I’ve been cleaning out my house, bringing my life in Korea to a close. Getting things organized is sometimes harder than it seems at the beginning. I’ve accumulated a lot of things over the years, things that eventually find themselves launched into the outer atmosphere, but not out of my orbit. Desk drawers and closets are where they like to hide. Sorting them out, digging through them, and determining what’s worth keeping… it’s a job for either a fine-toothed comb or a bulldozer. Not sure which I’ll ultimately go with.
I’ve been pushing things around at home, but also in my head. Especially things relating to photography. For instance, I like street photography, I shoot street photography, but I react to much of the genre very negatively. Sometimes it’s as simple as “not my thing.” Sometimes it’s downright nasty.
But I think I’ve got it down now, at least as it pertains to street photos. There are four subgenres I’ve come up with: you, me, this, and that. What? Read on.
I might as well start with the stuff I like least. I consider “me” street photography anything that involves the photographer in an overt way. It tells the viewer not only that this is a photograph, but that the photographer is there and is important. Characteristics of “me” photography:
-The photographer’s shadow, especially precisely framed, especially on the face of the subject.
-The photographer’s reflection.
-The use of flash with wide-angles.
What’s wrong with “me” photography? It’s artificial. Of course people are going to make interesting faces when you’re flashing light in their eyes. Of course grandmothers are going to look wrinkly, the homeless ragged, and fat people fat if you’re up in someone’s face picking out their blemishes with a flash. Passersby will put their hands in front of your camera. I see a lot of those photos, the hand shots. What does that say to me? That someone was annoyed and someone was annoying. I suppose I’m dull for not enjoying the converging geometry of the blocking hand with the background lines or societal critique inherent in the jowls of gaping, red-eyed grandmas. All I see is photographers out to bag “characters”, get away with something slightly subversive, and give their egos a good stroking.
Because the ego is what comes through the loudest. I am photographer, hear me roar! I’d rather not. Your breath smells of false bravado and cliché.
I’ve seen very few “Gilden-style” shots that I’ve liked. Gilden himself is pretty hit or miss for me. I really enjoy the projects where he’s on assignment. I think his style works well there, probably because he’s intimately involved with the people. Here’s what I mean. His New York photos are less appealing. I don’t dislike them as much as I dislike the trend that springs from them.
Anyhow, moving on…
“You” photography can be very good or very dull, as it all depends on the subject. “You”, like “me”, is all about people. “You” is more natural though. Posed or unposed, it shows people behaving natural, and exuding more character because they are comfortable. Characteristics include:
-People, especially a single person, taking up much of the frame.
-Portraits, posed or candid.
-An environment that doesn’t overpower the subject.
As I said, “you” street photos can be great or boring. It all depends on whom the photographer chooses as a subject. I think rapport helps. Also defining characteristics. If it’s candid, the pose and expression makes or breaks the shot.
Here are two examples of “you” photography that I love:
The second image in this series by Alec Soth.
And this one by Junku Nishimura.
What I don’t like are shots of ennui. And there are a million of them, products of our less than robust public life. The streets aren’t what they used to be. Technology is such that the face you’ll see most often on the bus or in the park is that of a zombie staring at a screen. But what can you do? I don’t like reminders of how dull the streets are, how average people look, and how boredom runs rampant through parks and bus stops. I’m bored enough most of the time as it is. No need to reflect that in photographs.
But that’s just my opinion. I’m sure some people like bored/stressed middle-aged men and women. “You” photography is the most subjective of the four. There are different standards of beauty, and there are different levels of interest, for sure.
“This” photography is another thing entirely. Instead of emphasizing the human aspect, “this” photography is all about the world created by the camera. And this world is usually a weird one. It has little use for people besides using them as props for either a visual gag or a geometric or colorful balancing act. Here’s what I think “this” is:
-Based primarily on an environment constructed by the photographer.
-People in awkward positions.
-Location of subjects over emotional content.
“This” photography is very popular on flickr these days. If you are familiar with the group “Hardcore Street Photography”, you need look no further. Every third image falls into the category.
It’s popular, it’s clever, and it takes a lot of thought and/or luck to create. And I can’t stand it. Why? Even though the strange, surreal, or downright funny creations give me a laugh sometimes, it’s little more than a gag. Easily consumed and forgotten. It tells you next to nothing about the people in the photo, other than they were at the right place at the right time. It works hard, trying to make the uninteresting interesting. Oh look, there are arms growing out of a tree. It looks like that sunbathing man’s face is about to be run over, and she looks like she has a little man walking on her shoulder. Big whoop. Like “me” photography, the only thing I get out of it is a cheap “look how clever I am”.
I guess one criticism of my characterization of “this” photography is that all street photography has some of the elements I’m complaining about. I understand that, but it’s a question of degree. I think it’s okay to have some humor, some surrealism, but a lot of street photography today is overdoing it. It’s like over-roasted coffee. The subtlety is burned out and it’s so strong and bitter it’s unpalatable.
So what do I actually like? My final category, “that” photography. “That” photography is simply saying “look at that”. It’s not tampering with reality, it’s finding reality that doesn’t need tampered with and capturing it. While every photograph is a photographer’s interpretation of reality, “that” photography, as opposed to “this”, is relatively hands off. It’s letting the scene unfold and being there at the right moment.
-Interplay between subject and environment.
-People doing interesting things.
-Subjects unaware or unbothered by the camera.
-Visual puns, if present, back up the subjects instead of overpowering them.
The only problem with “that” photography is its difficulty. It’s hard to find things that are genuinely interesting and that aren’t a clichéd play on some everyday banality. It helps if you’re in an inspiring place, for sure. I think of Jonas Bendiksen, one of my favorite photographers, when I think of good locations. Also, Ian Teh.
But you don’t need to go halfway around the world to take good “that” photos. Plenty is happening around your neighborhood. I think of Robert Doisneau. He, if anyone, was in tune with his surroundings in France. I think you could say the same with William Eggleston and the American South.
It goes for photographers as it goes for storytellers. The best can be world travelers, or they may have never left their hometowns. But to be good requires patience, diligence, compassion, and an eye for beautiful moments.
In the end, I don’t know what to call my view of street photography. Old-fashioned? Maybe. Purist? Yeah, whatever that means. All I know is that I prefer humanity over surrealism, will take real emotion over shock value, and admire photos that capture the drama of undiluted existence rather than the ego-repping creations of “streettogs” who think they’re badass.
I’d suggest leaving reality alone. There’s plenty of feeling, plenty of drama that you can find if you’re patient, plugged into your surroundings, and playing the role of an observer instead of a hunter.
Maybe my made-up genres will be helpful to you. If not, at least you know what makes me tick as a photographer.
Now that I’ve got that all sorted out, it’s back to cleaning. That smell coming from the cupboard? I’ll get back to you on that.
***By the way, I plan to write more of these long, street photography-centric articles. My next will be about the PROVOKE style, its allure and its shortcomings.