Street Photography: form vs. content

December 18, 2012

When I first began taking photographs it was pretty simple. I would see somebody or something interesting on the street and I would take a picture, The camera was loaded with Tri-X and had either a 24, 28 or 35mm lens on it. I didn’t know I was doing street photography and they weren’t even calling it that then. I had no intention of creating artistic images and any concept of style was founded on content. I don’t think that Winogrand, Freidlander, Arbus, Levitt, Erwitt or any of the pioneers of the genre ever thought about creating artistic photographs. In this new blossoming of street photography slick style is much admired.

In the first year of the SPNP project certain modern SP clichés became evident. We have the “people juxtaposed against advertising posters”, and “pocket of light”, many iterations of feet photography including “feet with colorful shoes against yellow road stripes”, pigeons are a recurring theme and reflections in windows are always a good way to fulfill any brief.

I stopped doing the SPNC briefs because I don’t want to be under pressure to have to take a certain picture. I want to shoot what I want to shoot. This past year a quote by Winogrand is sitting on my shoulder like a conscience; “How do you keep from taking the same pictures over and over again?” He went on to add, “When I go out to shoot I don’t have pictures in my head. I frame in terms of what I want to have in the picture.” That sounds deceptively simple. But he didn’t say “Look for dramatic light” or “Use diagonals and bold shapes.” Perhaps it is the absence of a consciously applied style that has made Winogrand’s work so enduring and monumental.

I have spent the past couple of years experimenting (with color!) and trying to see where I fit in between the content driven style of the past and the artsy style of the present. It has proven confusing. A few months ago I came up with the idea that maybe what Winogrand was getting at when he asked how we get around taking the same pictures all the time was at its point, an absence of style. In other words, people, their behavior and the world we live in is so infinitely variable that all we really need to do is decide what we want in the photographic frame and that when we apply certain ”style” we are in effect, making pictures that look like others.

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Last year this photograph by OakT really captivated me and I continue to refer back to it. While seemingly simple in its presentation it resonates with humanity and carries the weight of daily existence we all face. It is more than just a photograph. It’s visual anthropology. I came across a quote by Joel Meyerowitz this week that is another arc in closing this whole circle of thought; “Over the years I have seen that photography is too often about the pictures only. To me it’s always been about ideas and the ideas that pictures generate.”

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4 Responses to “Street Photography: form vs. content”

  1. Sean Says:

    Mate, this article is terricific. I agree with you. The trap we often set up for ourself [unconsciously] is we become ‘formualeic’ [for want of better words] in our approach and output: and often it’s a consequence of the feedback we recieve. This lulls one into a lazy, safe, and stagnant comfort zone. To prevent this, we must acknowledge it as a reality, confront it, and continually challenge ourselves. Otherwise, we just behave like a ‘sausage machine’ that produces images which are ‘same, same, but slightly different’. This stymies our photographic development and maturation, and robs us of our primary endeavour is to be a good photographer we want to be…
    Sean

  2. graphicgreg Says:

    Happy that it struck a chord with you Sean. The pictures are out – we just need to let them find us 😉

  3. John Ellis Says:

    An article that I could have written – if I possessed your command of the subject matter. I fight to avoid these ‘SP tropes’ but do find that most instructions in SPNP/SPNC allow one to play one’s own content/form game. The repetition of styles that you talk about is, to a certain extent, depressing, particularly when the most widely-followed practitioners seem incapable of appreciating anything outside their preferred style.

  4. graphicgreg Says:

    Thanks for your feedback John. For someone like myself who came up with the documentary tradition o f SP this new artistic approach can be challenging, but also fun…I guess. Probably easier to hang on a wall to.


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