Project 3 Research Point – Street Photography

Research point

Do some research into contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.

What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly
black and white?

Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s
work)?

How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?

This was probably the most important piece 0f research I stumbled upon whilst looking up some of the photographers around contemporary street photography, the following quote from Martin Parr:

‘You have to know the crap to get to the good’ That’s my advice to you, take more crap’ Martin Parr

It rings very true with me. I would say a large percentage of my photography is crap… its vitally important to be able to identify the crap photographs and to be honest with yourself. I only ever seem to really succeed at anything in my life when I fail at it, then fail again, maybe fail another time, then I kick its ass or try a different approach!

I can’t say I enjoy street photography, or looking at it. I don’t really engage with a lot of it, I think a lot of it is rubbish and repetitive. Some of them look like holiday snaps to me.  So I approached this bit of research with a lot of trepidation, along with the proceeding exercise, asking myself repeatedly ….‘do I really have to? but I don’t want to!’ dragging my heels.

I researched in a number of books which I have referenced at the end of this section, with some on-line research into the genre/style.

Martin Parr a British photographer reflects in his New Brighton Series during the 1980’s on middle class England with images taken at New Brighton in the Wirral. In an interview I watched on-line he speaks of both his hate and love for England, which I feel I can relate to. There are beautiful landscapes and history here in England but there is also the dull, mundane, dreary grey England, the overconsumption and the disconnect. His colour images capture the everyday, the commercialism of modern contemporary culture, the throwaway culture. It is an interesting study on place as well as people. At times some of the photographs are funny and I recall back to my own childhood some of the holidays we went on, the scrambling for an ice cream with your mates, a nice portion of chips, seagulls everywhere pinching your chips, trying to find a space on the beach, a walk on the peer on a hot (if you were lucky!) British summer day, although part of my childhood was spent living in Australia, so I struggle with a definitive sense of belonging it brings back memories. Some of the photographs are really interesting as social commentary/observation and others feel like holiday snaps to me. This could be what spurred on a new generation of photographers, they related to his vivid colour work, perhaps felt they could do something like this and at it inspired them to pick up a camera, which can only be a good thing.

‘The garish colours evoke a crude and cheap contemporary life-style, the very opposite of the pastoral past….Everything reflects a transient, dislocated and throwaway culture…’ p 71 The Photograph by Graham Clarke

I was intrigued by the colour photography of the American photographer Joel Sternfeld,  his unique capturing of landscapes, the movie like photography. It reminded me of the photography I love by Gregory Crewdson, like the image of the burning house ‘Mclean Virginia, 1978’ with the pumpkins in the foreground and fireman stood holding the pumpkin, its such a great photograph and the ‘American Prospects’ series. The use of colour in the American Prospects series is interesting, slightly desaturated, lots of greens, browns, orange, it has a distinctive style. The photographs that interested me the most of Sternfeld were the images from the series “Walking the High Line” of an old derelict high line railway in Manhattan where nature seems to have reclaimed the railway. I love that, a reclaimed rural environment in an urban world.  I like how the landscape changes throughout the seasons, the rich green of the plants in full bloom, the golden browns of leaves on the turn then the white snow of winter on the tracks all surrounded by the high rise buildings framing the railway. Sternfeld used traditional photographic methods to a modern style, using a large format camera with colour film ‘complete with black focusing cloth and tripod’ (p218, The Genius of Photography’), there is a large depth of field in the images. I wasn’t so keen on his ‘Rush Hour’ series of photography.

I watched a fascinating short interview on YouTube with the American Photographer Joel Meyerowitz where he talks about:

‘The play always being in the potential, its like magnetism…what you put in the frame and where you cut the rest of the 360 degrees in all axis we are looking at….what you put in and leave out are what determines the meaning or potential of your photograph but you must continue to keep in mind there is plenty of stuff off stage and what bearing might the rest of the off stage have on this’

I liked his view on the use of a Leica compared to an SLR, the SLR theoretically blinding you whilst the Leica gives you the opportunity to look through the viewfinder whilst observing the world around you with the other eye. I wever thought about it like that before, I have never used a Leica before but its a very valid point! I note from his website that Meyerowitz was ‘an early advocate of color photography (mid-60’s), Meyerowitz was instrumental in changing the attitude toward the use of color photography from one of resistance to nearly universal acceptance.’

Having done some research into these photographers, looking back I don’t think my naive view of ‘Street photography’ was reflecting purely on the content. Its with the label. I hate the label. I get it but like all genre labels for me its pointless. Do I want to listen to technical death metal, grunge, stoner desert rock? The labels point you in the direction but the content provides the answer about whether you like it or not, the photograph. If you were to say it was a study of society, of people or place or a historic time capsule peering into the past or another persons life or a group of people, I would have been intrigued and I am, now, intrigued. The idea of getting up in someone’s grill with a camera isn’t me (some people are awesome at it, I’m not) but I get it. I think I would want to try to take a different approach as a social introvert, I would perhaps want to learn something about the person, learn more about them, delve deeper. Surface layer is OK but what interests me personally is the deeper stuff, the weird stuff.

I think colour photography was initially shunned against the more traditional and widely accepted B & W imagery which had a strong sense of form, strong composition and framing, the use of bold shadows and light, texture. As colour is introduced we are bombarded initially I feel with the commercial, capitalist, urban, ‘modern’ environment, advertising which just doesn’t come across so strong an powerful in the B & W photography. I also feel it took some time for colour photography to develop a voice or perhaps be accepted as an art form. Colour brings a new chapter to photography and gives it a new lease of life. Colour brings new emotion not captured in B & W.

Cartier Bresson had a strong leaning to traditional artistic form, the golden ratio for example. Colour imagery gave a looser feel to photography, initially less concerned with composition and more drawn to the magic of capturing colour and life on film. There is a shift from surrealism to documentary, capturing the everyday life’s of people from all walks of life or social background. I will say, having done a little street photography, I can see how colour can at times be a distraction if all you are looking for is colour. You can’t look for colour alone, you need to keep the idea of framing and composition in mind as well. I find the taking of B & W Photography can be quite cathartic.

I think irony is used to challenge our own perceptions about what it is to be for example British or American. The stiff upper lip, the perceived reserved nature of the British is challenged in Martin Parr’s New Brighton Series for example.

Reference:

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