The Paradox of Street-Photography

There is too much uncertainty, luck, serendipity involved in a single shot to consider a photographer’s work seriously through a bunch of few good pictures.

That is how I would sum up a kind of paradox of street photography, because whereas it mostly relies on capturing individual moments (“decisive moments”) it gets its strength when considered in a much broader context, generally the body of work.

This reminds me what has been said here and here about Winogrand (and what Szarkowski has suggested in his essay for the book “Figments from the Real World”) that the value, what makes sense in Winogrand’s works is as much his multiple failures as his famous shots (which represent a very tiny amount of the exposures he did), and Szarkowski to conclude that Winogrand’s work was not about making picture but instead about living life through photographs. The same could be said about Henri-Cartier Bresson. You can’t make him the seminal figure he is just because he did the “St Lazare” and the “Madrid” shots (plus few others famous one).

By the way I believe a “big shot” (the iconic ones) is big only in the light of a broader body of work, when it appears to reach something quintessential of that whole work, or to mark a milestone of it. And with lack of that deeper perspective such picture could be considered just a lucky shot.

And I guess this is one reason why street-photography is somewhat disdained by the Art-World (as it was argued here and here), because you can’t rely on a bunch of few shots, as good as they can be, to make real sense. Although this broader sense is indeed contained in most great street-photographers body of work, from Bresson to Ray-Jones, from Levitt to Winogrand etc… It is their own voice, or reason to make  photographs, whatever elusive that might appear. But you need a more complete immersion.

When I look at “Grim Street” from Mark Cohen, I don’t have the feeling to look at a street-photography book in the first place. But to an experience instead, with much psychological dimension and probable self-reference (i.e. to the photographer’s psyche) which comes first. And yeah, this is “street” undoubtedly… but if you take a couple of pictures out of it and put it in a compilation book, in the like of SPN, you just get a bunch of mannerist shots. Same could be said of Winogrand work, or that from others.

This brings to the topic of contemporary street-photography and what I see as an emerging issue with it. I feel SP is going pretty well, with a strong and organized ecosystem (which seems to have its barycenter in London). But I believe that contemporary street-photography is much more successful as a genre than the individual people that are part of it. In other words Street-photography is healthy, but street-photographers are weak. Not in a sense that they are bad (some of them are brilliant), but because the individual voices are diluted into a whole “SP”-tagged thing. The whole seems stronger than the sum of its parts.

1 thought on “The Paradox of Street-Photography

  1. Pingback: The Paradox of Street-Photography (2) « Because it's there

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