The Burden of Reputation: Notes on Street Photography

by Leo Hsu

Issue 48

Street photography has always been about making sense of the immediate present. While street photography may be informed by art discourses, it is better understood as the direct intersection of the photographer’s personal trajectory and that of society. The embodied act of photography is central; this impulse to move through the world and to act on the visible, making it material so that it can be shared, is photography’s basic mode as art and communication.

Defining street photography only matters if you are interested in categories, or if you are interested in traditions. Categories are mainly a concern of critics and historians. But traditions, and the recognition that a photographer’s work is built upon the accumulation of visual language, are a concern for anyone making or looking at photographs. And so a definition is at least worth considering, even if you object to the under-performing title “street photography”.

Street photography is driven by two definitively modernist characteristics. One is an engagement with public, often urban, life. The other is the belief that a photographer’s experience of visual discovery can correlate to the viewer’s experience of the photograph. That is, the viewer, in some significant sense sees what the photographer sees, and more importantly, comes to know what the photographer knows.

Are Brassai’s photographs made inside cafes and brothels street photographs? They are not “on the street” and often suggest a personal connection between photographer and subject, but they are about the boundaries of the public as tested by the photographer. William Klein, for sure, was an extraordinary street photographer, as was Robert Frank; Klein made order out of chaos with his crowded frames, and Frank, continuously investigating, looking, feeling his own position, located our seams in order to reveal how we are constructed.

"I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed, “ noted Garry Winogrand. Not what it looks like on film, but what it looks like as seen and interpreted by a photographer, the product of the briefest intersection between photographer and subject. Winogrand approached photography as a problem, for which streets, zoos, and airports – public places where you find people- were his laboratories. Diane Arbus worked on the street and she also got to know many of her subjects to be invited into their homes, and so “A Jewish giant at home with his parents” is not a street photograph, yet it feels and reads just like many of her street photographs.

Public space- the street- has been an object of fascination since the Renaissance. Modern cities and modern equipment, however, have created possibilities specific to the 20th and 21st centuries for exploring the vitality of shared spaces, and the tension among and between strangers. Not all street photography is made on the street, and not all photos made on the street are "street photography” but it's this tension that characterizes the photographer's engagement with public space.

And this engagement is characterized by a particular mode of making pictures, in which an act of observation becomes an act of recognition. Henri Cartier-Bresson, writing from the position of a photojournalist, said it best: "To take a photograph means to recognize simultaneously and within a fraction of a second both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning." Street photography only works when the audience is convinced that what is inscribed within the frame was honestly observed in the real world.

This shift from looking to seeing happens twice: once when the photograph is made, and again when the photograph is seen. You either get it or you don't; the photo either works or it doesn't. This, I feel, is the great pleasure of street photography: to see, through someone else's eyes; to see it not as it is, but as it is seen. The image is a structured visual statement that, if communicated successfully, does not so much represent an idea as provoke an understanding.

For much of the 20th century this dynamic was not a remarkable position in photography. But the explosion of creative strategies incorporating photography in the last forty years or so has removed the privilege from what was once considered an essential characteristic of the medium. Street photography has thus been burdened with a reputation that it is a mid-20th century genre, a modernist genre, that its glory days are in the past, that it has not moved into the 21st century with its new publics, and its new modes of experience.

But, like all photographic traditions, street photography has transformed over time. Purposes change as do our assumptions about the purpose of form. Our ideas of what and where the public is- how public life is expressed and what is accordingly visible- are continuously changing. When Vivian Maier’s photographs, made in the 1950s and 1960s, were recently discovered in a storage locker, they appeared as the contents of a time capsule. Maier was influenced by Lisette Model and the city photography of the 1950s; no retro filter will produce the sensibility of these pictures.

By contrast recent work such as Doug Rickard’s New American Picture and Michael Wolf’s streetview projects explore emerging conceptions of how the public and the street are visualized, discovering life in the street without having to step out the door. These projects are important and provocative, but absent the embodied sense of discovery, is it even possible to speak about them as following from the street photography tradition?

These are extreme examples; public spaces, and the photographer’s apprehension of moving through it, continue to inform contemporary street photographers. Paul Graham puts street photography at the center of an extended project that is both sophisticated in its considerations and elegant in its immediacy. The power of Graham’s work is in his visible accounting of the world that he encounters. (Read Leo Hsu's review of Paul Graham's The Present at Spaces Corners here.)

Similarly, the In-Public website showcases photographers’ work, the quality of which emerges from extended, rigorous engagements. Nick Turpin, founder of In-Public, observes that street photography is essentially rooted in the impulse to photograph what you see. Today this impulse is regularly satisfied in the abundance of images made and uploaded to social media sites. And if the way in which this impulse is satisfied changes over time, then so does street photography change.