R Train Platform, Downtown, NYC
Modern street photography for me is always going to be pretty basic. What are people doing? What are the narrative elements, modern narrative pieces that sharply describe life Now? What are the images that, in my estimation, best define us Now? If I Google “New York City 1930’s”, I get black and white pictures, images that show me some of what it looked like back then. Here’s one of a streetcar from the Todd Webb Archive:
Here’s an image by Stanley Kubrick:
Riding the Subway with Stanley Kubrick
Below is one of mine, from June of 2018:
Again, the above image is from the Todd Webb Archive. Here is a recent one of mine:
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, September 2018
All of these images are pretty clearly time stamped….cell phones have replaced newspapers and it’s obvious that we dress differently in 2018.
This is it….the heart of the matter, at least for me: what does it really look like? Not: what do I want it appear to be…what does it really, truly look like. These next two are mine:
Philadelphia, July 2018
St. Mark’s Place, New York City, August 2018
How do we shoot Street pictures without falling into the stasis that is old school street style? What exactly is it that we’re trying to accomplish? Shooting pictures to get likes and comments on social media is becoming a serious exercise in irrelevant bullshit. So…are we seriously dedicated to shooting pictures that reflect our modern social landscape? To do so we must forge ahead, simultaneously crafting an individual, modern take on photographic expressions while paying homage to the classic protocols that should still define the pursuit of social documentary photography. For me, this means attempting to showcase what’s really out there…as opposed to trying to keep it too old school, or rely on what I refer to as gimmickry to spur engagement with the images. Using modern hooks to achieve a resonance: telling the story of our times without trying to be Bresson or Winogrand or Maier or Gottfried or Levitt or Frank or Davidson…a long long list to be sure! And too many to name.
Because….people are different now. Approach and style must change along with the progression of time. Our lives have dramatically changed, and trying to take great street pictures is harder than it was decades ago. I’m sure many would disagree with me, but for me, a great street picture incorporates narrative of some kind, and to accomplish this you must have people living their lives in public view. Images that rely on shadow and superficial juxtapositions of visual elements can be very good…but lack emotion and impact other than to showcase a degree of inventive use of surroundings and photographic techniques. In some respects, this trending style of street photography is a reflection of our changing character in my opinion. Engagement with each other has begun to minimize with our growing dependence on a WiFi connection…it’s starkly apparent everywhere you turn. And this detachment, and lack of real time interaction is in evidence in many images of the street. The photographer, at a safe distance from his or her subjects, presents a detached and impersonal scene, and while these images have a time and place, are much easier to manage as they require little to no interaction and pose virtually no risk for the image maker.
Bus Stop, 3rd Avenue
Sometimes I do think that I need to do more “big scenes”….and I do some, here and there….but I love to be close, on a wide angle lens, and it’s the crafting of pictures like this one that personally motivate me.
Another change that I find to be pretty dismal and uninteresting is the changing style of building architecture. It’s very different, larger and with a great deal less immediate interface with the street. Smoother, glass fronted surfaces are impersonal, lacking character and individuality. Signage is less idiosyncratic, seemingly almost automated in appearance, looking as if computer generated as opposed to man made and crafted. I have images that I feel are ruined by this new style and color of facades, as in this recent picture from Madison Avenue around 83rd Street:
I tried mightily, significantly desaturating some of these colors but nothing I did could offset the distracting elements posed by this backdrop, despite how much I liked the older couple pictured.
People are living more and more through their smartphones, even doing their food shopping online….and, when outside, generally going from place to place with a specific purpose. Time spent outside with neighbors because apartments and homes lack air conditioning as they often did years ago, or children playing outside at all hours while their parents socialized generated many incredible moments to be photographed by these past craftsmen and women. In many places in the world there sadly seems to be much more quality time being spent indoors, locked to a computer screen or television. And when our recent evolutionary move as a first world people towards the ever present, maddening oblivion of smart phone immersion is added to the equation, shooting meaningful street photography becomes much, much more difficult. And so visits to countries and cultures that are less affected by modern inventions seems to be an important outlet for many photographers, and one that allows us to actually find people to photograph in settings that are picturesque, and encourage interactions that are engaging to record. Additionally, there is often a fear of the camera in public places in the up to the nanosecond modern world we inhabit as photographers, and the camera’s ability to record a likeness on a whim without permission of the people in the frame has become a tremendously difficult-to-navigate distrust, and with good reason. This is a direct result of the mushroom cloud that is social media, and the sometimes irresponsible and insensitive abuse of some photographers who do post images that are best discarded. Where will this picture be seen? In what context? The almost guaranteed assurance that images will be posted online is a definite barrier that must be skillfully addressed by photographers as they try to take pictures in public places. It requires patience and a willingness to interact with subjects, something that’s not embraced by all photographers. Although I interact constantly, there are times when it’s not appropriate or possible or desirable…and even I don’t want to be bothered. But personal responsibility and culpability is important to acknowledge and accept, and sometimes does elude me when I just want to take a bizarre picture of a street truth.
Of course, one can always shoot random pictures in major cities, because sometimes the absence of meaningful content is playful, and anonymity combined with the risk of an angry response is probably part of the fun:
And I love the process of making pictures as in the example above. Random pictures that don’t have much depth or meaning are always a joy, but my preference is to try to find some narration in the everyday, lately a frustratingly elusive proposition.