of their work. Having a judicious, but firm, editor is a wonderful thing. Most of us do have healthy egos and it is very hard to see our own creations with any degree of real objectivity.
"I have attended two of Peter Turnley's street photography workshops, in Paris and Havana. While most of the week is spent shooting, the rest of the workshop is almost entirely focused on learning how to edit by learning how to recognize what is or is not a visually/emotionally compelling image. Each day each participant is asked to edit their own shoot down to no more than 50 images. Then Peter quickly goes through each person's images saying 'Yes' or 'No' with a quick comment as to why he thinks it works or not. We all watched this process with everyone's images (including Peter's). After the review you could raise objections if you thought a strong image was excluded (or vice versa) and a discussion ensued. The final decision was yours. The goal was to edit a week's worth of intense street shooting down to 15 photographs. People shot many hundreds or even thousands of images during that week.
"I found that it did not take very long for me to start to see images in this way and my own work and editing process improved. One could argue that all of this is completely subjective and that we were only learning Peter's personal subjective process—and he certainly does have his own biases (shoot wide and in close, in particular). Despite this, most of the workshop participants work reflected quite different visions and ways of seeing the world. And they all improved. I think that street photography in particular, by its very nature, requires shooting a lot of images in a spontaneous manner—that is its essence. But it also requires disciplined editing if you want to show your work to others. One hopes that eventually, this type of editing will be incorporated in ones instinctive way of seeing when you are on the street and your images will become 'stronger' by whatever definition you value. My 2 cents. Your mileage may vary."
Mike replies: I think you could have said that with 20% fewer words. Just kidding.