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.

yee2

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.

yee2

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!

35 thoughts on “Street Photography’s Killing Me Softly, With Its Song (Part 1)”

  1. When Frank or GW or Bresson were shooting they were finding it out as they went. There wasn’t anyone to emulate. I wonder if it’s as simple as keeping open a sense of discovery and awe (rather than a desire to emulate one’s idols) that makes such a crucial difference.

  2. I immediately thought that it looked like one of Jawed Ashraf’s (note of bias: I’m a friend) pictures. For some reason, it reminded me of this one:
    http://www.cupidity.f9.co.uk/Photos/Tide/pages/11.htm
    and although I’m probably not seeing what your seeing, it’s actually more like this:
    http://www.cupidity.f9.co.uk/Photos/Places/pages/06.htm
    He’s certainly someone who tired of “typical” street as you can see if you trace the progress from the bottom of this page:
    http://www.cupidity.f9.co.uk/Photos

    I think there are lots of people pushing at the boundaries and it’s easy to dismiss all sorts of things that you’ve lost interest in but I agree about the danger of the 165 shouting flickr friends.

  3. This and your “Phyla of Street” are great write-ups, Michael. Thanks for ’em.

    I think the issue you raise with docu-photography, and actually photography in general, is that it is about documenting something, and most people wouldn’t even notice, let alone shoot, the moment David documented until you pointed it out. And of course now that you did, we’re going to get an onslaught of people half-limp in front of their cars for the next few months..

    As for the continuation of the street photography tradition, I personally enjoy it because of the process, not because I hope to make something new. Much like the Sunday painters and their watercolor lilies aren’t exactly inspiring to be Monet, street is still interesting to many because it hones certain skills. It requires a photographer’s full attention and awareness (along with timing and a good deal of luck). I consider it my favorite game, but I’d be hesitant to call it art. However, a good street photograph would be art, even today (like you said with the “triple crown”).

    So perhaps the issue is that you’ve just been seeing a lot of mediocre street cliché versus a good photograph?

    And going back to David’s photo, I like his other ones more, but if you wanted something in a similar vein, try Hannah Pierce-Carlson.

  4. So, there are good street photographers and bad. Always have been, the only difference is exposure; now every joe and his dog can flikr their work whereas before only the elite got seen by more than their friends and family. It’s the egailtarian ethic at work.

    David’s picture says nothing to me. It’s not even an indecisive moment, but a non-moment – unless, of course, she’s just about to vomit on her own feet.

  5. Interesting thoughts about what goes into a good street photo. Unfortunately David’s photo doesn’t do much for me. While indecisive moments are generallly at least as worthwhile as decisive ones, this particular one does not communicate anything to me.

  6. Nice post. A couple of thoughts along the same lines:

    Artists grow by working through cliches. (Like that one.) Self-taught photographers tend to start a couple of cliche generations behind their MFA counterparts. On the other hand, those older cliches, like the kind of street photography you don’t like, are easier to spot and maybe to move beyond. The cliches taught in MFA programs, given that they’re presented as the orthodoxy of the moment, may be harder to shake.

    I agree that there’s something arresting about your friend David’s photo, but I’m not sure it goes beyond that. Like much of the current orthodoxy, it combines slick production values with a high enigma quotient. That’s a very seductive combination, because we all love the opportunity to project ourselves onto an attractive canvas. Or to flip it over, no one likes to be told what to think, and David’s picture doesn’t. The downside is it doesn’t tell you much of anything. But that’s not to say I don’t like looking at it, at least for the moment.

    Cheers.

  7. If it turns into orthodoxy it will be sterile as well. Then again moving on. That photography repeats itself reminds me of when I saw a Charles Freger exhib. The photographs might have been new, but I had seen the same thing a hundred times (like the two previous books by the same author). And it was contemporary portraiture.

  8. As one guilty of mindlessly employing any number of classic street photography tropes, this is a good reminder of what got me started seriously in the first place: trying to make sense of images that seemed on their faces, boring, pointless, incomprehensible. Pictures that seem to convey information without employing any recognizable artifice are almost always worth paying attention to.

    You can still find those types of images lurking in the “lesser” work of idolized photographers. In Figments From the Real World, there’s a late Winogrand shot of a woman, seen from the waist up, holding a pair of shoes, probably shot from a car window. Compared with the pyrotechnics of most Winogrands it’s utterly unremarkable but every time I see it I have two thoughts in sequence: “God, she’s beautiful”, and “I wonder if she’s barefoot?”

    I also think you’re suffering some level of Flickr Fatigue. I know I’ve said this before, so I apologize, but Flickr and the web in general reward Big Hooks and pictures like David’s don’t have them. Like most people, I love the 165 contacts saying “AWESOME” so I tend to not put the pictures up that are more subtle. With so much web stuff it’s hard to see more than the top of the bell curve.

  9. street photography has the same intelligence as a pissing dog. they walk. they point. they shoot. the only difference is the street photographer has the ability to edit his excrement before the world is forced to smell it.

  10. James, You said it! HA HA Ha! Anyhow, I thought the whole object of my photography was to have a good time. Not to over analize, or discuss, or even fawn over (If you are a good looking young lady, fawn as much as you like & i will explane the ramifications and deep import of my art at my place). In any event, I don’t care if people don’t like my work, do like my work — think it’s trite or not — I intend to have a good time seeing or pissing — whatever.

  11. The act of photographing on the street is never the goal. It is rather the means to an end. The end– to see what you saw in two dimensional space as a photograph. Nothing more pretentious than that. The quality of the picture rests where it always has– within the width and height and those shades of gray.
    Someone like Winogrand to me will always conjure up an Art Ensemble of Chicago piece– ready to fly off outside the boundaries of the medium but gracefully restrained at the last minute. Soft rock on AM radio? Never.

  12. this is basically discussing a different version of something I thought of a while back, which is the concept of “the spade” which exists specifically in portraiture. It’s basically an expression between expressions. Something that could happen while you watched the person, but still miss it. It exists only in photos. It’s almost always somewhat awkward, perhaps even embarrassing, but there’s something absolutely irresistible about it to me. In the interest of getting people willing to be photographed I typically only post (relatively) flattering portraits, but I hang onto those spades, and some day I’ll bring them all out at once.

    Granted, it will still be completely misunderstood or despised… but at least I’ll know I did it.

  13. An articulate and well written piece and I agree with your wearyness for the street photography form but not your solution, one look at David Yee’s flickr offerings confirms, for me at least, that he is not the new messiah of the sidewalk. I think as the flickering water rises one has to swim much harder to break the surface but it is occasionally done.

  14. i throw up in my mouth every time I hear street or portrait photographers gloss romantic over decisive moments or an “expression between an expression.” i don’t understand the need to push the myth of photographer as gamely hunter stalking his prey until that one moment that produces that single memorable image.

    wait, wait, wait…now (click!).

    more often than not the decisive moment happens after the photographer develops her or his film, makes contact sheets and begins the process of editing out all the hundreds other crap images they took of the same subject that don’t pass mustard. it’s less about free form jazz and more about tweaking knobs and levels in the studio. less art ensemble of chicago and more timbaland.

  15. Hi,
    I have been clicking pictures of the streets of the city I live in for the last 2 years with a point and shoot camera. After reading your post, I’m left wondering if my pictures make any sense.

  16. Think the photo is pants, and so is the commentary. Street photography can be done by anyone, and most of it is pants. URGHHH

  17. sounds like a bunch of mental masturbation too me. the picture above is totally stale. perhaps you should look at the work of paolo pellegrin, antoine d agata, or even jacob sobol all of which are magnum photographers. what about the street photographer boogie ??

  18. Hmmm – can’t see what’s interesting about this work, but I’ll take you up on your point about the “street photography of the past”. I think you are too concerned about the actual image. That’s not the point in my opinion. If the image is the main point then you are into contemporary fine art or conceptual photography, which is fine – these are all valid artistic themes. Maybe though you miss the point about what you call street photography of the past, in that it was image based and the image is dated. When Frank produced “The Americans” for example it was his vision, his thoughts (right or wrong) that he was conveying – as a poet, for example, as Kerouac rightly alludes. That vehicle is still valid today. Just there are not enough poets among the photographers

  19. Please delete my comment above Richards as my security on the net is at RISK !! Not sure how though it seems my link goes straight to my e-mail account; not cool. HELP I’M
    NAKED and caught with my Pants around my Ankles..

  20. OH-MY-GOD is this article well timed, timely, on time and about time!!! I shoot the street every single weekend ad nauseum. Well i don’t really mean it about the nauseum part because i can’t get enough of this genre. I also look at a LOT of street photography on the web. When i first began looking at it, it was mainly stuff out of Eastern Europe and i called it “The rainy night in Prague” look Could just as easily have been in Warsaw..you get the picture. Now that the fever’s spread, the look could just as easily be called “Suits dashing through a patch of light in Munich look”..could just as easily be Manhattan or L.A. Who’s counting? My emphasis is not what David so brilliantly focuses on but neither is it about suits striding past billboards with brief cases swinging from their robotic wrists. I wondered where and how i fit in and never got an answer, never heard an echo back from the great void that is the ether. But your writing, your stand, what you are so eloquently articulating has hit home like an overnight FED EX pak. And i thank you from the heels of my walk-worn feet to the blister on my shutter finger. This is the first thing i have seen or read about modern day street shooting that even begins to suggest a contemporary path forward for such a tired but i think oh so important genre. Thank YOU!

  21. visual prosciutto! …good! i like it!

    although, by your definition, i’d say, while this image does hint at the zipzap half of the recipe, it clearly lacks the organization of scene necessary to make as savory as it could be…

    i’ve been lurking, and i like your words very much. i usually prefer to lurk, and very rarely comment, but “visual proscuitto”?… i just had to say something!

    thanks for your eloquence.

  22. What makes this photograph such an “unusual” hybrid success is that it takes the stop motion (in)decisive moment of urban street photography and transplants it into the more suburban environs of the color aesthetic that has so dominated the photo art market for the past several decades.

    Place that same figure (in B&W or color) in the same mid motion position next to the same car on a city street, and you’d have yet another street photograph appreciated only by other street photographers…

  23. glad to see matthew baum mentioned above (www.matthewbaum.com). i have noticed his work increasingly over the last year…most recently on a 50 foot screen at the recent Slideluck Potshow (www.slideluckpotshow.com) and it blew me away…definitely taking tired old street photography into the 21st century.

  24. The more I look, the less I get from this shot. I generally enjoy your thoughts and writing, however this essay, in it’s tone and general vibe, smacks to me of the “it’s good art because I say it is”, school of photography criticism.

    You invite us to look at David Yee’s portfolio; the link of which takes us to a Flickr page. I don’t have the time to flip though the 1,500 images (edit people, edit!!) but it would seem to me that the bulk of Yee’s very competent portfolio is comprised of the very type of imagery that you describes yourself as becoming weary of. The image that you have highlited as “terrifyingly original” would seem to be the black sheep of the set

  25. Bait replied to:
    Sorry Michael, I wasn’t meaning to sound snarky, that was never my intention and I wasn’t trying to bait you.

    No, I realise that you didn’t invite us to look through David’s 1500 images, I was just overwhelmed by the sheer number of them and expected to see more of the type of imagery you highlighted.

    Yes, I suppose it could be argued that all art criticism could be construed as such but I guess that only works if I agree with the criticism. (Not sure if that makes sense or not).

    Anyway apologies if I offended you, that was not my intention.

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