Bear with me; this is about photography after all. I felt an urge to write this post after visiting Steve McCurry’s exhibition in Birmingham. The text introducing the exhibition described McCurry’s images as ‘street photographs’, which I would dispute. To make matters worse, I learned about the Street Photography Now Project, a ‘street photography’ exercise which invites contributions from photographers all around the world. What really struck me about it was its format. Participating photographers will receive weekly instructions by email with detailed guidelines on what they should be photographing. As if photographers’ own curiosity and initiative weren’t enough to drive a healthy photographic practice. The idea of waiting to receive some sort of divine photographic commandment before getting out there with my camera makes me shiver. It resonates with the Mass Observation project, a valuable document but also a highly controversial one.
So what is street photography? What is the trademark style of street photography? How should street photographers approach their subject? I won’t be so foolish as to try and define the genre. I’m not so much interested in pinning labels and categorising experiences as in processes, in doing, in being in the world. Contemporary street photography encompasses an eclectic range of styles, from the gritty back & white images in the Japanese tradition epitomised by Daido Moriyama to the surreal colour photography by Cristobal Hara. Paradoxically, I would argue that if you want to become a good street photographer perhaps you need to begin by putting your camera aside, at least for a day.
Street photography has its roots in a literary and philosophical tradition invented by the French. The key concept here is that of the flâneur, that 19th-Century figure deambulating on the streets of Paris, with no fixed destination or aim, but always observant and perceptive of the world around them. All the street photographers of interwar Paris, that iconic surrealist generation, were indeed flâneurs. And so are a bunch of ‘psychogeographers’ who continue with the tradition in the UK. Will Self and Iain Sinclair are the most prominent UK psychogeographers. Sinclair’s London Orbital and Self’s Psychogeography are classic examples of the genre. Do you want to know what ‘psychogeography’ is? Read their books; the connection with street photography will become evident.
Putting your camera aside for a while will allow a process of reflection on the most controversial issue in street photography: ethics. There is something crystal clear to me; there is a difference between being stealth when taking a photograph and doing it surreptitiously. Subterfuge has always been a useful tool in street photography. Walker Evans hid a camera in his coat and snapped people on the New York subway. Even photographers whose street photography work I much admire resorted to deceit at times. Helen Levitt openly admitted to using a 90-degree viewfinder contraption so that people wouldn’t realise they were being photographed – listen to this radio interview with Helen Levitt, recorded in 2002.
At the core of the street photography controversy is a question of intent. And when I see recent examples of street photography – e.g. www.seconds2.real, I realise that while there is a surplus of voyeurs out there, there are hardly any participants. And that’s something that street photographers such as Helen Levitt achieved: to make the photographer an implicit participant in the scene. So what will you be, voyeur or participant?