The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 4
Are you an admirer of street photography but have been in question as to whether or not it’s art? Has that been a reason why you have been reluctant to utilize a camera in your flâneurism? Between 9/11/2001 and 2010, this actually became a recurring debate in the UK as laws severely restricting public photography practices were being enforced in fear-mongering ways that excessively impinged on artistic creativity. The legal tension and argument seems to have abated considerably since then but if you’re still in doubt, here’s why street photography is art.
I’m going to touch on the most common points that I have heard and read expressed as to why people are so uncertain. Street photography is a form of documentary photography. This simple statement is a reason why some still question as to whether SP’s is an art form or not.
Technically speaking SP is not an art form but an art genre. Here’s why:
- An art form is either the physical representation of a creatively expressed idea through a medium (e.g. a bronze sculpture or choreographed modern jazz dance) or a non-physical representation (e.g. a song or electronic game). Some photographic art forms include landscape, nude, portrait, wedding and photojournalism. There are many more.
This nebulous theory actually makes it easy to think of SP as its own art form, and SP can certainly include portraits and landscapes but:
- An artistic genre is a set of similar or clearly differing artistic styles that are loosely relied on to plan and arrange the aesthetic elements in imagery. Visual art styles typically relied upon in SP include candidness in public or private settings, the capturing of circumstances that mainly occur in urban environments, imaging in colour or black and white with minimal retouching so as to render an image of a genuine moment in time and aesthetic compositions that evoke more visceral; less intellectual, impressions in the minds of viewers. It’s the typically heavy reliance on styles to create a work of SP, and less consideration of the photographic medium that characterizes SP as a genre.
Just to reinforce the difference, an artistic genre also differs from artistic style because:
- Artistic style is the values ascribed or aesthetics achieved in imagery as a result of using specific techniques. Just as a street dancer applies body popping and locking techniques that signify the breaking and funk dance styles, a street photographer may apply the techniques of using a wide-angle lens with virtually infinitesimal depth of field, manual exposure, zone focusing, “shooting from the hip”, getting physically close to subjects, deliberate over and under exposure, and even blurring that will create strong or merely interesting visual impact in a traditional black and white style image.
Of course street photography is art. It requires considerably more creative thought process in capturing a fleeting “decisive moment”; as described by Henri Cartier-Bresson, than relatively similar types of photography, like documentary photography. If you buy into the standards of Western Art, or even aesthetics from around the world, that high level of creativity is what makes any art an art. Remember the standard that makes any creation a fine art:
- Fine art is an art form mainly created for aesthetics and/or conveying and analyzing ideas instead of being mainly for consumption. I’ve said this before, just because an art form is popular, and is executed with a high degree of skill doesn’t mean that it is a fine art form. Although they are categorized as contemporary art, sci-fi and fantasy art are still not considered fine art (although they really should be) by the established art world simply because they are not displayed in highbrow galleries, recognized and funded by governments as intellectual creations, studied in art schools and recognized as being highly influential in shaping Western culture (although the latter is absolutely true).
Without a doubt, SP and photojournalism are both related as documentary photography (a photographic art form or mere umbrella term) but SP is not photojournalism. So, whether you shoot street photography or just observe it, don’t expect a street photo to look like an image that belongs in Time Magazine or National Geographic. Such occurrences are infrequent in SP. The considerations of recording an event between street and photojournalism are only similar, not the same.
You can’t capture an image, like the late Kevin Carter’s 1993 masterpiece of a starving child in the Sudan with a vulture standing by to prey upon its flesh at the moment of death (I don’t have permission to post that remarkable mage on this blog so I highly recommend looking it up and studying it carefully), and call it street. That’s photojournalism (which is often regarded as its own art form in addition to documentary); documentary in its purest sense, even though select pieces of photojournalism have been accepted and marketed as fine art since the 70’s.
Embracing the difference between street photography and photojournalism is a particularly important guideline—not rule, to bear in mind if you do intend to use SP to tell the story of a community that you’re exploring. The aesthetics of your project are bound to be quite unique and interesting. Doing this through SP so that others can still see it and understand it is quite the challenge. Without sacrificing the automatic spontaneity and candidness of the genre, try to consider how you would photograph family life, a parade or festival of your town that is different from the approach in photojournalism. How would you shoot instances of drug addiction, poverty and crime? Yes, you’re approach and outcome will be unusual because you’re making art, not telling the news.
Some argue that SP is not art because it is not marketed and popularly bought like other art. Even photojournalism has more commercial appeal than SP. Well, commercialism has nothing to do with it. In this world today, a professional artist must seriously be willing take the marketability of a work (photo, painting, etc.) in mind or else he or she will not be a pro for long. That same artist cannot; however, depend exclusively on whether a work of art will sell or not as the determining factor as to whether the image should be made. Some art has to be made purely for expression, and that too is an important standard of what makes art, art. It doesn’t matter if a collector will rent, lease or purchase a piece for the purpose of hanging it in their home, office, restaurant, displaying it on a coffee table in some book, keeping it strictly as a financial investment or even taking it out of some vault to be handled with Mickey Mouse white gloves; it could be all or none of that. A street photograph will continue to be a work of art.
SP doesn’t market as well because of the potential liabilities of selling an image that has the likeness of someone’s face in it without obtaining their permission. Different countries and regions have varying laws inspired by this ethics issue, and the risks involved can be seen as prohibitive by gallery owners and curators. That’s all there is to that.
Street often pushes the boundaries of photography ethics. Some photographers push those boundaries far more than others. This leads into the controversy of whether SP is respectable and; therefore, if it is art or not.
A street photograph, like any other artwork, doesn’t have to be “good” to be art. Such a notion is strictly a matter of personal taste. There really are people in this world who think that “Dogs Playing Cards” is an artistic masterpiece while there are others who feel that Michelangelo’s “David” is no more than a pornographic obscenity, regardless of the accepted standards of Western Art.
So, if you are an artistic flâneur, and you would like to record what you discover about a particular community; maybe your own, and share that story with others seriously consider applying the profound art of street photography.