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Conceptual Street Photography

This could easily become another blog post about Jeff Wall, but I want to resist, for the children’s sake…

Seriously, the thing I found most surprising about the NYTIMESMAG piece was how many times Wall mentioned Winogrand. (Two of four, total.) In hindsight, the connection’s clear - Wall’s as precise as Winogrand was intuitive, and Wall attempts to pack as much serendipitous docu-punch as he can into his premeditated fictions.

I’m not going to get into the “staged photography feels canned” debate, but I want to examine the push & pull (or the balance) between photography that’s based in ideas, and photography that relies on the candid nature of what is already out there, in the world.

A few photographers, most notably Mr. Wall (and ofCourse diCorcia), have attempted to weld the mystery meat of street photography to the precise predictability of the studio, with the goal of illuminating, examining, and generally holding-up for inspection, executions on an idea.

Wall claims the idea behind his photographs are their referential nature to the Grand History Of Painting, which creates a comfortable defensibility of whatever he chooses to put in front of his lens. It sounds a little easy, regardless of how complicated the shoots are, or how enveloping their presentation. As ideas, it’s a challenge to be swayed by a modern take on Hokusai when the original’s so good.

Hokusai / Wall
Hokusai & Wall
(Just realized Raul combo’d these two months ago.)

And there’s always Breathless vs. Breathless. As photographs, Wall’s are as seductive as the museum’s exit door. They inspire me to want more real life, which is a difficult thing for any kind of art to achieve. The more I look at a Wall, the more I want to be outside, away from photos in lightboxes, experiencing new things.

diCorcia’s an altogether different animal. “Heads” is successful in that he harnessed the unharnessable in a thoroughly contemporary presentation; big prints, crisply clear, in color. His other street work, while similarly spectacular, makes me wish I never knew how staged they were, so I could enjoy them for what they are - fantastic photographs made to look like reality. I might sacrifice all that large-format and well-lit clarity for a little bit more verite, but in doing so, I’d be wishing diCorcia were an altogether different photographer.

© Philip-lorca diCorcia

Which brings this; what does a mash-up between premeditated conceptual photography and go-as-you-flow street photography sound like? Is successful conceptual street photography even possible? Cerebral marries Intuitive and they have a kid that looks like what?

Examples might be location based. There’s Ruscha’s photographs of the Strip (more concept than street), Beat Streuli’s street work (more street than concept - though his site used to have a selection of candid portraits from one particular location), the peopled frames from Ulrich’s “Copia“, Bruce Davidson’s Subway (more documentary than conceptual), and maybe even Harvey Keitel’s photo-project in that Wayne Wang film (”Smoke” or “Blue in the Face”?).

© Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on Sunset Strip”

I’m looking for examples that steer away from object-based cataloging, like “pictures of men in funny hats” or “pictures of sewer grates around the world”, or all the buildings on Sunset Strip, for that matter. On the hats front, Parr’s hat photos from Mexico (and his Last Parking Space work) would probably count as examples, though they lean heavily to the conceptual side, as do Tim Davis’ unpeopled retail reflections.

For my money, fellow blogger Amy Stein’s project “Stranded” is reaching for the gold ring. Hers is a kind of documentary (not street street) photography, as funneled through a tightly focused idea. As a project, Stein’s may be more conceptual than candid, but the idea behind the pictures informs each frame in a way that makes each glow brighter. Plus, the idea’s warmer than most, and the execution, both singly and in aggregate, is damn impressive. I like her series (and the idea behind them) so much they make me wince. Wow.

Amy Stein's Stranded
© Amy Stein

Los Angeles-based photographer Raoul Gatepin is onto something with his photographs of planes from the streets around LAX. Raoul loves cops, apparently. While the pictures are all of a catalog-able object (planes as seen from the street), and they’re all about the moment, his pictures aren’t just flat documents of what is there; the best of them open-up into the world of interpretation. They’re unwieldy, in a good way.

© Raoul Gatepin

If, like Raoul’s planes, the project’s object-based, I’m hoping the pictures have the potential to be read and interpreted in multiple directions, and they gain strength in aggregation. On the self-link front, I did a project last year called Palace Cow, which probably softpedals a small idea in the aggregate, and it’s nothing without signage.

from Palace Cow
© Michael David Murphy

To confuse the issue, isn’t all photography idea-based, to varying degrees, even if it’s “my idea was to take the picture”? Help a blogger out and leave examples (of conceptual street photography) in the comments. Many thanks for that, and for making it all the way to the end.

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Tag: Tidbits