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Street Photography’s Killing Me Softly, With Its Song (Part 1)

In January, I asked David Yee to send me this photo of his, which I’d seen and loved and immediately wanted to write about. I knew it was a kind of skeleton key that could illuminate something that had been bothering me - as both photographer, and writer. It wasn’t immediately clear what I wanted to say about David’s picture, but in the past few months, as my weariness for “typical” street photography has increased (and the rarity of a picture like David’s has become clear) I held on to the photo, knowing it might be a needed jumpstart to step-up and write more.

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Docu-photography’s greatest gift is to show the world as it is, but it’s also docu-photography’s greatest failing. Photographing on the street becomes the goal - and once that goal is reached (having the nerve to do it, with verve) the quality of the pictures somehow falls to the backburner.

Most people who shoot on the street think of street photography as the be-all end-all. There’s a reaction against what’s contemporary, and that reaction cuts both ways. When did you last see an important, thrilling exhibition of contemporary street photography?

When people complain about street photography, they complain about its obviousness (which is often a reaction to the success and ubiquity of street photography’s early champions, and the styles they promulgated). Naysayers complain about its inelegant description of plain-as-day facts; its telegraphed jokes, funny as a laugh track; its ethical pegleg - the conceit of hobbling around taking pictures of unsuspecting strangers; the obviousness of its attraction to both the ridiculous and sublime; its phyla, even. All in all, they knock the inevitable everything of what it means to make, look, and present a photograph of public life as we see it.

As viewers become more and more visually savvy, the hits of street photography’s past begin to sound more like the soft-rock rotation on AM radio. You know the words and can sing along, but the signal’s crowded out, and hell, haven’t you heard it a million times before?

Consequently, the mad digital rush has produced so many new people with cameras, and correspondingly, so few distinctive, new views. Most of the jpgs I see of street photography are emotional 404s, at best. Client cannot communicate with server in any meaningful way.

It’s not anyone’s fault, really. If you’re a budding photographer, you have two trees to choose frome. Educate yourself, or go to school. Neither’s a piece of cake, each requires intensive investment, both emotionally and intellectually (and what about financially?) and who really wants to do that when you have 165 friends on flickr telling you you’re ALL-CAPS AWESOME!!?? Popularity breeds sweet complacency, right?

Now that Everything Is Accessible Now, there are fewer people who can take the time to encourage, advocate and enable a learning experience where a photographer who currently takes justokay pictures may one day make better pictures. Which leaves it up to the photographer, sinkorswim. As it should be, perhaps? I guess I’m surprised at how few people appear to be suited-up for that challenge, who are reaching and growing and striving to do more with their work, rather than knowingly recapture and trade-in on the styles and successes of the medium’s past.

Which brings me back to David’s picture. It struck me as terrifyingly original, within the constraints of docu-photography-as-we-know-it, and I loved how it made me think about what I want to see more of (in my own pictures and in everyone else’s).

Granted, his photograph may just be a picture of a woman standing in a suburban driveway… But it could be (and is, I tell you!) everything else: fashion shoot outtake, film set continuity snapshot, stop-sign halted stolen snapshot, the moment before the moment when your best friend was shaking cracker crumbs from her lap. The picture’s malleableness, both in subject, and interpretation, is everything. It’s a solid-state blank slate of a picture.

How does it do it? Because it breaks convention. Follow me: if you spend/t a lot of time looking at Bresson, Frank, Friedlander, or even Winogrand, you might come to the conclusion that street photography can be as chaotic as it can be ordered, and that the overall organization of a scene was just as important as the zipzap of the moment. In Bresson, particularly, both sides of these categories align into a kind of zenith — the moment becomes so finely sliced, it’s visual prosciutto - savory as hell.

David’s picture is a perfect expression of an indecisive moment, a slice that hasn’t reached its full extension, and in its halted state, here and now, becomes something incredibly open to interpretation. It’s a snapshot of sorts, but it conveys more to me (and asks more of me!) than any pictures of Pittsfield with pre-wet streets and ethereal god-light. (Crewdson shoots street, too. Or at least his camera operator does…)

Yee’s is a simple picture, plain stated, but it’s not numb to its own intelligence. It’s open-ended, but not imprecise. It’s suggestive, but not lurid. It asks just about as much from you as it’s willing to reveal.

And it’s proof of the power of a single photo’s ability to communicate something that well-intentioned projects with finely-honed artist statements spend years trying to find but miss, repeatedly.

I’m not sure if David considers himself an artist, or this picture art, but here’s what he told me about the frame:

“can’t quite put my finger on why, but it feels like the
further back i pull from the “final moment”, the more i
enjoy the shot.”

And that’s just it. As a practicing photographer, David found something more by photographing against type, the standard-bearer of which sounds something like “wait until the very last moment when everything’s fully extended, and whatever motion is being made has reached its apex and is a complete expression of the emotional feeling of the scene…” and he’s ratcheted that back and we’re left with this. Here it is again.

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I thought I might post a few more examples of what David’s picture expresses, but each example I remembered, from Kalvar, Eliot, and my own archive just weren’t as telling.

So there it is, a blowhardy example of how something in-between, inconsequential, and often overlooked, can become something else entirely. And how just one picture can alleviate the burnout I currently have from being sent links to work that looks exactly like the work someone sent yesterday (and yesteryear!).

Next post, I hope to highlight (and re-highlight, in some cases) photographers who, after learning their own ways of working, are pushing their skills and moving it forward to make work that glances backward, looks ahead, blurs boundaries and makes things new.

And I’d love to see more pictures like David’s. Hand them over!

Tag: Second Look