by Philip Bourke 13th March 2016
While photography is more popular than ever right now and with the advent of some Social Media sources in particular, it really never has been so weak, and given we live in an age where everything is being democratised that is not surprising.
In conversation with a colleague recently, it was interesting that going back say ten years you’d hardly see anyone on the street photographing, an actual street photographer. In fact it was still rather niche. Anybody that was to be found street shooting had a good vocabulary. There seemed to be a good train of thought to their work. If you didn’t agree with a certain perspective, point of view, then at least you could see and feel that there was value to what they were doing and how they were going about it because it was a lifestyle. A mutual respect would evolve from meeting certain types and discussing photography roads.
Unfortunately what some deem to be street photography, and in particular street photography, is a far cry from the genre of photography that captivated me when I started out. In fact if I was to come upon street photography at this given moment in time it would probably be through the black hole of Social Media and I’d laugh my ass off and not waste a single frame on it, it just looks so safe, harmless, pointless, and with little content and no valid objective. As a person who feels the need, in an instinctive way, to be creative, I need that content. All I have ever tried to do is give my own work meaning, searching for it, making it personal, seeking an objective and I have always been honest in how I go about it, I have a very simple approach.
I was right away intrigued when I first came upon the genre that is so called street photography. It wasn’t because the likes of Winogrand or Friedlander or Meyerowitz were on the street, probably had nothing to do with it, and yet contradictory, of course that was part of it. It took me a while to settle, yet overall it was their attitude which drew me right in, their individual energy and personality, their documentation really stood out for me. Documenting healthy slices of Americana, not all positive but quite often revealing, laid bare, tinged with irony, humour and I was only too willing to lap it up, the taste was palpable, the images these New Yorkers could produce and the way that an image would hit me, stick in my head, considering a picture for hours, trying to peel away the layers of the onion, and in the case of Friedlander where his Santa Fe picture appeared in a dream, this was a huge turning point for me albeit naively early on. They opened that door and their personalities were massive.
And although the likes of Winogrand, Friedlander & Meyerowitz would shoot in and around New York City they had their own individual voice, extrapolating from the street around them, giving hints at their own identity and sense of being within the frame of a particular picture. And each image was not just a stand alone, it would form a small piece in an overall body of work that would go to some degree in explaining who they were and how they would evolve.
They were credible, they are credible. And their work very identifiable.
I always find it interesting to chat to somebody about their work, work I click with. The conversation quite often comes back to social media, they then inform me about the need to pull back from posting every single day, and in fact not posting whatsoever in the quite often banality that is online social media photography groups, pull back and get away from the quagmire that the weekend warriors feast upon. To live with the work and keep it credible, viable, part of the journey that, I suppose for many of us, got a bit sidetracked by the like whoring that goes on.
I find it so very disappointing when somebody whose photographic work I think is quite good and watch what was good in it rapidly ebb away as the constant stream of image posting weakens the mystery that I thought may have been there, what is the reason to post on a constant? Is it pure and simply for the drug of “likes”? The lack of analysis replaced instead by slaps on the back? Where is the magic in that? And what’s the point of anything if it has lost the magic?
It’s real simple to me. If you have a belief in your work then it must come from inside and with honesty, it’s that simplicity of delivering with an honest sincerity. IMO this is lacking in 99% of current photography, the biggest misconception today is the wealth of stuff on FB groups is part of the street genre, for example, it is anything but. In most cases they’re bad holiday snaps taken locally sexed up in PS and cropped to death. You hear a collective groan every time somebody says “I’m a street photographer, any tips?” as they present a picture with nothing going for it outside it being poorly cropped, and seriously over cooked in post production. Fifty pictures in, it’s the same story. There is a real and clear lack of development.
The good news is that there are still many out there who work quietly producing work with character, purpose and tenacity, and they are vital, showing us what they saw and where they have been and how they related to it. Without them telling us this it is right there in their images.
To me that is healthy.
A little goes a long way, keep the mystery.