Way back in April 2010 I wrote a brief piece entitled “Is Street Photography Art” inspired by an article published in the British newspaper The Observer “Why street photographs is facing a moment of truth” which looked at the current state of street photography and the attitudes of the public, police and galleries and critics towards it. I just checked and it is still available.
Some comments were made on my original and I updated it in February 2011. I mention all this because couple more comments have trickled in. Why, after all this time, I have no idea. But re-reading the original The Observer article and the comments that flowed from mine, which were intended, in part, to stir up a little debate, I realised that it is a subject that does require more than the few off the top paragraphs I threw at it.
Rather than leap into defence. or attack, I decided to delve rather more deeply into the subject. As some one who has shot street photography from long before the phrase was coined I was immediately confronted with an ethical dilemma. Have we any right to shoot strangers at all? Especially when we stand to gain from the photographs, critically or financially.
I have always defended the right of photographers to take photographs of whatever they choose, subject to the law and moral obligations – no child porn, for example. But I was confronted with the ethics of it when I saw a photograph on The OnlinePhotographer Blog. I followed the link (www.johnslaytor.com/commuters.html) to find and astonishing series of photographs of commuters on trains. My initial, and lasting reaction is that these are street photographs that truly qualify as art. My second was that these are among the rawest people shots I have ever seen. So many of the people look so tired, so sad, so angry, that my second thought was has anyone the moral right to strip bare the emotions of people they don’t know, or ever will know.
Slaytor’s photographs of people gazing out of a train window showed the subjects at a moment extraordinary vulnerability … a moment when they supposed themselves to be unobserved. It seemed to me to be an almost unforgivable intrusion into a person’s life, and their privacy. None of them were newsworthy. None were celebrities. None agreed to be photographed. Why should their inner selves be hung out to dry?
The Online Photographer quotes John Slaytor as saying “I photographed commuters in trains from the outside of the train as they passed me by, approximately one and a half meters away at forty kilometers an hour. I couldn’t see the commuters and they couldn’t see me.”
One side of me says “Great photographs. I wish I’d taken them, ” and I would love to have one of them in my almost non-existent collection. The other sides says “reeks of voyeurism.”
That’s the privacy side of the debate. The other side is that without photographs like these, future generations will have no idea of the pressures and strains of life in a major city in 2012. Most of the pictures we see show happy, smiling people without a care in the world, or those at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale. Slaytor’s images show life in the middle, and may one day, be as iconic as those of the FSA.
Street photography is almost as old as photography, as news, documentary, or candid photography or photojournalism. What has changed is the emphasis … from showing life for news or documentary purposes to shooting people and places as an end in itself. Which may be where the idea of street photography as art became mainstream and a genre suitable for hanging on a gallery wall or of being collected.
A comment posted on the blog said “a street photograph will continue to be a work of art” and then later in his comment “a street photograph, like any other artwork, doesn’t even have to be ‘good’ to be art,” finishing up with “Street Photography is art. And I love it!”
Sorry, but saying something is so, doesn’t make it so. The original proposition I put forward, was that “not all street photography is art.” And this is the core of the question, why don’t collectors buy street photography? Why don’t galleries feature street photographs? Why do critics tend to ignore it?
Before attempting to answer any of the questions on a broader basis, let me tell you of my own experiences over the past few years. I live in a country town (about 8,000 people) within a large council area (population about 18,000) in one of Australia’s major wine growing areas. About 460,000 people visit the town each year, with a significant number checking out the local art galleries.
I have entered photographs in local art/photography competitions and held a number of solo exhibitions. During this time I have sold prints, and won three of the competitions. Each time with an image that could be classified as a “street photograph” and sold none. All of the sales have been landscapes or nature subjects. Furthermore, each time I collected an award the judge was a photographer … every time the judge was a museum/art gallery curator or artist the prize went to landscape or nature photograph.
Only once have I sold a photograph that had a person as the main subject, and this is also the only time I have sold a print to a collector who collected only photography. The shot, however, was a multiple exposure of a dancer in a studio … about as far from a street photograph as it is possible to get.
Part 2 of this article will be published soon. I’m too tired to finish it now.