by Brian Quillinan – 18th Sept 2015
I am not a street photographer. I’m not trying be pompous making such a statement, it is something I became convinced is important in terms of how I justify my sense of purpose when taking photographs. I don’t want to be part of a group who so often seem to end up comparing who has the best photos of zebra crossings, escalators, kids making bubbles and upside down puddles. Quite frankly it seems like such a devaluation of what photography is capable of being, a medium of unbridled self expression.
It was a few years back when I saw a clip of Garry Winogrand rejecting the term it got me thinking. “I think its a stupid term, street photography; I don’t think it tells you anything about the photographer or work.” It seems what he was suggesting here is that boxing in a photographer within a ‘genre’ of predefined limitations is a misunderstanding of the purpose of photography itself as an openly expressive medium. Just like in music, the pioneers always wander away from the established genres to discover new territory and if photographers today can’t find ways of doing that [or at least attempt to] then we’re in a little bit of trouble.
In the past people who shot on the street often did so without a particular audience in mind. There was no street photography audience, certainly no quickly accessible mainstream audience. Until the 1950s pretty much no one even knew such a genre existed. They often drifted quite naturally towards the life on the streets & the desire to continue such a practice usually related to satisfying a personal curiosity, a desire to question and reaffirm their own sense of meaning & identity; their place in the world.
Today, people often have very different motives to shoot. People buy cameras just to be a street photographer, with the knowledge of a ready waiting audience on-line ready to click on what they see as the next great image.. often forgotten not long after its discovered. It seems a little sad to think that our impatience is getting the better of us in this generation, so many in the race to be seen as a skilled artist yet very few able to work at a pace which allows them to actually become one in any kind of functional way. So many people are putting the cart before the horse and the back slapping culture only encourages more of the same.
While in the past those labelled ‘street photographers’ deviated from the group to use photography to become their individual voice, to be a street photographer today is so often about joining a growing chorus of people with a seemingly ever more similar outlook on what street photography is or should be.. and like religious fanatics they all seem intent on pressing their version of street photography onto the newbies. While there are some undoubtedly talented and original street shooters out there it seems to me that the herd are getting so used to copying each others ideas that there are fewer and fewer with any kind of original perspectives. This is a massive problem to overcome if self expression is the answer.
So many people see themselves as following the footsteps of the masters of the past, yet what is actually happening in our era is quite fundamentally different. Until we start to get our head around this idea we will in my opinion sink deeper into the quandary quicksands of confusion. Justifying our work as some kind of continuation of what was happening in the last century simply isn’t enough. There are too many of us doing it for exactly that reason and not only does that devalue the work in general, its created this monkey see monkey do environment of endless cycles of mimicry that simply couldn’t exist before social media.
I’m not here to offer anyone guidance on what direction they should take with their work other than to say, if you are serious you must spend time away from the herd. Forget about the popular street photography audience, they only know only what is popular, & they tend to like particular strands of plagiarism because they know no better. That takes a strength of character that only a minority of people have. The documentary photographer Tom Wood said to me not so long ago “Forget about these people, they simply don’t matter.” Words worth noting I would say.
Spend time looking at your work while trying to make sense of it in your own terms. Discuss it with your friends instead of throwing it up on-line. Ask them what they don’t like about an image or set. Try to create a meaningful sequence of images that somehow reflects who you are. Always look to isolate the weakest link. I can’t tell you how to find yourself in this life but if you do you will have found something precious & unique. Then you will have something that is well worth sharing with others.