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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.

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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
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2 from Mr. Friedlander
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Tag: Anatomy