Trending: The Identity Crisis in Street Photography

By David Schonauer   Thursday August 6, 2015

What is street photography?

On the one hand, the answer seems obvious: All you need to do is think of the work of Robert Frank, Joel Meyerowitz, Bruce Gilden, Elliott Erwitt and Vivian Maier. Those photographers combined hard work, finely-tuned observation skills and exquisite visual senses to record real life unfolding in the world around them.

Today, street photography — or the idea of it, at least — has never been more popular, thanks to digital cameras, smartphones and online sharing. Writing in May at the Online Photographer, Gordon Lewis, author of the book Street Photography: The Art of Capturing the Candid Moment,  noted that it may in fact be the most popular genre of photography now.

“Do a Google search on the phrase ‘street photography’ and you'll get over 9.9 million hits — slightly more than travel photography, which gets 9.4 million,” he wrote. “Landscape photography gets only 6.1 million. You’ll get similar results on Flickr: almost 3.3 million hits for street photography versus 1.8 million for travel and 1.3 million for landscape.”

But even with its new popularity — or perhaps because of it — street photography seems to be having an identity crisis.

Lewis noted that street photography has been criticized recently by some as being no more than hit-and-run work by poachers with cameras. “Many photographers believe it’s rude, unethical, and unsavory to photograph people without their permission,” he wrote.

Moreover, he added, “there’s the common criticism that ‘It all looks the same—just random pictures of random people walking or standing around.”

Others have made the same comment. Last December, Pop Photo’s Mason Resnick observed that now "anyone with a camera can head out and shoot whatever he or she thinks is street photography, then beam it to the world with a click. So a lot of good—and bad—street imagery is proliferating in cyberspace.”

And in a blistering recent attack at the Huffington Post, New York City-based writer and photographer Michael Ernest Sweet protested bitterly that the brilliant work of Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Mary Ellen Mark is “now lumped into this same genre that produces hundreds of thousands of dull, hackneyed candid images of random strangers by hopeless photographers every single day.”

The problem with street photography now, he declares, is the low barrier for entry. “[D]oes this problem exist in other genres of photography? Are there a bunch of inept fashion photographers trolling the streets of the information highway peddling their appalling fashion photographs? Likely so, but because of the simple ease of access to street photography (no studio, no expensive equipment, and apparently no real audience are needed) there is a deluge of street photographers in comparison to these other segments of the industry.”

Perhaps a more essential problem is the lack of a clear idea about what street photography is and what it is not. And that confusion is nothing new. One of the acknowledged masters of street photography, Garry Winogrand, disliked the term street photographer.

The Street Shootr website recently featured an excerpt from the film documentary Contemporary Photography in America, in which Winogrand objects to being called a street photographer. “I think it’s a stupid term, street photography,” Winogrand says in it. “I don’t think it tells you anything about the photographer or work. On the subject, I have a book out called the animals. Call me the same I’m a zoo photographer. I mean it all really doesn’t make any sense to me, you know?”

At Pop Photo, Resnick featured three modern street photographers — Jack Simon, Melanie Einzig and Richard Bram — who describe how the art of street photography is evolving.

“I prefer when the story is not clear and it is left up to the viewer to put his or her own interpretation on the scene,” says Simon, who is a San Francisco-based psychiatrist.

That might be a good way to tackle the subject of street photography in general.


Above: From Garry Winogrand

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