A lot of Street Photography is third-rate

I have been seeing a lot of re-tweets on Twitter from photographers going all gooey-eyed about other photographers’ street photography. I always follow the links on these tweets to take a look for myself.

Often I am not in the least bit impressed by what I see. I feel I am looking at the Emperor’s clothes – they don’t exist, but no-one seems to have the guts to say so.

street photography in ParisThere seems to be – over the last few years – a trend towards utter lack of good composition, a disregard for the substance and meaning of the subject, and a view that poor timing when pressing the button doesn’t matter in the least.

On that last point, I am left with the sense that this lowering of standards is, in part, due to a delusion that capturing ‘any’ moment is all that counts rather than capturing ‘the’ moment. What amazes me is that some of these photographers actually make a living from this third-rate photography. If these photographers were just keen amateurs then I could forgive them. But many are not. They call themselves professionals – and that’s when I think it’s time someone actually said something.

A great deal of modern street photography is third rate dross.

There, someone’s said it at last!

I will try to illustrate my point by showing two of my street photographs that never saw the light of day. They were both taken on commission with The Sunday Times. One in Paris, the other in Cadiz.

I never printed them or put them with the collection of work presented to the newspaper because I did not feel they came up to scratch.

The timing of the Cadiz shot is just a little out – the man has moved a fraction too far to the right. My fault.

Street Photography SpainThe figure of running child in Paris has got confused with the rubbish bin behind. My fault.

Result – dump both images. These pictures were overs – not fit for purpose. It’s that approach that keeps up standards.

Oh, and while I’m having a good old rant, I read today that one ‘street photographer’ advice was not to photograph ‘down-and-outs’ because if you do you will be taking advantage of misfortune and leaving yourself open to accusations of being too ‘arty’.

What a complete load of dribble. Street photographers should never turn away from any subject that is visually interesting.

And photographing just anybody, simply because they happen to be in the street is not enough. There should always be either – a strong visual reason for taking the picture, or the image with tell a story. Hopefully your pictures will always fit both criteria. In other words, it will have meaning.

If you would really like to learn the art of good street photography, get yourself along to Menorca in September – there are two places left on the Photography Holiday. I will show you exactly how to achieve really high standards.

PHOTOGRAPHY HOLIDAYS

Comments

  1. Philip says:

    Good for you Janys

    Street Photography is without doubt the most rewarding of subjects – it needs all a photographer’s skills. I’m delighted to hear you are enjoying it.

    Simon, the street photographer who shies away from any form of visually interesting street photography will only ever be blinkered and limited.

    Let’s keep our minds and eyes wide open.

  2. Janys Lomax says:

    Dear Philip

    I’m very much a beginner at ‘street photography’ but am finding more and more that my pictures which include people are the ones which excite me most and are always the most challenging. I feel very pleased to be able to go out and actually have the guts to take pictures in the street which is a challenge in itself. So far I have found people to be accepting of the fact that I am doing it. I think we all have a built in sense of what might be invasive and I quite simply would not want to encroach on anyone’s privacy, but there are many situations where photography is acceptable and often people actually like it.

    I gained confidence in Southern Italy recently and it sounds rather similar to what you describe in Menorca. London is more of a challenge and I have yet to capture anything really worthwhile here, but that doesn’t stop me from going out and continuing to try. I think most of the barriers are my own, rather than coming from the people I would like to photograph.

    The other difficulties I have are with not being quick enough. I have used my camera manually right from the start (only 18 months now) but am now thinking that shutter priority is the way to go with street pictures. I’m pretty slow in assessing what I need to do. Also the decisions about exposure and focus are hard to make when time is limited.

    It’s not easy at all, but I would far rather go out and make all the mistakes than stick to safe shots which I know I can do, and if I do get something then it’s so very worthwhile.

    With best wishes
    Janys

  3. Simon Thardy says:

    Philip,

    An emotive subject, such as photographing people at the lowest point in their lives, many of whom often have mental and health issues, is likely to provoke an emotional response which, as in my case, will reveal itself through the language used.

    In much the same way, I feel that social and documentary photography should also provoke an emotional response in the viewer. I believe that to achieve this a photographer should photograph from the heart, rather than the head – and this is something where the vast majority of photographs of the homeless and destitute fall down. Most are just ‘cheap shots’ of an easy subject, which are then plastered all over the internet with scant regard for the feelings of the person photographed, their relatives and loved ones. One wonders how those taking such pictures would feel to see themselves or their nearest and dearest depicted in such a way?

    I’ve raised this issue with some street photographers in the past, and many have said that they take such pictures to bring to the attention of society the plight of these individuals. But how many shots of homeless people have been taken over the last hundred years, and how much good have they really done, as we still have homeless and destitute people in today’s society. Others have told me that it ‘makes a good shot’ and will get them more views and kudos on websites such as Flickr. In which case, it begs the question as to how far society has advanced from the Victorian days where mental asylums were opened to the public to enable them to come and gawk at the inmates.

    Ultimately, we will probably never agree on this subject, but I do think it wrong to denounce the views of anyone who questions the morality of taking pictures such as this as “a complete load of dribble”.

    Simon

  4. Philip says:

    Thank you for your comment Simon.

    You are using very emotive language when you write of ‘packs’ of photographers and ‘machine gunning’ with cameras. You must be very unfortunate indeed to keep on seeing this sort of thing so often. In all my travels I have never witnessed photographers behaving like that – unless it was a bunch of hard-nosed pressmen fighting each other on a hot news story.

    Of course I do not condone bad behaviour.

    The art of street photography is to blend, observe, anticipate and – your word – empathise. Sometimes you should even get involved with your subjects. It is important to remember that you are not always ‘taking’ but often giving something as well. That ‘giving’ can be as simple as recognising that a person is worth photographing; worth your time. I have lost count of the number of people from all walks of life who have kept in touch over the years after I have photographed them in the street.

    I’ve been invited into people’s homes, had drinks bought me in cafes and made many acquaintances and friends.

    It’s all a matter of approach and sensitivity – in short, professionalism.

    I believe it is always best to follow your own convictions and not to be influenced by loud and aggressive people – they are ‘vexatious to the spirit’ and best avoided. So don’t be put off photographing ALL street subjects because you have seen some photographers behaving badly.

    … and you’ll be quite safe learning about street photography on one of my photography holidays or courses – you’ll learn how to do it properly and be enriched by the experience.
    Kindest regards
    Philip

  5. Simon Thardy says:

    Philip,

    Whilst I agree with your comments that the majority of so-called ‘street photography’ these days is third rate, I also empathise with the (small) minority of photographers who don’t photograph the homeless / down and out.

    Why? Well if you travel to any large city these days you’ll see packs of photographers wielding big DSLRs and huge zoom lenses ‘hunting’ for their homeless ‘prey’. I’ve actually seen fifteen or so of these photographers chase a homeless man down an alleyway, corner him in a doorway and then proceed to machine-gun off frame after frame whilst the poor chap was crouching down with his hands over his face pleading with them to leave him alone. When I intervened, I discovered that they were all on a photography course, and was even more shocked to find the ‘pro’ instructor there goading them on!

    Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident: I’ve witnessed similar behaviour a number of times, and quite frankly it makes me sick to the stomach to see photographers behave in this way. I sincerely hope that you don’t condone or advocate this approach or approaches similar on your photography courses. If you do, I for one shall never attend.

    Simon

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