NICK TURPIN

Street Photography Pie

Street Photography, Street Photography Theory

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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.

 

My father playing in the street in Cricklewood, North London between the wars.

My father playing in the street in Cricklewood, North London between the wars.

 

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 Wall's Mimic 1982 that recreates with actors a scene of of racial abuse Wall witnessed on a Vancouver Street.

Jeff Wall’s Mimic 1982 that recreates with actors a scene of of racial abuse Wall witnessed on a Vancouver Street.

 

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.

 

Robert Capa's Death of a Spanish Militiaman 1936

Robert Capa’s Death of a Spanish Militiaman 1936

 

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.

 

Street Photography Pie

Street Photography at a glance

 

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.

 

Street Scene, Piccadilly, London from 'Like Piccadilly Circus'

Street Scene, Piccadilly, London from ‘Like Piccadilly Circus’

 

Street Scene, Piccadilly, London from 'Like Piccadilly Circus'

Street Scene, Piccadilly, London from ‘Like Piccadilly Circus’

 

Street Scene, Piccadilly, London from 'Like Piccadilly Circus'

Street Scene, Piccadilly, London from ‘Like Piccadilly Circus’

 

12 Responses to this post
  1. Posted on April 28, 2014 by Craig Atkinson

    Interesting post Nick.
    I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘street photography’, not that it matters. In the same way I don’t like the term ‘illustration’, even though for part of my week it’s what I teach. I think it’s because of the way it’s generally perceived and written about (or not), and there is little in terms of an academic written historical context. I need to get over that though.
    I agree entirely about interaction. I don’t want people to know I’m shooting them. Not because I’m trying to ‘get them’ or be sneaky, but what I want is a shot of ‘the everyday’. If they know your’e shooting them that’s gone, straight away. I don’t think though street photography has to be candid, and I don’t believe it has to contain people. And I do still think it can be street photography if there has been interaction with the subject. Tom Wood for example, or George Hallett. And whilst on definitions / parameters…What happens when the street ends? I read something recently, can’t remember where or by whom so take it lightly but it was something like, what when the street ends, turns into a path, crosses a farm etc… Should it really be defined by the attitude and intent of the person with the camera. You don’t need a person for a portrait, or a street for a street photograph? Moriyama I suppose is a good example of that.
    The Capa thing – absolutely it matters, but will we ever know. It reminds me of the Van Gogh story in Berger’s Ways of Seeing. The perceived knowledge, text, title etc act as signs to tell us how we should be looking at the image. The moon landing wouldn’t have been as spectacular had it have been an act.

  2. Posted on April 28, 2014 by Jason Reed

    I won’t go into the argument in any detail but suffice to say that I agree with your position Nick. What I find utterly absurd is that someone who advocates in favour of maintaining (or at least respecting) the spirit of the genre finds himself under attack. I have no problem with those who advocate in favour of posed images being passed off as good ones. I do, however, have a problem with them trying to pass them off as images that fall within the ambit of what the likes of Meyerowitz and Winogrand understood to be their art and passion. Ironically Winogrand hated the label (and I’m not overly fond of it myself). HOWEVER, Winogrand would be spinning in his grave at the sight of what some charlatans are strewing across the internet at the moment and are being elevated to almost demigod status for it.

  3. Posted on April 29, 2014 by Paul

    It’s difficult to accept that photography is not art as you seem to be suggesting Nick. Other arts can lay claim to recording things as they are and documenting ‘reality’ and society and so on (I mean don’t we look at paintings from other times and use them as a guide to the times and place? etc). Why do we have to invent a debate when none really exists. There is clearly a difference between a “recreation” of an event that is then portrayed as the “real event” and one that is presented as a, well, recreation lol. “drawing with light” some might argue is simply another way of drawing yes? Didn’t HCB say that he only took up a camera because it was a faster way of making a sketch than with a brush or pencil? ANY street photographer, or any other artist who purports to present the “reality” in front of them should realize that any choice they make about lens, ISO, aperture, focus..well you name it, is changing the reality, . It’s always subjective. It’s a nonsense to suggest otherwise. Of course that doesn’t mean we don’t keep on trying to keep things as true to the reality we DO see.
    Some of the comments by others here too: What “moment” do we try to record? I mean we can say all we like we don’t want people to see us or our camera, but the reality is they do. Isn’t that a “moment”as well? anyway, i am a strong believer that at some level we all know when we aer being photographed, even if we’re not conscious of it. Which is a great relief I think we’d all agree haha
    I know I’m a bit all over the place here! Just thoughts as I type.. interesting stuff to think about anyway and a good conversation..thanks a lot!!!
    PS I think rather than rolling in his grave Winnogrand if asked what he thinks of all the current “debate” and the (I agree) many charletons today, he might just say something to the effect of “I don’t’ give a ***** I just do my own thing” “LOL

  4. Posted on April 29, 2014 by Nick Turpin

    I think Paul that Winogrand would give a shit if there was a question mark over his imagery and wether he interacted with people and got them to move or stand here or there etc.

    I do agree that the phrase ‘street photography’ is not great but it’s what we’ve been handed down, it does lead to the common error in thinking that any photograph made in the street is a street photograph which it clearly is not and that is why I try to clarify the situation as I see it.

    I’m at least as tired as everybody else is at having to continuously have this conversation but I am even more tired of seeing Street Photography articles and blog posts featuring Street Portraits or images of people performing for the camera. Check out this recent article ’10 most influential Street Photographers’ >

    http://www.streethunters.net/blog/2014/03/26/10-most-influential-active-street-photographers/

    that includes the following :

    http://beam.zackarias.com/#!/index/G0000d6rczdaBCK4
    http://leejeffries.500px.com/homeless
    http://boogiephoto.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/nyc

    Or this sort of nonsense on amazon :

    http://www.amazon.com/Street-Photography-The-Complete-Guide/dp/1909334006/ref=sr_1_16?ie=UTF8&qid=1398768240&sr=8-16&keywords=street+photography

    I’m just trying to remind people that the traditional definition of Street Photography excludes this sort of work.

  5. Posted on April 29, 2014 by John Goldsmith

    Perhaps there’s also the issue of being so static we undermine our art by doing nothing. Or at least, nothing new.

    Note, I’ve never advocated that street photographers give up their candidness. I simply suggest, as Paul did, that none of this talk really matters. What does matter is the art. Is there a need for us to draw some ethical line as in photojournalism? I don’t think so.

    You can’t control the Internet, Nick. It’s too diffuse.

    By the way, I like my pie a la mode.

  6. Posted on May 2, 2014 by Willie

    Hi Nick,
    Excellent article.
    I agree that so called ‘Street Photography’ should not be staged. Ever.

    By that I mean in the style of the example given Mimic 1982.

    How does one reconcile ‘crossing the line’ when one considers some of the images in Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’?
    Surely there was some interaction, most likely verbally with some of his subjects.

    Would they not be considered ‘Street Photographs’?

    It’s a fine line and one which I confess I haven’t fully comprehended.

    What is your view on Mr. Frank’s work?

    Regards
    Willie

  7. Posted on May 2, 2014 by Nicholas Goodden

    Hi Nick,

    Good post.

    There are definitely a lot of definitions out there and a lot of Street Photography that is posed, or just photos of a street (that’s not street photography)… But in a way I don’t personally mind as the only thing that should matter is what you do and the fact there are still a lot of photographers who get the general idea.

    I’ve been meaning to get in touch for a while by the way, not sure if you heard of us yet?

    Would be great to have a friendly chat.

    Nico

  8. Posted on May 13, 2014 by Paul

    I guess my pint about. Winnogrand was that he’d think all thedebate is awasre of time. Personally I see no pronominal ifpeople perform when &hey see the camera How is this less valid as spontaneous. Moment worth recording I. do see your point though on that amazon book and I’ve commented elsewhere about how influential doesn’t necessarily mean good That was not accepted.well at all lol

  9. Posted on May 14, 2014 by Miss Wilk

    Good morning Mr Turpin,

    I just wanted to add a couple of points in regard to the links you’ve provided. I notice you mention Boogie’s work as an example of the fairly vacuous and fabricated style of photographing that you don’t feel falls under Street Photography.
    I agree with you that many of the images on his site are contrived and blatantly posed but please spare a thought for his early book, Belgrade Belongs To Me.
    I feel this was his best work in pure candid form. In those images he walks through the streets in the aftermath of a war. There’s no artifice involved. He’s the man on the street, recording a broken city from ground level. It’s one hell of a powerful book and I think this early work is the reason why I often see him cited as a reference point for many photographers.

    Regarding Lee Jeffries, well, do we really need to? If we must then I’d have to say he doesn’t align himself with Street Photography at all although his subjects are culled from public streets. “Skid Row”, as he describes it. I’m not sure if this is an actual place, or just somewhere that exists exclusively inside his own head. I’ve read a number of interviews with him where he is asked to discuss his work but they are rather brief because he isn’t very good at long sentences, although he managed to mumble that he once read a photoshop book by Scott Kelby all in one day.
    Following your link I ventured to his site where I read this introduction:

    “The clarity in their eyes is awesome to behold, as if God is somewhere in there. He has made these people into more than poor old broken homeless people lazily waiting for a handout from some urbane and thoughtful corporate agent. He infused them with light, not darkness. Even the blind guy has light pouring from his sightless eyes…”

    Dear God I thought to myself. Jesus wept, who wrote these words of such majestic praise that are surely worthy of none other than the great Christian Caujolle.
    Well, it was someone called Conran. Or it could have been Scott Kelby masquerading as Conran. Or it could have been one of the little people who live inside Mr Jeffries’ head.

  10. Posted on May 19, 2014 by Al

    Re the Capa example: I think it absolutely matters whether it was staged or not for the soldier pictured and Capa’s personal experience of the events. As for the cultural power and value of the photograph itself, I think not. This is evidenced by the fact that even though the photograph’s candidness has been questioned, it still cannot be discounted as a completely valuable part of our cultural history.

    The difference between the staged-Capa and the candid-Capa is a technical one, essential only to photographers. For the consumers of the image, it is a difference similar to whether a painter sketches first or does not. The consumer’s knowledge of the artist’s process illuminates something about the artist’s process, but nothing about the final image: a two-dimensional image in a gallery / book / website.

  11. Posted on August 15, 2014 by Kevin Shelley

    Hi Nick,

    Good article and read but if you don’t my frank observations, I feel there is possibly a small amount of envy in some of your statements.

    Whilst I agree that the likes of Eric Kim and Zack Arias don’t exactly qualify for the title of Street Photographer in it’s truest sense, they are (for better or for worse) at the top of their game and the ones that the ordinary ‘consumer’ turns to for the latest ‘word on the street.’

    Personally, I would never publish a staged photograph and have made it my mission to climb as high up the Street Photography rankings on Google as possible, in order to loudly sound the SP ‘siren’. As such, when searching for ‘street photography blog’ (a much used term), I currently reside at 2nd from the bottom of page 1. That’s about 5 places below Eric Kim. I want to be second from the top by the end of this year.

    So have no fear, the true meaning of street has it’s exponents who are prepared to fight to speak the ‘truth’.

    It’s something that requires constant work, but also enormously satisfying as each goal is achieved.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  12. Posted on August 26, 2014 by Nick Turpin

    Kevin I’m really not that interested in Google rankings, I don’t think they reflect quality and also they are geo specific so if I search for Street Photography here in London, I get different results to you. But you are right I desperately wish I could take photographs like Eric Kim, I’m eerily envious ;-)

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