• Malcolm Ryder

Meet the Street

The popular allure of street photography rarely wanes, regardless of time or place. Much of its power to influence audiences rides on the ability to take it for granted that it will show us something we either want to see or need to see, without our having to be there. But it is equally powerful as a means of getting us to see where we are, in a different way.


This is inescapably the most dominant factor of street photography’s success: offered without a script, it is a natural and viable alternative to television.


But even as major museum exhibits and art publications mark its global and historical success, it is notoriously difficult to understand what we are to expect when something is called Street Photography instead of Landscape, Documentary, Social Archaeology, or some other label (yes, including photo Journalism).


As a result, while any street photographer has some cachet as an explorer, witness or sharpshooter, one photographer can become preferred or exalted over another based mainly on the influence of the audience.


Audiences are, however, diverse at any one time, and they can change over time, so what today has highest public priority may not remain so, elsewhere or later.


I.

Another key factor at work in street photography's endurance is the notion that one photographer has a more "important" style than another. Style is offered as the explanation for why something about the street becomes graspable. Style makes the photographer the visualizer's equivalent of the composer, and the composition is the interpretation of the visible. Note: any and all viewers, of course, are finally the actual interpreters.


Since style is so often used to justify giving special recognition to the photographer, it is all the more confusing to discover that not much more than consistent repetition reveals what style probably really is. Additionally, under pressure of popularity, style risks becoming its own subject.


And increasingly, the wide variety of “styles” on display within the boundaries of a major show or portfolio of “street photography” challenges the idea that street photography is itself anything more than an opportunity to characterize things seen at certain locations, for interpretation. Well, good. The significance of style is precisely that it is an argument, or an example, for a way to express things so that something special about them can be understood. For photographers, different styles are like what different instruments are to musicians. In the hands of a good musician, a guitar brings out different things about a given song than does a piano or a sax playing that song. A certain style can surprise, refute, prove, or have other effects that broaden or deepen viewers' experiences or ideas.


II.

A third significant factor is the photographer’s own perspective. Any given perspective is generated from a point-of-view, and we intuitively look at street photography expecting an answer to the question, “so, what is your point?”…


Answering that question, the photographer’s selectivity and editorialism directly become specific value-generators.


Meanwhile, viewers may form preferences around what the photographer particularly exposes to us. We can become habitual about wanting to see certain kinds of things only in certain ways. In other words, even if all streets are somehow interesting, some are simply more important than others to show — and further, it is more important to show the street in some style than in others. The question here is, who gets to decide what is most important?


Well, even if that answer is marked as “subjectivity” it is still clearly a valid functional discriminator of different collections of photographs. We simply have to identify what makes something “important” at the time we are considering it.


For example, if the subject is literally disappearing, then souvenirs, evidence, and nostalgia all rise in importance to audiences that found the subject desirable and would miss it when it is gone. The photographer can choose to anticipate this audience and satisfy it, or try to create the audience through the influence of the pictures.


III.

The interplay of the semi-heroic role of the artist, the audience’s influence, the visibility of style, and the photographer’s mindset maps out the sociological context of the displayed work — a context that can suppress or propel the recognition and appreciation of the photographer.


But photographers do not define street photography. It is popular in the art world to say things like "so-and-so's work re-defines whatever" but that bit of rhetoric presumes that there was an agreed way to distinguish "whatever" in the first place. The sheer variety of what is called "street" photography immediately refutes that particular rhetoric, but there is both a common sense distinction that works and there is legitimate excitement in the discovery of visual innovations that aim for what people want from street photography.


All flavors of Street Photography contrast mainly with studio or interior images. The essential ingredient is that the photographer is expected to be using the camera outdoors on a street, with the street clearly included in the “depiction” even if only by implication.


Streets are essentially connectors, pathways. And central to all street photography is the fact that streets are created by people. But with still pictures, the default poetic device of street photography is to turn the path into a destination, and to have the image be “about” the destination.


That notion of subject matter usually covers (a.) the street itself as a local scene, (b.) the life at (in, on) the street, or (c.) some mix of the two.


IV.

Under the Street Photography banner, variety is not a chaotic condition. We can actually account for why pictures look like what they look like, and what the look is attempting to do. At any time, a photographer, known or unknown, can take up the camera and produce something that we can readily position within the scope of the table below:

The rhetoric of the image projects its potential meanings in several typical ways.


Each way in the following four is a range of relative affects:

  • POV is 1st-person, 2nd-person or 3rd-person

  • Depicted elements are conventional or exotic

  • Familiarity is intuitive or analytic

  • Appearances imply or resist narrative

Because those affects can be blended with each other, the image can engage its viewer with nostalgia, fiction, humor, revelation, explanation, proof, or numerous other impacts.


Those results fuel demand that circumstantially translates into the attention that elevates some work and some photographers above others.


The final understanding from all of the above is that the label "street photography" itself is not a predictor of the content of any single past or future unique picture.


Rather, “Street Photography” refers to images that are generated from a preoccupation with the presence and influence of the street.


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