13. Street Photography Now

A couple of weeks ago, I took delivery of my copy of Street Photography Now[1]. 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.


[1] Published in 2010 by Thames and Hudson

15 thoughts on “13. Street Photography Now

  1. Thank you for your view on SPN.Very enjoyable read.Would love to get my hands on the book but before that i would like to look at your favourite images.

    Also do you think words are important in street photography? Don’t you think that an image should be able to stand on its own without any words.If the words are more moving than the photograph then it defeats the purpose of the photograph.Would love to have your views on it.

    Regards

    • Hi Hameed. Thanks for your comment. My favourite images in SPN are selected very subjectively. I’d be surprised to find someone who totally agreed with my choice; but if that someone does exist, I’d love to talk to them.

      Regarding words in street photography, my previous two posts here (Images, sans paroles; and the addendum to it) pretty much cover my views on the subject; although I wasn’t talking specifically about “street” photography there. Most of the articles in SPN are about “street photography” as a genre rather than about specific images, although they often refer to images to illustrate the points they are trying to make. On the other hand, I really liked the “putting you in the picture” pieces in the book where the photographer describes why he took a particular image. I like them because of what I can learn from them as a student of photography. But in the final analysis, I think the decision rests with the individual photographer and the individual viewer as to whether words add to or detract from an image. And since I don’t think of myself as a “street photographer” I probably have a slightly different approach to the SP purists.

      Anyway, maybe you could have a look at my last two posts and let me know what you think.

  2. Arrgggh. I’ve written and rewritten about five times now, what I think I’d like to say here, and each time, it’s not what I want to say.

    Except maybe, thank you.

    Thank you for raising questions and ideas that cause me to re-evaluate my preconceptions.

  3. I’ like to have a look at the book too. Have to check my favourite bookstore for it.
    And again, I like your article here. I especially like the way you put questionmarks… so you are challenging yourself and the reader’s mind to think about things, approach ideas from different angles.
    Wishing you the best Keith!

    (PS : sorry for my poor English, I am better in Dutch …:-))

  4. Keith, my local library has this book and I’ve requested it, based on your review. Thanks. I’ll come back and comment once I’ve seen it, and I’ll mark my favorites and then come back here to see if we agree on any of them.

    • You might be right Mark. I think of it more as a sampler; and of course there will be debates about how representative the sample is, what should have been included and what could have been left out. For my part, I chose to accept it as it is and judge it on its actual content rather than what I personally thought its content should have been; and on that basis, I found that there was sufficient diversity in the material provided, to the extent that I really liked a lot of the work and really didn’t like some of it. In fact, there are photographers in the compilation whose work I don’t like (and you might be surprised who they are, but I’m not saying). But generally I felt that it was well worth the price I paid for it and as I said in the piece, I found the articles informative, stimulating and thought-provoking. A chacun son gout !!!

  5. LOL, speaking of to each his own taste, I had to google “à chacun son goût,” and then found a controversy between it and “chacun à son gout!” Lots of back and forth between which is correct, and then some saying “never heard this,” and others recommending variations! How fitting!

    • Actually, I think the second one should be: “chacun a son goût,” which of course means something quite different. But I guess wars have started over less. In this case it was because I was too lazy to put the accents on the [a] and the [u]. Oh well, c’est la vie (whew! no accents required).

  6. I just got mine from the Library today. I had to wait in a long queue for my turn to look at it–apparently it’s highly-desired in Portland. But I’m really enjoying it. At the same time I’m discouraged. I’m never going to have the aggressive spirit to go poking a lens into people’s lives, either by asking their permission or by snatching and grabbing without permission. Both are completely counter to my personal style. I just posted a non-SPN picture of my own on Blip, along with a few despairing comments: http://www.blipfoto.com/kendallishere

    I like all your choices, esp. Melanie Einzig on p. 40, Andrew Glickman, p. 70, and Mimi Mollica, p. 134. I also really like these:

    Peter Funch, Memory Lane, p. 9
    Narelle Autio, Angel, p. 25
    Melanie Einzig, Six Train, p. 43
    Jens Lasthein, Bradford, p. 102
    Jeff Mermelstein, pp. 124-125
    Trent Parke, Sydney, p. 138
    plus all of Ying Tang (194-197) and Michael Wolf (224-227).

    For what it’s worth, I think your work most resembles that of Ying Tang. And I think if there is anybody in the book whose work I might be able to aim toward, it would be Michael Wolf. Thanks for the lead and the conversation.

  7. It is pieces like this, Keith, that make me wish you didn’t live on the opposite side of the globe and that we cuold have a face to face chat about photography and everything in front of a cappuccino (for me) and maybe beer (for you)…

    Thank you for sharing

    Fabrizio

    • Cappuccino or latte for me too. The last time I had a beer it was by accident. I woke up in the middle of the night in a hotel room in Barcelona with a mouth as dry as the floor of a bullring. Without putting on the room light, I got up, opened the mini-bar, saw a red can, thought it was Coke, grabbed it, opened it and took a gulp. Arrrrgh, beer!! Back to sleep.

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