I am a street photographer. In the Brazil of the 1960s my father taught me the basics of photography with his Zeiss Contessa 35 rangefinder and together we used to marvel at the photographs taken by Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. I was so enthralled, that in my teens I wanted to become a photojournalist – for me at the time the coolest profession – so I became a Chartered Accountant instead! – But that’s another story. My love of the street photography of HCB and Maier, Erwitt and Frank persists to this day.
As one of the organizers of the Liverpool International Photography Festival I have been fortunate to meet some very good photographers. In discussion it often transpires that street photographers are not to be taken seriously – not by other photographers; not by galleries; not by publishers (with the odd exception); not even by people in general! And who can blame anyone for sneering at street photography when so many poor street photographs get taken and shared? So argues Michael Ernest Sweet, the New York Based Canadian writer and photographer writing for the Huffington Post.
If street photography is to be saved from ‘the hundreds of thousands of dull, hackneyed candid images of random strangers (taken) by hopeless photographers every single day’ … ‘the street photography community needs (to have) fewer street photographers and more editors, publishers, curators, and informed and fair critics, to say nothing of a genuinely interested audience. This, of course, will be hard to effect in an era where everyone wants to be the artist…’ continues Sweet.
“But, hang on!” I say. Isn’t this predicament, if it can be called such, common to almost every other form of human cultural endeavor? Isn’t FB and Flickr littered with worthless landscape or portrait photographs? How many millions of You Tube uploads are there from poor musicians? Of the 3 million new books published each year, how many survive? The phenomena isn’t just to do with “street photography’. It’s part of a more general trend that probably started in the 15th Century with the rise of “individual representation” and a move away from “collective representation”, but that’s a whole topic that need not concern us here.
Street photography will survive as long as people continue to inhabit streets and people continue to use photographs to establish meaning. And although it is true that “street photography has become such an ambiguous umbrella term in the photography world that it really lacks any meaning at all”, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are some street photographers – I count myself as one and it sounds like Sweet is another – who understand the difference between ‘street photography’ and the ‘photography of people in streets’, who are working to promote curatorial standards, who appreciate the legacy of the form’s past masters.
Perhaps, however, it is time to jettison ourselves from the encumbrance of the label that is “street photographer” and re-invent ourselves?