Significant Fact…or Insignificant Flicker?

“I capture reality but never pose it. But once captured, is it still reality?” – RIchard Kalvar, ‘Street Photographer

Having had looked at lots of it over the years, I’ve concluded there are three types of ‘Street Photography’: 1) photos of people on the street (go to any popular photo forum – and a lot of street specific websites – and you’ll see endless variations of this); 2) gimmicky photos of people in public spaces e.g people caught in awkward poses or fallen in the street etc; or 3) photos that attempt to say something about a person in the street, or something about the person’s relationship with someone else in the street, or or something about the person’s relationship with the built environment. (It helps as well if it also has a pleasing or interesting aesthetic i.e. it’s not completely dependent on its subject matter to generate interest). It’s only this latter type that holds any real interest…for me.

My problem with ‘street photography’ as it’s practiced by most is that it invariably falls into the first category – photos of people in the street that have no inherent interest beyond what they depict i.e. it’s just a picture of someone in the street. Below is my contribution (New York City, 2013): people in the street and not much more. While it may possess some marginal aesthetic interest, it doesn’t say anything. At most it relies on a gimmick, the juxtaposition of three people looking three different ways. So what. As a younger photographer, less aware of the subtleties that create real interest in a photo, I’d likely have picked it out and published it. Hey, look at my photo of people on the street!

New York City, 2013

Compare it with the photo below (Edinburgh, 2015). The two photos make for an enlightening juxtaposition. Same formal aesthetic – three people on the street similarly positioned. From a textbook perspective, the Edinburgh photo is a failure – bad framing, no faces. Yet, to me, the photo has a power the New York photo doesn’t, something about those rumpled clothes that talk about the lives of the people who wear them. You don’t need their faces to read into the photo a deflating reality about about the people shown; it’s there in their clothes, goods that promise so much while in the shop window but look like this once we’ve fallen for consumerism’s conjuring tricks.

Edinburgh, 2015


New York City, 2013

A larger question is whether street photography can be ‘documentary.’ The legitimacy of ‘street photography’ is premised on the assumption that capturing a millisecond of arrested time in an image can reveal something true. Art critic Lincoln Kirsten thought this debatable. “The candid camera is the greatest liar in the photographic family, shaming the patient hand-retoucher as an innocent fibber. The candid camera with its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth, its visions of clipped disaster, presents an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real fact of what is going on than to explode it…It drugs the eye into believing it has witnessed a significant fact when it has only caught a flicker.” That kid above: did the camera catch something meaningful, or is that just a throwaway glance the camera insists is something more?

So, assuming we’re talking about interesting street photography of the third type, can we say that what’s being shown us is truthful, or is it trickery, an artificial reality created by the camera isolating in time something that requires a larger temporal context to be represented accurately?

Edinburgh, 2015

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15 thoughts on “Significant Fact…or Insignificant Flicker?

  1. Rob Campbell

    Other than the depressing thought that you have just described Edinburgh, a city I’ve only visited twice or perhaps three times in my life, almost exactly as I view the whole country, I want to say again that I think you have a very good eye and an obvious facility with this sort of photography.

    So what do we see here, what form of reality? Do we witness a particular nationality, or is it more that the camera is attracted to that specific kind of people, perhaps a demographic that lends itself to visual messages of sorry living and projections of not much hope for brighter futures? It was the same for me with Glasgow, a place I knew too well to love, where even successful people often struck me as kinda unhappy and wishing they were somewhere else. There was always that dream of going on holiday, perhaps but another word for escape. I think that my belief of the prevalence of this national characteristic is supported to some extent by the manner in which the Scottish Nationalist Party has flourished: it fails at pretty much everything it touches, yet is supported by about half the sub-nation that sees it as some escape from an imaginary tyranny from south of the border, whereas the dreamed of escape is actually from the self-created status quo of the people living there. Separation would only focus attention on the then lack of excuse for being in exactly the same condition as at present.

    There is an uncanny dissonance in the Scottish press, especially in the forums that some newspapers provide, where the obvious similarities between a Scottish independence and Brexit, and the clearly visible consequences of those choices are absolutely denied. The majority wishes it were still part of the European bundle of benefits, but nonetheless craves opting out of Great Britain, expressing exactly the same madness where punching your best customer in the face exists in both situations, and appears to be the main objective.

    I would be interested to see a collection of photos from the same author, you, shot in Rome, Naples or Madrid, and discover whether or not the same kinds of visibly miserable people turn up, or whether it is indeed a characteristic of the colder north. Would a better-dressed society emerge, or would southern poverty look exactly the same? Somehow, I don’t think that it would.

    Who says photos don’t tell a story or ask a question or two?

  2. Rob Campbell

    Just something I forgot to mention: in the lower photograph, the girl on the point-of-sale ad in the window: how tragically huge the disconnection between the look she projects and the reality of everyday life… Never having been there, I wonder how the imagery in Times Square squares with the reality in the actual city; the Marlboro Cowboy that shows up in many classic Americana contexts always strikes me as believable and part of the ethos, not of NY of course – but I suppose one never knows – but of the country as a whole. It’s totally convincing, where Morris dancers and highlanders in kilts, bagpipies under both arms, are not.

    It’s truly something born of scale: songs about Route 66 make sense, whereas a song about the M1 or M25 in England would be just ludicrous. Perhaps it’s also much to do with a sense of history in the making.

  3. Hank

    The Edinburgh photo is my favorite – the rest are in the look and move on category. The Edinburgh photo made me stop and look. Twice.

    I believe it was (or became) Friedlander’s thing to rely on what the camera “sees” to produce “complexity” and “interest”. I agree it is fascinating that humans have focused seeing and cameras have truly democratic seeing. Intellectually, I find that prospect quite stimulating, but emotionally, I find (most) of the resultant photos to be meh. Occasionally, what the camera “sees” is truly remarkable; most of the time…well, there’s a reason we evolved to have exclusionary, focused sight.

    Much of Meyerowitz and Eggleston fall into this genre. When the photos are more focused, the results are more to my liking.

    Which is a long winded way of saying that street photography is really hard, and rarely successful.
    Also – We can’t expect the camera to do the heavy lifting for us. Or, as the saying goes, “certain rules do apply”.

  4. Rob Campbell

    Eggleston has never succeeded, for me. Meyerowitz has a far greater online impact (again, IMO) derived from the way that he speaks. He has said that Arbus had this way of talking very softly, causing the person to come closer, to get sucked in. He uses that technique to effect, even on a screen.

    Speech aside, he has been very clever in using opportunity – such as 9/11 – and turning that into what looks like a personal crusade against “the man”, i.e., the Major of NY. I can almost recite the script about the confrontation with the female police officer. So much publicity, and that cements reputation.

    There are several other people that I could mention as being somewhat doubtful bearers of the street flag, but who cares what I think: the prints get bought, the books, too, and the groupies love it. It’s a game by invitation. I see far better street photography here on Leicaphilia than almost anywhere.

    Perhaps one of the questions that never comes off my back burner is this: what did all those famous street shooters do to survive before the gallery world turned them into golden geese, and also, though not directly connected, what the hell keeps Magnum afloat since the apparent death of photojournalism in the press?

  5. Dogman

    For those of us who grew up in the Southern USA in the middle of the last century, Eggleston surpasses all others (except maybe for Faulkner) in how he can provide the taste of The Deep South on the back of the tongue. Familiarity may breed contempt but it also breeds comfort. Eggleston is comfortably delicious for me.

    In my opinion, most street photography today is emulating the lesser photos of better photographers. Maybe too few are paying attention.

    To my eyes, the first “Edinburgh 2015” photo is transcendent. It gives more insight into human beings than a book of typical street portraits. And admittedly I am ignorant of more things than I am knowledgable, I was not aware of Richard Kalvar. I had to do a bit of research and ended up buying one of his books. Thanks, Tim, for costing me 50 bucks this morning.

    1. Dan Newell

      Have to agree on Eggleston, it’s a southern thing. My present wife is from New York and she’s pretty meh about his shots. My first wife was from the south and she liked them a lot. Me and mine are from Tennessee so it’ll ring some bells…..

  6. Rob Campbell

    I hear you two, but being of the south may not be enough to justify (as if he needed!) the work. Okay, location may ring bells, but is that really enough to make the pictures function as photos without proclaiming something else, an inner intangible that escapes me totally? Shouldn’t the pictures be able to cross land frontiers, too? I’m sure that in physical form they do, many of them, but it doesn’t save me from feeling it’s the clapping of foreign seals, rather than that any emotional contract’s being celebrated – lots of somewhat naked, colourfully influential emperors out there in the rest of the world?

    Sally Mann’s work is about Virginia – in more ways than one – and her pictures make much obvious use of landscape, but nonetheless, they don’t depend highy on location identity of the Virginian world that they so beautifully inhabit in order to be loved and understood. They just do it regardless.

    Her battlefield work, so different to “Family” should, pretty much by definition, be tied to specific locations which, on trust, I assume them to be, but it makes not a jot of difference (to me) if they are or are not: the treatment surpasses location – I think! But then perhaps this is all nothing more than subjective liking of style (hers) on my part, and a deep distrust of the vision of the other. Either way, she certainly is/was a beautiful woman which may just swing my emotional response to her oeuvre. Buy her autobiography; well worth reading.

    A thing that she accomplishes very well is mood: there’s video of her Southern landscapes out there on the Internet, and when I compare it with the colourful trash that graces so many calendars put out by my countrymen as they sell the heather, hills and moors concept of Scotland, like so many Technicolor St Ansels, my spirits sink, not for them, for they have done the same things for decades and it must sell if they continue to keep mining, but for the fact that the public doesn’t know that things could be done so very differently. It probably doesn’t even care.

    1. Dan Newell

      Being of the south is justification enough if we feel a memory stirring, that’s fine. Even if you don’t relate you do have to note the color combining much like your pics is excellent –

      Arches, Gold, Platinum & Emerald, Hot Slow Ride, Blue Stack, Crows Nest, I used to be a Cat, and High Rollers

      Of course I could have it all wrong says the clapping seal…..

  7. Dogman

    Sally is another of my favorites. Very romantic New Pictorial type photography. I love her landscapes as much as her family pictures. I do feel a little like some of her work is superficial, however. And I just could not get into her biography although I tried several times. Doesn’t matter. I still love her work.

    Nothing digs past the skin and into the meat of “the southern condition” (God, I hate such word tripe!) like Eggleston’s photo of the dog drinking from a red dirt mud puddle. Or the tackiness of Elvis’ Graceland and a ceiling painted blood red with extension cords running every which way. It’s a hard reality without one shred of romance involved.

    1. Rob Campbell

      Perhaps you have hit it on the head for me: romantic is what drives my mind, even when the pic delves into melancholy. The other side of the same coin, I think.

      Eggleston hasn’t a shred of emotion in my view, not in anything I can remember seeing. Robotic?

  8. Lee Rust

    “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.”

    I was thinking along these lines while watching the Ken Burns series on Ernest Hemingway over the past three nights on PBS. Hemingway was famous because he enjoyed writing stories and millions of people enjoyed reading them. Most of the stories incorporated elements of his rather interesting real life mixed with lots of pretend stuff, but in the end they were just collections of words that were fun to read and think about.

    Same with photographs… whether they be street, candid or carefully composed. Like Hemingway’s work there’s some actual facts in there and the rest is just made up, either by the viewer or by the photographer or both. They’re just shadows and light that we like to look at and think about.

    Of course, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are doing the exact same thing… carefully selecting subjective and ambiguous facts and images from a very complicated person’s life and work, then mixing them with plenty of made up stuff, mainstream attitudes, cultural clichés and opinionated interviews. But it seems so true! Ken Burns never lies!

    Nevertheless, I do love the way Burns has based so much of his cinematic style on the careful and unhurried exploration of still photographs… slowly panning and zooming around each image so we are compelled to examine closely rather than merely glimpse. This approach has had such a profound effect on the craft of moviemaking that it shows up as one of the default settings in my Adobe Premiere Elements editing program… “The Ken Burns Effect”.

  9. Dan Newell

    “a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real fact of what is going on than to explode it…It drugs the eye into believing it has witnessed a significant fact when it has only caught a flicker.”

    This reminds me of a three pic series my father took that fits the accidental revelations.

    We had family friends that stopped by my fathers farm for lunch and a chat. The husband had prostate cancer that had metastasized to the bone and he had about three months left.
    My father had the husband stand underneath a big oak shade tree in the front yard and took three pics of him from different angles. The camera was a K1000 with a 35mm on Ektachrome. It looked like he had it set at about 5.6.
    The remarkable result is that a set of rainbow colors were shooting up from the top of his head. The colors were pretty well defined but not overly saturated. This color profile was consistent in all three shots. I would say the length of the colors extended about a foot and a half and then faded progressively.

    After my father got the shots back he said “look at this” and layed them out. There wasn’t much to say but “wow”. I haven’t gotten many wow shots but I’m still looking.

  10. Rob Campbell

    Above, a rather desperate attempt to imbue what is, IMO, purely record photography with the holy mantle of art.

    It’s not that I dislike colour – I love Leiter – but perhaps if Mr E. were to attempt to transform some of his shots into black and white, he might find something to work on that would look better? I don’t really subscribe too strongly to the theory that one must always shoot colour and b/white differently; yes, for commercial work separation of tones can be vital, but with snaps, it doesn’t much matter, one way or the other. Shoot what excites your eyes and see how it looks photographed, as one G.W. was wont to say.


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