Last Updated on 11/22/2019 by Mark Beckenbach
Now more than ever, street photography has become cliché. But what’s the solution? And more importantly, do we need one?
In an article recently published on World Press Photo, writer Colin Pantall asks: Why photograph when every picture has already been made? It’s a great question that highlights the impact of both an oversaturated industry and hobby. Because nowadays, everyone is a photographer – especially with the rise of social media and the smartphone camera. In his piece, Pantall focuses on the impact cliché images have had on documentary photography and photojournalism, but I want to take a look at street photography; a genre many complain has become stale.
Social Media Isn’t the Problem; We Are
When you scroll through your Instagram feed, you would be forgiven for thinking you’ve been looking at the same image the entire time. That’s because, like most things, trends develop, and many photographers want to be part of the party. But platforms like Instagram never dictate what kind of images to make for street photography – the public did. They do this through likes and engagement. The more interaction a photo gets, the more the public is sending the message, “this is the kind of content we want to see.”
So what do photographers begin doing? Well, they emulate the work of successful street photographers. This copy-cat mentality is something I’ve commented on before. The Saul Leiter rip-offs taking minimalist street photos and slapping the same preset on them are a dime a dozen. And guess what? They continue to be successful and get plenty of coverage. So, to a certain degree, I get it. They crave validation and are choosing the quickest possible route to get it.
“People want validation; they want it now.”
But it’s not just photographers that are the problem. The public has also played its hand in ensuring street photography isn’t always as exciting as it once was.
Society Made Street Photography Cliché
In a 2018 discussion with The Guardian, street photography legend, Joel Meyerowitz spoke about how people on the streets today are glued to their smartphones. And he’s right. It’s rare to see people really let go in the present day. Instead, society walks around like zombies, lost in their screens, barely being present in the real world.
“Like everything in this world, things become stale and tired. Then before you know it, a genius comes in and creates something so left-field it completely rejuvenates the scene.”
The consequence of this is it’s more difficult to create something that’s going to stand out and grab the attention of the public. That increase in difficulty requires a certain kind of mentality and approach to making street photographs. It takes patience, pertinence, and the ability to be content with not getting a decent photograph for a considerable amount of time. This mindset seems to be missing in 2019. People want validation; they want it now.
Our Savior Will Come
Let’s be honest, if I had a groundbreaking solution to the over-saturated, overdone state street photography finds itself in, I wouldn’t be telling you. I’d be out there doing it, creating it, and awaiting my recognition as a game-changer in a scene that desperate for something fresh. But if it isn’t me doing it – and there’s a high chance it won’t be – it will certainly be someone else.
Like everything in this world, things become stale. Then, before you know it, a genius comes along and creates something so left-field it rejuvenates the scene. Street photography will have that genius. In the meantime, let’s not worry about those having their 15 minutes or the fact that many photographers are doing the same thing. They’ll fade away in time. Instead, let’s enjoy the process of creating, the buzz of being on the street, and the many photographers already making fantastic work.