Cleverness, the Gold Curse

For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about why so much of street photography has an inherent “cleverness”. Juxtapositions between unknowing subjects and street signs. That kind of thing.




Clever pictures are kinda like encountering a washed-up pirate treasure on the beach. (Happens every day!) There’s gold in there, and you suddenly feel like you’re rich, but the price of gold isn’t what it was in the 15th century, and it passed through all those grubby pirate hands, to boot.

What I’m trying to say is that there seems to be a glass ceiling that inhibits what a clever picture can deliver. Here’s why.

* The cleverest picture, the best juxtaposition in the middle of a fleeting, candid moment usually has an equal value to the other “cleverest/best/fleeting/candid/juxtaposed moment” that you took last month. Clever pictures are their own currency, and there seems to be a limit on what they’re worth.

* The “hit” you get from them as a viewer reflects more on the photographer than on the subject. A “god, that’s great man, you’re an excellent photographer” rather than a complex emotional response with the subject of the photograph. Outside of photography, a clever person is congratulated on their cleverness, not necessarily on what their cleverness created.

* Clever pictures are unbelievably addictive. I enjoy taking them and looking at them, and I’m not even that clever. But in noticing my own reactions to taking and looking, both reach a certain level and just top-out. Taking and looking at clever pictures feels a bit like eating a fistful of raw sugar; there’s a quick, energizing rush that fades fast.

So why is street photography the playground for quick-thinking photographers who often take clever photographs? I’m not sure.

I’ve had the pros and pitfalls of cleverness at the top of my list for a few weeks, and then last night I watched the Magnum in Motion piece on Steve McCurry, who talked about how he doesn’t take clever pictures – how he’s more interested in illuminating the humanity of his subject. Which he does quite nicely, while also being a street photographer (of sorts).

Is clever a quickness? An outgrowth of impatience? An intelligence? Is cleverness the inability to look other humans in the eye and address them as they are? I don’t know.

Part of me feels that the lure of the clever (for both photographers and viewers) is that ultimately, for a quick-witted person with a good eye, they’re relatively easy. Taking clever pictures is a “way of seeing” that you can turn on like a lightswitch, and not really risk too much of yourself as a photographer. You probably won’t get yourself into difficult situations, and you’ll pass through without having to get involved.

I’m not trying to place a value judgement on these things – like I said, I could look at clever photographs until the clouds come home with the cows, but I think as a photographer it helps to take a look at where you are and what you do and ask “why?”

Here are a few examples that I remember as being pretty clever. Please leave a link to others in the comments if you like.

Ooh, there’s also a good passage about humor in photography, and how it can work against the photographer when the joke’s on the subject, in Robert Adams’ book Why People Photograph. Don’t have it on me – can’t quote it. (Check out that book by the way – his writing’s tighter than his photographs, I think.)
Examples of Clever:
Elliott Erwitt

2 from Mr. Friedlander


7 thoughts on “Cleverness, the Gold Curse”

  1. Very interesting, but here’s my view:

    Not clever may be a curse, but very clever is like gold, cause it’s pretty rare. The Erwitt & the Friedlanders are pictures most photographers would be pretty happy taking. I think that you’ve taken a few pictures lately which are much more clever than the one of the guy looking up at the sign. You should still be happy with them! I agree that trying to be clever and not quite succeeding, is very frustrating and does leave me feeling cheap.
    The images that don’t wither away quickly, should still be fun to look at years from now, and thus very worthwhile…

  2. Just updated this entry with two more examples of my own. Don’t feel right about linking to other people’s stuff (save for the guys who can take it) but I thought it would help to show a few more examples.

    Matt – Don’t get me wrong, I like clever pics. What I was trying to get at is that any kind of happiness I get from them is limited. I’m starting to think of them as a form. You (the proverbial “you”) do what it takes to satisfy the form and you’re done. You’ve satisfied the goal of taking a clever photo, but you haven’t gone above and beyond. (The “triple crown” from the phylums post.)

    I like thinking about boundaries, borders and limits — of anything — and I think clever photographs are a clearly delineated subset of street photography (whatever that is!).

    They like to play in the backlot of the street photography house and they have a blast back there, but the lot has a really high fence around it. I like to join ’em, but I like kicking the fence a bit and wondering where the weak spots are.

  3. Michael,
    We’d all like to hit some “grand slams”, like the picture in Minamata where the mother bathes her child. (this is unlikely if shooting on the street) In a few years the picture of the silver haired gentlemen you chased down will probably be hanging in some gallery or museum, and then you’ll realize that you did hit one over a tall fence, even if the bases were empty…

  4. a photograph that is only clever is limited to showing only the cleverness of the photographer. i agree, they’re hard to resist, but after you’ve shot them a few times, you see how easy it is to find them. they’re everywhere.

    it’s especially easy to make clever photographs by juxtaposing a person with an advertisement, because ads are ubiquitous on the street. i think making clever photos is a natural step in drawing visual relationships between elements in an image, but they quickly exhaust their usefulness.

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