I’ll never forget my early fascination with photography, and my thoughts and feelings about it. My small local library had a collection of books I supplemented with weekly visits to read the Amateur Photographer. One volume was a quaint instruction manual called How To Take Better Photographs by Ralph Hattersley. I wanted to be the good-looking young fella in the leather jacket, that turned out to be Hattersley’s son. I drooled over the young ladies, because I was adolescent and that’s what you do. There were one or two volumes by Andreas Feininger, a few technical manuals, and a few others one of which was by Kertesz. I especially enjoyed some snow shots by the latter and by a few others, wondering at the sensuality of the stark black and white image revealing shape, texture and form more beautifully than I’d ever seen. And as part of my education I learnt somewhere about Cartier-Bresson; I remember being in the library, the chair I was seated, fascinated by an Amateur Photographer article. Keep it simple, keep it hidden, keep it 50 mm only. And, maybe, get wonderful shots like he did.
Cartier-Bresson was perhaps more than any other the archetypal street photographer. In 2008, this genre of work has declined substantially. Almost every time I browse a photography magazine there’s a story about an arrest or confrontation. The last I read concerned a working professional, and an innocent amateur who eventually received an apology from the police. The situation is problematic, and photographers are rightly getting fed up with it. On the one hand the legal facts are it’s not an offence to photograph in public places. On the other hand, if you object to intervention you’re immediately in a situation both volatile and powerless. Piss them off, or make them more suspicious than they already are, and you might get arrested – not for whatever they suspect you of but for being, in the final analysis, merely obstructive.
That’s the first point, the current problem of taking a camera onto the streets and how others construe it. Street photography has been corrupted. Firstly by terrorist concerns, and secondly by concern for children. These are real issues; the problem is though that street photography comes under suspicion now when it shouldn’t. Our culture has changed, and it impacts on respectable photographic practise. This is partly technological, where digital equipment and the internet facilitates unacceptable and criminal activity. Technology has always done this; the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote on a subject called technological determinism which is essentially the premise that technology facilitates, conditions, and defines human behaviour. Technology does not discriminate against who uses it and how. A gun can defend you against a murderer or you can be one yourself; the internet allows you to communicate with friends and colleagues, or run unsavoury illegal activities. Digital photography is democratic and empowering because everyone can do it, which has a downside as well as a good side. This is essentially what innocent photographers are encountering: the sociological ramifications of technology and how it operates in society.
One basic and important factor for example, is the equipment you use and the impact it has on people. If you have a small point and shoot camera, you attract far less attention; I suspect the confrontations of recent years have been with photographers using DSLRs. Logically, the reverse should happen. One would accept there are indeed a small percentage of people (hardly ‘photographers’) up to no good, trying to do what they do surreptitiously. That means, avoid attention by waving a big camera and lens around publicly. That means, watch the people with small compact cameras. If I were up to no good, the last thing I’d do is use a big DSLR and big lens. Thus, suspicious reactions are being technologically determined based on irrational notions and fears – the fear of a big camera and the power it represents. All a big camera does is get better quality and you don’t need a 60mb digital file for criminal activity: you will not be publishing it and selling it through Waterstones.
It’s not an entirely dire situation; for example a colleague on my photography MA undertook a street photography project most interesting, in my view, for what it entailed rather than the results he got. He selected a few streets to document, posted letters though every door, met the community, contacted the police, and told them what he was doing and why, and in every possible way made himself transparent and open. Result? The people loved it; they felt someone was paying them some attention. But the value of that was essentially critical and theoretical rather than practical; the effort involved was very great. Street photography is more generally undertaken serendipitously and unexpectedly, without such prior planning: Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ involved no such thing.
There are other reasons for the decline of street photography, and in some respects they are more interesting than the above because the aforementioned issues are very topical and well known – apart from my reference to ‘technological determinism’ which locates the entire subject in a wider critical context. The notion of technological determinism in its wider sense underlies another significant factor: the urban architectural environment has changed substantially over the last few decades. We no longer have high streets where people buy daily provisions and chat with friends and neighbours. The activity of the street has been replaced with sanitised malls that are privately owned, don’t allow photography, and I suspect the social interaction has also changed and become less interestingly photogenic. Besides which, the mall itself is a bland environment not remotely interesting lacking the variation, character, and colour of the street. The same point applies to supermarkets, which again are now a dominant feature of the urban scene.
It’s possible the tradition of street photography has been conceptually exhausted, or perhaps the accomplishments of the past outweigh anything in the present. After Cartier-Bresson, what else is there? Nor does this diminish with age; quite the reverse. The images of Cartier-Bresson and a few others like Doisneau, have acquired an aura derived from nostalgia and romance. The fact is, many of those street scenes were as mundane as any you find in a modern city but they are in craftsman’s black and white, taken on iconic Leicas, and from another time and place which is now part of their mystique. There’s an underlying melancholy to photography, where it freezes what we know what can never be frozen or trapped in the facts of contingent life and mortality. The people Cartier-Bresson photographed are mostly no longer alive and we know that, subconsciously, when we look at them. We are looking at beautifully crafted ghosts, a reality that is not but suggests it hauntingly. A photograph is always past tense by saying this was so at this place and time; part of its fascinating power is how it makes a rhetorical statement about reality that we partially accept, with simultaneous poignancy undermined by the facts of life. Susan Sontag said photography is inherently surrealistic; in some respects it is innocently narcissistic in a curiously melancholy way: that this was so, never will be again, just like my life.
Another significant difference between society now and as it was fifty years ago is the fact of demonic celebrity culture. For professional photographers today, the photographs that sell are those depicting the famous or nearly famous. From the worlds of sport, film, politics, music, or simply because of their wealth: these images fill both public consciousness and all forms of printed and electronic media. Where are the poets, teachers, or farmers; the shop workers or anonymous figures from the street as mysterious as any Mona Lisa? The emphasis today is on celebrity photographs, signifying a cultural shift towards what Jean Baudrillard called the simulation: we no longer have authentic lives, but live in a mediated world filled with not only what Daniel Boorstin called the pseudo event, but a pseudo consciousness, life lived out through the image of others and the media. Even news photography is similar to soap opera, because we live in soap opera times. What happened to life on the street where we live, work, and play with other people like us? There was a humanism to Cartier-Bresson, a sense of the collective and a concern for the other with whom one identified authentically. Humanistic photography has declined. Take a look at the enormous photographic catalogue of Getty Images, recently sold for a sum even Bill Gates would worry about, and guess what kind of image predominates: pop stars or poets, politicians or interesting elderly folk buying vegetables. It’s very complex trying to theorise photography because it’s so ubiquitous it’s almost dilute, so various it has a thousand meanings not one. I think though the issue of street photography and its decline is a revealing subject not only for the relationship between photography and society, but also for how the latter has changed and what impact this has.