By Andrew Kochanowski"Street photographers" tend to dislike the very term, but, having failed to mint a better phrase, it will just have to do. Whether you blame the Internet or limitless card capacity, there are now literally tens of thousands of photographers publicly taking a crack at it. As its practitioners know, forget the banality of evil—try the banality of much of online street photography. (Here's Blake Andrews' take on that.) So who can we blame for foisting this stuff on us?
Nick Turpin and his In-Public street photography collective, for starters. In 2000, Turpin brought together an almost unfairly talented group of (mostly) English street photographers into an online group. Who knew that while the 1960s street photography cohort were finishing up, and the snapshot aesthetic became the new vogue, there were still people looking for something un-posed and not newsworthy to photograph? Nick did. It looked easy, too—all those quirky juxtapositions, geometric assemblies, and sneaky body parts. Suddenly, street photography was no longer the province of cranky loners dipping Tri-X in their bathroom. No, what we got instead was a flood of Tri-X-y stuff with Magnum-sized watermarks. And much of it descended on Flickr and other open sites as soon as bandwidth got cheap.
It is fashionable—and mostly true—to say that Flickr is the undisputed repository for self-indulgence. But since at least the mid-2000s, at least one dark corner of the Flickerverse has housed what is possibly the central hub for street photography. A curious pre-Facebook mix of social media and photography, the Hardcore Street Photography group (HCSP), which looks like every one of the millions of other Flickr groups, became the largest street photography meeting-point in the world. This 46,000-member group, if nothing else, deserves a footnote in the history of photography, if for nothing other than providing a concentrated place to look for decent street photography.
For a number of years, HCSP has had two functions. First, and most obviously to the newcomer, it hosts a self-described, heavily "curated" pool of photos. Second, it serves as a clearinghouse of news, personality, gossip, and announcements in, of, and around street photography. It is an amorphous place: HCSP has been administered by a small, unabashedly undemocratic, often-changing set of photographers for years. Unlike Eggleston and his suitcase full of slides arriving at John Szarkowski's door, all it takes to try "get into the pool" at HCSP is a Flickr account and an uploaded photo. The administrators at HCSP pick and choose from roughly 200 photo submissions daily, and, with Beria-like efficiency, weed out well more than 99%. That makes it approximately 600,000 images a year that pass through the site. Once or twice a week an image or two from this mass makes its way into the pool.
The pool currently has a little more than 3,000 images. The interesting, the strange, the contentious, the difficult to decipher, or just plain great—subject to, of course, continual debate whether the photos are actually meaningless, self-indulgent effluvia, whether there is such a thing as street photography, and whether street photography may happen indoors, at the beach, at a party, or in a hurricane.
HCSP's role as a street photography clearinghouse has extended from the first mention of Vivian Meier’s auction-purchased negatives ("What Do I Do With This Stuff (Other Than Giving It To You?") to giving previously-hidden first-rate street photographers a wide audience for both old and new work.
Don Hudson, Girl with BillboardSeveral organized candid photography collectives have formed around the world in recent years. Though not all do this in the same way, unlike the physical-world counterparts in the 1970s, these working collectives are organized around geography (like Seconds2Real, comprised of street photographers from Austria and Germany) or quasi-geography (like Un-Posed, which draws attention to Polish photographers), and around style (like Burn My Eye). They tend to use online platforms to aggregate portfolios, present group edits, organize public shows, and provide on-demand print or book distribution. And there are Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook stream images and announcements daily.
Traditional publishing has been—er, slow to join this party. Thames & Hudson did put out Street Photography Now in the fall of 2010, packaging older Alex Webb, Martin Parr, and Bruce Gilden—presumably for placement purposes—with a number of lesser-known street photographers, many of whom are actively associated with the wider online street photography world. That brick and mortar book was not without controversy over, ironically, accusations of having misappropriated text from a street photography blog, Michael David Murphy's 2point8.
The more relevant physical world counterpart, made possible by the collaborative aspect of contemporary street photography, is on-demand magazine and book publishing. Street photography has spawned serious discussion and curation in new media that is almost entirely divorced from the traditional fine art gallery and criticism worlds. Street Reverb, an online magazine, itself an outgrowth of HCSP, has a clear view of the current street photography scene bundled with intelligent curation of ongoing projects.
Whether it has been the influence of Martin Parr or something in the water, the physical center of contemporary street photography is firmly in Great Britain. Street photography has been the focus of at least two sprawling festivals in the U.K. in recent years, at Format Festival, Derby, and the London Festival of Photography. The Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, Wales, actively showcases contemporary street photography—as it should since its founders had a close connection to the HCSP world.
The confluence of technology and the resulting opportunity to discuss, review, share, critique, dismiss, and fight over the very nature of the genre has been, in a very real sense, revelatory. There is an almost unlimited flood of images that is in real time being produced, sifted, and curated into higher and higher quality piles. Photographers have simultaneously become editors and publishers, blurring a traditional line. Having access to each other's work, photographer/editors have in recent years melded and produced spectacular—and unexpected—group edits (here's an example). There is in a very real sense a continuing conversation between literally hundreds of active photographers over the boundaries and nature of the street photography umbrella.
Ten years ago, cheap, on-demand publishing and social media that disseminate good work from all of this output did not really exist. It's not your Daddy's decisive moment any more.
[Ed. Note: As a general matter of policy, I don't allow comments from people who are plugging their own sites, for the simple and understandable reason that if I allowed it, a lot more people would come here just to do that and we'd get swamped. If you know of a good site it's not off limits to mention it, especially if you have something cogent to say about it, but please refrain from plugging your own. Thanks.
Same thing with links to individual pictures—by all means link to them if they're pertinent and you have something to say about them or they illustrate your point (Ken Wajda's comment—first "Featured Comment" below—is a perfect example of this), but if it's nothing but a naked plug, it won't be published.
Also, be aware that there are certain sites I will not link to because of previous difficulties with individuals associated with them, so if you're puzzled by a non-inclusion, it's possible it has nothing to do with you and also nothing to do with the quality of photography at the site.]
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A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Kenneth Wajda: "Street Photography is so subjective because we are also attached to the photos—we were there. But the images are of strangers, no viewer has that connection so it has to have a story or a 'ah ha' moment for the viewer.
"Here's one I shot in Denver last week that I think has that extra something. Complete luck. Right place, right time.
"Street is really probably better called 'Life' photography, as that's what I'm shooting, the moments of life that pass in front of me. In 50 years, when most of these images have been lost, then these will mean more. That's one reason why Vivian's work is so captivating.
"Having worked for 15 years as a photojournalist for a daily newspaper, we used to call these 'roamers' because we'd roam around looking for them. And we'd use them to fill in space or give a quick weather report."
Mike replies: Another problem in my view with the term "street" is that an overly rigid interpretation of it might limit what people think of as its possibilities. For instance, Erwitt made what I think of as "street" photographs in museums.
Carl Weese's first picture in the post just below this one isn't a street photograph, even though it's a photograph of a street (well, that's a road, I guess, not a street, but you know what I mean). And based on my understanding of the term, this photograph by Juan Buhler seems to be a "street photograph," somehow, even though it's a picture of the ocean.
Ed Hawco's rant: "Back in the early days of 'Web 2.0' I was a big fan of the so-called 'democratization' of media and all that stuff about 'crowd sourcing' and the 'hive mind.' I liked the fact that anyone could throw anything into the ring and get it seen and commented on. But now that I've seen it in action for a decade I mostly see it as the technologically-enabled extrapolation of group-think. As a result, the more a site goes on about users 'voting up' the faster I run away, because after a while the things they're voting up all look the same.
"I see this on a lot of photography sites that have 'street photography' categories, such as 500px and 1x. While there is some good work in there, you don't appreciate it as much when you have to slog through countless repetitions of the same old derivative tropes, again and again. I mean, how many too-contrasty black and white photos of a person walking past a sign that somehow mimics them do we need? Do we really need more photos of random urban beggars randomly passed out on park benches? Old people are not more interesting just because you crank up the 'clarity' slider on their faces!
"I'm still a fan of the Web and digital technologies, but I want them to enable individual talent and human curation and not just amplify the choice of the mob. I've come to realize the importance of a curator's or editor's view, and how that is a skill that should be celebrated intstead of kicked in the pants and declared 'elitist.' After all, when 'The Borg' (Star Trek reference) curates everything, everything looks like it was curated by The Borg. (End of rant.)"
Mike adds: Ed, you might be interested in the interview with Andy Adams of Flak Photo just posted at BreakThru Radio. He addresses a lot of the same concerns you're bringing up. (Note that the controls for the audio at the link are counterintuitive—they should show up in a bar at the bottom of the browser, not the page. Oh, and by the way, it's good to listen to while browsing pictures at Flak Photo.)
Ricardo Silva Cordeiro: Really interesting comments here. One phrase by John Krumm caught my attention: 'I don't do much street photography myself (too shy to point at strangers).' I'm a shy person myself (technically speaking I'm an introvert) and one of the things that surprised me when I decided to embark on 'street photography' was how empowered I felt doing it. It permited me to connect to the world in a way that I'd never experienced before. I've always been interested on this theme, on how to handle this brief contact with strangers, and it's been surprising to discover how many of the great photographers were/are actually shy (Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of them)."
Mike replies: Interesting. I believe Juan Buhler has spoken of something similar. Maybe he'll jump in and confirm or deny.
Juan responds: "I'm coming late to this as I'm nowadays traveling down the Americas full-time instead of spending my days at a desk with internet access.
"About shyness, yes, I consider myself shy, although I've worked on it since high school. Street photography is one, maybe the biggest way for me to work on my shyness. Not much more to say, other than it could be argued that we shy types are actually 'hiding' behind a camera—taking photos in the street lets you get close to people, but because you're taking photos you don't have to get too close.
"About the general topic of street photography...I tend to agree, of all things, with the comment by Eric Perlberg: 'mediocre tribute band' is what I think about when I see most street photos out there. Including mine. But the few photographers Eric mentions strike me to be somewhere in the spectrum between 'pretentious' and 'blah,' and don't do much for me either. In other words: what's out there mostly sucks, and my work is middle of the road. :-)
"For a long time I've had the feeling that my photos are stuck in this uninteresting, cliché, 'already done' place. But the impetus to go out and make photos, I find, doesn't have much to do with any of the above. I am not asking or answering any important questions, or doing anything that the people who like to write pretentious sentences about their photography claim they are doing. I just like to shoot."
Dan: "I shoot this...style...of photography because it's the only one that feels...real...to me. I'm really not interested in taking a picture of a flower, or finding the exact shutter speed / f-stop combination to perfectly capture the full range of the subtle tonal gradations of this afternoon sun splattered on a spackled wall. But I am interested in the man over there having a cigarette, staring at something in the distance."
Herman Krieger takes a somewhat more literal view of "street photography":