Wednesday, August 25, 2021

NoooOooOoo No!

Via ToP I see this article from Kenneth Wajda which asserts that a street photograph isn't any good unless the subject matter is, in some sense, arresting.

On the one hand, I am very subject-forward, philosophically. On the other hand, the piece underplays the role of form. Yes, he asserts that composition matters, but also that it's just basic table stakes. Wajda doesn't seem to think that a piece that is pure form can be street photography, and, somewhat weirdly, cites a long list of photographers all of whom are more or less famous for form over subject.

All of the people in his list have essentially the same skill, which is to see that something that would be banal to the eye becomes interesting when photographed, when framed and stilled. You could tap my on the shoulder and point to any damn scene Walker Evans shot and I'd shrug.

Cartier-Bresson, who Wajda thankfully does not cite, is the acknowledged master of the form over subject game, in a kind of quirky way, but they all did it.

What Wajda seems to be advocating, at least one the face of it, is not merely subject matter but obviousness. It is this, specifically, that I find objectionable. In broad terms, the non-documentary photographer's literal job is to show us something that is non-obvious. Now, to be fair, he's on to something. You can't just take a formally pleasing composition and expect greatness (cf. Ming Thein, and a jillion other less successful formalists), and anyways formally pleasing compositions are kind of a dime a dozen once you get your vision dialed in. Read the book on Miksang and you too can grind out a certain kind of thing endlessly.

There's something going on with Evans and Frank and Abbott and all those people that goes beyond the formal composition, but does not veer in to the "lookit that!" degree of the obvious. The point is that they saw things worth looking at, which were not necessarily obvious. Photographing these things made the thing they saw (?) more obvious. Winogrand took endless pictures of pretty girls, which pictures fall pretty much into the "lookit that!" category, and they're all pretty much in the bin, except the few where there's more to it than a pretty girl.

As Wadje points out, the edit is important. I have to say I was taken aback slightly by this, because this is possibly the most well-established thing ever in photography, but sure, it bears repeating. Which circles neatly around to issues around Winogrand and Maier, which I have gone on about at length in the past.

He is absolutely right that Street Photography as she is currently practiced is boring as shit. Street Photographers love pure form, in a small handful of idioms, and almost literally nobody else does. Ming had his fans who were almost 100% photographers, and was a complete zero outside that fan group for excellent reasons. He, and Eric Kim, and any number of others, are making pictures for photographers and nobody else. I am tempted to draw a line to any number of contemporary art forms, say Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism is, mostly, loved by people who love it because you're supposed to love it, because they are Serious Art Lovers, not because they see anything in it. Loving it is social signaling, in the same way that loving Street Photography mostly is. "I am part of your group, love me."

This is unfair to Abstract Expressionism, though. These painters were struggling with something, for the most part, trying to get something out and onto the canvas. Whether they succeeded or not is beside the point, they were trying. Your average modern Street Photographer isn't trying to get anything out. They are, like most photographers, trying to "make good photos" whatever that means. For Street Photographers this often means "follows fairly strict rules of form in one of a handful of idioms."

While it's not the only point of photography, it strikes me that street photography as normally construed, is fundamentally about showing us something that is interesting, but mainly after it is photographed. The fleeting moment, uninteresting as it fleets, which is interesting when stilled. The juxtaposition of random elements looks like nothing much in its context, which becomes interesting when carved out and placed into a rectangle. The gestalt which is nothing much in the moment, until reduced, stilled, and committed to the frame, where something interesting is revealed.

What Wadja seems to be describing as desirable is documentary photography, it seems to me. Look, there is something interesting, anyone can see that it is interesting, committed to the photograph that interestingness becomes available to more people. It is merely a record, a document, of what was already there, and does not particularly transform the event.

Not every photograph needs to transform its subject, but street, I think, does. Otherwise it's just documentary. Of, usually, really uninteresting material.

1 comment:

  1. Sigh. When any artist in any medium starts issuing formulas, prescriptions, proscriptions, edicts about the right way and/or wrong way of approaching creativity, their ego is getting waaay ahead of them. In effect, they are saying, 'You're doing it wrong. Do it my way, I got it all figured out.'

    I'm just going to say that Wajda seems to be fronting one of the most childish takes on what constitutes photographic interest: he wants to be entertained.

    I humbly propose he look to the Marvel Universe for his fix, not still photography.