"Street Photography"???

Forums All About Photography "Street Photography"???

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    Ian McNab

    A gallery of Lisette Model’s photographs recently appeared in the Guardian under the title “Queen of street photography: Lisette Model’s New York”. Now, Lisette Model was a very fine photographer; but a friend of mine observed that her work wasn’t really ‘street photography’ as we’d now think of it. That’s right, of course; but it got me thinking.

    Lisette Model’s work might best be described as modernist social documentary. But in the 1940s, she certainly wouldn’t have talked about it as ‘street photography’, nor described herself as ‘a street photographer’. And it’s not a description that Cartier-Bresson, either, would have applied to himself. Rather, he described himself as a surrealist or surrealist photographer; but when Magnum was being set up just after the war, Capa warned him against calling himself a surrealist (because newspapers and magazines wouldn’t buy his pictures if he did), and that he should, instead, call himself a ‘photojournalist’.

    Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone used the term ‘street photography’, nor described themselves or other photographers as ‘a street photographer’, until at the earliest the late 1960s or early 1970s. Before then, lots of people made candid photographs in urban settings, many with a broadly ‘documentary’ interest; but as far as I can make out, the term ‘street photography’ seems only to have come into use sometime around the seventies. And I suspect (though it’s hard to prove) that its introduction coincides with a transition from photography being something that most people knew through newspapers and magazine, to its increasing presence as ‘Art’ on the walls of art galleries and museums.

    Why do I say that? Well, John Szarkowski, who was director of photography at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York from 1962 to 1991, put on an exhibition called ‘New Documents’ at MoMA in 1967, which brought the art world’s attention to three little-known photographers: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. And I suspect the term ‘street photography’ may have been coined by newspaper commentators sometime after that, in response to the increasing popularity of the ‘New York Photographers’ (Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, Meyerowitz, Papageorge, and others) after this and other similar exhibitions at MoMa.

    Be that as it may, the term was certainly in common use by the 1980s, so that, in a now-notorious interview with Garry Winogrand in 1981 ( https://youtu.be/wem927v_kpo ), Diamonstein remarks that Winogrand’s name is ‘often associated with the term Street Photography’, which Winogrand promptly dismisses as a stupid description, insisting, rather, that he’s simply a photographer, or a ‘stills photographer’. (She asks him, too, about his view of the description ‘snapshot aesthetic’, which he also dismisses as a stupid concept.)

    So I think it may be useful to investigate the connection between the term ‘street photography’ and a shift from an interest in photographs as documentary records or photojournalism, describing events whose significance is ‘greater’ than the photograph itself, to photographs as essentially ‘art pictures’, interesting, like fine art paintings, for their intrinsic qualities as visual expression.

    For example, after the ‘photography-as-art’ transition has begun, Winogrand asserts that photographs have no narrative content, but are essentially about holding in balance the tension between content and form, which is a purely visual problem:

    “A picture is about what’s photographed and how that exists in the photograph — so that’s what we’re talking about: what can happen in a frame. Because photographing something changes it. It’s interesting. I don’t have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I’m photographing. I have a responsibility to describe well.

    “The fact is that photographs, they’re mute, they don’t have any narrative ability at all. You know what something looks like, but you don’t know what’s happening; you don’t know whether the hat’s being held, or is it being put on her head or taken off her head. From the photograph, you don’t know that. A piece of time and space is well described; but not what is happening.

    “I think that there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of ‘em. They do not tell stories. They show you what something looks like. To a camera. The minute you relate this thing to what was photographed, it’s a lie. It’s two-dimensional. It’s the illusion of a literal description. The thing has to be complete in the frame, whether you have the narrative information or not. It has to be complete in the frame. It’s a picture problem. It’s part of what makes things interesting.” [From “Bill Moyers interviews Garry Wingrand 1982” ]

    So I wonder: did the term ‘Street Photography’ only come into use as a sort of shorthand description for some loosely-related styles of picture when photographs turned into art? What do you reckon?



    Yes, I suppose by street photography we mean life-in-public, whereas Model and Goldin recorded life in private (though not private enough maybe!)

    The term is mocked by Stephen Shore when, tongue-in-cheek, he asks if he walked down a side street and out of town was he immediately a different photographer!

    The photographers you mention have certainly contributed enormously to the art, no matter what we call them, or what they call themselves.


    An incidental point is, how do we know that this or that work is important? You provide the answer; it is the curators who are the arbiters of taste.

    Thank you for the contribution.



    Ian McNab

    The term is mocked by Stephen Shore when, tongue-in-cheek, he asks if he walked down a side street and out of town was he immediately a different photographer!

    Haha! Yes, indeed. And, of course, you can do what some call “street photography” on a beach, in a park, in a bar, etc. Interestingly, what counts as ‘street photography’ seems now mainly to be arbitrated on internet blogs and forums by people whose numerical popularity appears to confer some mantle of expertise.

    But let me, as briefly as I can, address the matter of ‘how do we know that this or that work is important’ more seriously. A while ago now, Francis Hodgson wrote a thought-provoking piece entitled “Who Says it’s Good?”, and was kind enough to endorse the following comment I made on the article:

    I’m not sure that the matter of judgement and standards in photography is in fact as different from the matter of judgement and standards in the other arts as you suggest. Try substituting ‘painting’ or ‘symphonic music’ or ‘drama or ‘the novel’ wherever you refer to photography, and you’ll see what I mean; but to do so is also revealing in an important way.

    Judgment is personal and subjective; but standards are communal: they are the refined outcome of an informed community sharing, discussing, disagreeing about and arguing over their judgements. Literary standards arise in a community of literary critics, and depend on a rich, vibrant and active community of people engaging in the business of literary criticism. The same can be said of music criticism, or art criticism, etc. So where is our active, informed, articulate and engaged community of photography critics?

    Much of what passes for criticism in photography is arcane theorising, often promoting some particular ideological position in Marxist theory, or about Capitalism, power, gender equality or the nature of Discourse. You’d hunt for a long time before you’d find a serous writer on photography trying to articulate judgments about which pictures by a particular photographer are better than his or her other pictures, or why one photographer’s work is, on balance better than another photographer’s.

    The problem is, of course, that standards don’t reside in photographs: they exist and manifest in the judgment of viewers about photographs. But the viewers have both to be well-informed about photographs and articulate enough to say why they make their judgments. And this also requires a shared language – one that is created in the discussions of an active community. (For example, I watched you, in the video of the ‘Boundaries of contemporary photography’ panel discussion at the Belfast Photo Festival last June, eliciting from Greg Hobson why he thought Chris Killip’s ‘Boo on a horse’ a great photograph. That’s where standards get revealed: in trying to articulate the basis for particular judgments.)

    It probably isn’t possible to state standards in the abstract, as if they were a sort of Platonic Ideal; rather, they emerge in a discussion or argument about the basis of particular judgments regarding specific works. Nor, I think, do the bases of judgements become any clearer by discusing “Photography” than do those for painting by discussing “Oil Paint”. You have to consider a particular photograph that we can look at together and talk about; and then another; and another. And in that process the community of discussants builds a shared language for expressing and sharing judgements that can usefully and informatively be disagreed with.

    Now then, where’s this happening seriously, either in speech or in print? Apart from you and a couple of others, where is the community of serious critical thinkers that is discussing work in this way, and sharing their deliberations with the rest of us, so that standards emerge?


    Ah well, back to the World Cup! 😉



    I think Ken’s posts above are in the wrong thread.

    Back to street photography..

    As usual Frank sets you thinking. Perhaps my comment about curators needs amplifying. They won’t drag ideas from thin air but make decisions based on the background that he describes. It is the curators who draw public attention to artists who have reached a certain status in the eyes of those who are supposed to be equipped to make judgements about worthiness. Other manifestations of worthiness are often commercially based and therefore to be regarded with suspicion.

    Our beloved internet is the ultimate un-curated distributor machine. It is here that there is no guidance. You can find some unknown work of great quality, but also a lot of pretentious stuff. (Many photos make no pretence to be anything more than visually communicating something of course and these are excepted – though remember what Lisette Model said ).


    Pete Robinson

    I’ve moved Ken’s post to their very own thread under ‘All about Photography’ called ‘Shutter Speeds’. Hope you don’t mind Ken. Mr. Webmaster.

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