I take a lot of flack online for attempting to maintain a fairly rigid definition of Street Photography, I know a lot of people, including some very notable ones don’t even like the phrase ‘Street Photography’ but I think that horse has really bolted decades ago. Street Photographers were once men that would take your picture for payment on the sidewalk, that definition changed very quickly when the first role of 35mm film was put in a Leica camera by Oskar Barnack around 1913. It was really the photographers that took up those small portable cameras over the next 60 years that inadvertently redefined the phrase Street Photography to what we recognise today…a documentary form that celebrated the candid public moment. And now wether you like the phrase or not there is unarguably a large and growing international community of photographers for whom it is very important that their approach to making pictures is purely observed, whose intention is to record public life as it is found.
The adoption of photography by artists has spawned the notion in recent years that all that matters is the image and how it plays emotionally on the viewer. For the artists using ‘lens based media’ photography is like painting or sculpture, it’s just another medium. But for photographers and especially Street Photographers, the camera ‘draws with light’, records, documents, captures a scene or happening resulting in an image that has a strong if imperfect relationship with a real event. If you doubt the importance and relevance of the photographers approach over that of the artists, you only need to look at the fascination that photographs hold for us historically, images of conflict and change, first flights, moon landings etc. Even a photograph of your own street from 70 years ago is fascinating, the houses look new, the trees are freshly planted and children play in the road where there are no cars parked. In this photograph of my father John Turpin taken before World War 2 you can see the elaborate metal railings and gates that were later removed and smelted down to provide metal for the war effort….the photograph as document is the cameras most amazing power, it’s what it does best.
The problem is that the work of artists working with models and photoshop can often look very similar to the work of real photographers, in many cases that is the artists intention. From Jeff Wall in the 80’s onwards the power of the camera to document has been abandoned by artists in the rush for sensation and novelty in photographic images.
Jeff Walls piece Mimic 1982 recreates with actors a scene of racial abuse he apparently witnessed on the streets of Vancouver, imagine if Wall had photographed that original scene and we had both images to hand side by side, which would be the most significant? which would have the most meaning? the document or the creation? The photograph or the artwork?
In my mind both would have value but also they would be incomparable because although initially similar they are completely different beasts from completely different worlds and heritages. One would tell us something about Vancouver in the 80’s, the other would just really tell us about one man and his idea.
The reason I get up again and again to defend candid Street Photography is because I believe IT REALLY MATTERS HOW PHOTOGRAPHS ARE MADE, it matters because it changes their meaning and historical value. There are many good examples to illustrate this but the most famous is probably the controversy over the veracity of Robert Capas photograph ‘Death of a Spanish Loyalist’ from 1936 that purports to show the moment of death of a fighter on a hill near Cordoba in Spain. There is considerable speculation however about wether the photograph was staged. When it was published in Vu Magazine it was certainly presented as genuine. When you look at the image below ask yourself if it matters, if there is a difference between this being a picture of the moment of death of a freedom fighter or a picture of a few soldiers larking about for Capas camera. Does it matter if the dead man got up again…..I think we all know it does.
There are few deaths to photograph on the streets of most cities but I would argue that the same ideas of veracity of the image apply which is why I have made my Street Photography Pie Chart. It could not be simpler really, I don’t know why we make such a fuss over defining Street Photography. It’s Photography yes, it’s Documentary Photography yes and it’s Candid Photography…yes. This means that if you interact verbally or physically with the subjects of your photograph then you cross a line, you are not making a candid document and you don’t get to make the last quarter.
I love photography but I only really get excited about making and seeing photographs that are evidence of the societies that we live in because they have a relevance that informs me about my own life and my own place in those societies. Every candid Street Photograph I see is a jigsaw piece from a huge puzzle about human nature and social, political and commercial systems, globalisation and consumerism, national identity……life. It’s only a reliable jigsaw piece if it was made in the right way and that is why we need that last quarter of the pie to be defined, it’s why we need the Street Photographers candid approach to be understood and respected.