Quality Street (photography, not chocolates)

Firstly, apologies to the non-British contingent of this readership who might find the title somewhat confusing. I found recently found myself down a series of different, yet related, Internet rabbit holes. I had several tabs open on several different windows at once and all but one of them were opened to photographs that were variously agreed upon by the creators and curators of those pages as belonging to a genre known as ‘street photography’. The exact defines of this genre have certainly become blurred over time, especially in terms of the past ten years or more. There’s so much of it out there, it’s hard to fathom at times.


Once was a time, pre-digital photography, when the term ‘street photography’ was pretty clear. Perhaps you might argue over semantics such as whether clearly it started around the time of Walker Evans or Brassai and you might also have some debate over who exactly belonged in this clique but, generally speaking, it was a well-known kind of work. On the whole it didn’t consist of photographs of actual streets, rather of the people who were to be found within street scenes, usually shot candidly in unposed situations.  Photographs of the public, in public places, with unusual twists that added something interesting to the shot. Typically these might be facial expressions, contrasting motifs or generally clever composition.


More photos are being taken than ever before, across all genres (none more ubiquitous than the selfie of course). Thus it stands to reason that the genre of street photography has swelled in terms of output in the world in contemporary times. Lots of finely set, unofficial (yet generally understood) membership criteria for different genres seem to have become blurred. In this context, it’s perhaps as though ‘street photography’ has become a catch-all umbrella term for anything shot in public, sometimes not even featuring human subjects in the frame. We might challenge this of course but in the classic street work of previous decades, the genre was like porn, you knew it when you saw it. Whereas now there’s a significant hunt through mediocrity that has to take place before you hit familiar pay dirt. It seems as if it’s almost harder to find ‘the good stuff’. Is this because although the gold nuggets might actually be greater in number than ever before, the amount of mud and rocks is equally great?


In street days of yore, were it not the case that the people who were most prolific had to have levels of self-motivation and patience that are less of a pre-requisite in today’s photographic status quo? The street work was just as difficult but the tools were much more basic and unforgiving. The films, the dev, the wait, the patience, the ‘pay-as-you-go’ significant expenses of the all film era. Did this drive allow for a better quality of street photography in the hands of a few who rose to become more highly skilled as practitioners of the genre? It seems a stretch doesn’t it? The grandmaster level of street work does still exist after all.


Yet, I wonder if whether the sheer new volume of work in any way cheapens the genre (as I have heard from others at times) or does it only aid in showing just how good the best classic stuff still is? Is it like a post First-World War German economy? The zwei million-mark banknote of the Weimar republic springs to mind, made in such staggering quantity that it no longer had any real value. I’m not being totally serious of course. Obviously I’m not so sure that I fully subscribe to the parallels between this economic theory and the photographic reality that we all now live in but I am sure of this much: 


To be good now means really good…


Thus, in terms of shooting street, we find ourselves in interesting times photographically. The sheer volume of work out there is harder to wade through than ever,  yet it might also be better able to influence a wider group of people.  It also stands to reason that nowadays, to be able to find oneself anywhere near the top of the ever-growing pile in terms of output, you have to try to be as good as the masters of yesteryear, and arguably perhaps…try to be even more so. Is that even possible? Or would that be like trying now to paint the Sistine Chapel all over again but somehow better than Michelangelo did it?  Is this perfection attainable? If it were, would it be worth having?  In the meantime, as we ponder this, we’ll just have to keep on trying.


As this year draws to a close, I’m thinking that just simply trying to be better next year than I was this or last year is perhaps all the goal I need.  This actually applies to shooting anything in my mind. ‘Street’ is only one photographic genre that interests me, both to shoot and in looking at the work of others. I know that Winogrand hated the term and in many ways I can see why. It’s probably good to avoid thinking of your photography in such a delineated manner anyway, it arguably doesn’t need to be so. As much as I like having set, clearly defined goals (and I was able to tick off a long list of them list year, both in terms of my photographic life and also in other areas), in photography… the narrowly defined target can sometimes become an obstacle to a greater good. Hopefully that greater good will be an improvement in terms of both quantity and quality of work that I hope to shoot out and about.  In a pinch though, I’m sure we’d probably all take the latter. The main thing is to enjoy it and to keep shooting, one day at a time, one frame at a time.