A couple of weeks ago, I took delivery of my copy of Street Photography Now. I’d read a few reviews of the work in online magazines and I was aware of criticisms that it was not truly representative of contemporary street photography and that it was, in one person’s opinion, a vehicle for marketing the work of a specific clique of photographers; but curiosity got the better of me and I ordered a copy anyway. And my initial opinion is that it was well worth the price.
Of course, the primary purpose of the publication is to expose readers to a selection of images from a variety of photographers based or working in diverse locations in the world; and this, I’d say, it achieves admirably. There will always be those who feel that the images selected are not the best available and that there are other photographers working in the field of street photography who are more deserving of attention; but that is surely a matter of taste and I will come back to it later.
What I particularly liked about the book were the articles, some of which brought a refreshingly up-to-date perspective to the subject of street photography, while others provided interesting background information about the featured photographers. And, for me, best of all were the “putting you in the picture” pieces where the photographers, themselves, described how they came to take a particular photograph. If I forced myself to be hypercritical of the book, I’d complain that there could have been more of these pieces for my liking.
One review I read alleged that many of the articles in Street Photography Now [SPN] had been appropriated from other sources without attribution. If this is the case, and I am making no allegations myself, then it would be regrettable because not only would it detract from the overall integrity of the work but more importantly, it would deny the readers information that would enable them to access more material from the same original authors. But as I said before, I feel that the articles contributed greatly to the success of the book.
A comment in one of the articles in particular (page 11), grabbed my attention. British photographer, David Gibson, was talking about the quality of images on photo-sharing websites like Flickr and he commented that he had often seen images there by amateurs that rivalled anything by some so-called master photographers. For what it is worth, I wholeheartedly agree with this. But the article goes on to explain, a little arrogantly I felt, that the difference between the professional photographer and the amateur is that the professional can produce great photographs time after time whereas the amateur just gets lucky. Yet on Flickr, I could point you to many photographers who, in my opinion, have demonstrated an ability to produce quality work again and again yet remain amateurs and were not featured in SPN.
And this brings me back to the question of taste and how to distinguish between subjective appeal (taste) and the objective determination of quality.
There are images in SPN that I loved instantly; and there are other images that I came to appreciate through the information supplied in the articles; but I admit that there are some images that I look at and wonder: ‘Why is this here?’ And there are some photographers whose published work is more appealing to me than others. Largely, that is a question of taste. The subject matter or the way it is portrayed simply does not connect with my personal experience, interests or aesthetic expectations; and as such, I recuse myself from holding any opinion on whether the image deserves to be included in the publication. On the other hand, I might not like a particular image because I have failed to understand its significance; and I concede this because I have encountered cases in SPN where an explanation in the text has enabled me to see the image differently and appreciate it more.
In principle, I find that studying the output of reputable photographers is rewarding in a number of ways. First of all, their work is published and/or exhibited because they are recognised as having achieved a certain standard. Secondly, they inadvertently provide ideas and inspiration to those who come after them. And their work provides a benchmark of quality. When I go through an anthology like SPN, I am particularly interested in those images that remind me of ones I, myself, have taken, for then I have an opportunity to make a direct comparison revealing what I might have done differently to achieve a better result.
For me, personally, SPN still raises more questions than it answers; but I consider that a good thing because, at the very least, I have something new to think about. Last year, I published a collection of my own photographs entitled “The eye of the beholder”. The underlying premise of the book was that when you look at a photograph, and by that I mean really looks at it and think about it as opposed to giving it a cursory glance as you flick through the pages of a magazine, you are just as likely to learn something about yourself as you are to learn about the subject of the photograph or the photographer who took it. At the very least, you will learn more about what you like or don’t like; and if you explore that more deeply, you may possibly discover what has moulded your tastes. So whether you visit galleries, or photo-sharing websites, or buy books like SPN, there is a great deal to be discovered.
There are many photographs in SPN that I, personally, would not have taken, simply because I don’t find the subject matter interesting to me. You can interpret that as either a very positive statement about the diversity of work presented in SPN or as an indictment of the narrowness of my interests. Either way works. But purely as an exercise, I went through the book and identified my 10 favourite images (in order of appearance) as follows:
P29 – Polly Braden: Night walk, Xiamen
P41 – Melanie Einzig: Spring corner, NYC
P49 – George Georgiu: Bus No. 2, Kiev
P70 – Andreev Z Glickman: Man holding a boy’s hand
P104/5 – Jens Olaf Lasthein: Odessa
P130 – Joe Meyerowitz: 5 more found
P134 – Mimi Mollica: Dakar, Senegal
P172 – Paul Russell: Charity
P191 – Matt Stuart: London Wall
P200 – Alexey Tilarenko: Ghosts of the city
These are not the only images in SPN that I like. Nor am I asserting that these are the best images in the collection by any objective standard of judgment; simply that they resonate with me and appeal to my particular taste. And the three entries I have listed in boldfaced type are my particular favourites, for what that is worth. Why they are my favourites is quite probably of no interest to anyone but myself so I won’t go into that here; except to say that in the context of self-discovery, my attachment to these images and how I interpret them probably says quite a lot about me; and for that reason, I find it equally interesting to examine and dissect images that I don’t like; for they too reveal something.
So what I am saying is that I have enjoyed and am still enjoying SPN on multiple levels. In a compilation such as this, I want to be entertained and I want to be inspired; but above all, I want to be made to think. And SPN has certainly achieved that. So, for what it is worth, I strongly recommend SPN to anyone who is interested in contemporary street photography; and I’d be very interested to hear what others think.
 Published in 2010 by Thames and Hudson