On Genre Photography, December 26, 2022
Updated: Aug 5
This striking image is by the very talented Trent Parker, in 2007 the only Australian to become a member of the Magnum photo agency. 'Moving Bus', Sydney, 2003, is a complex photograph because it involves a passing bus casting shadows on figures on a sidewalk in Sydney. It's a beautiful play of contrasts.
It's also not a million miles away from this photo, 'Wall Street', New York, 1915 by Paul Strand. The dramatic use of perspective, the diminutive figures, the brooding architecture, the expressive shadows. Both photographers are masters of light. Then, let's look at the third image, an anonymous photo from a recent blog, 'How To Shoot Amazing Harsh Light Street Photos On iPhone':
What I'd like to suggest is that these images from 1915, 2003, and 2022 capture the trajectory of a certain kind of photography from photographic experiment to established genre. We could say that Paul Strand, under the influence of the master Alfred Stieglitz, invented this kind of street photography that emphases the smallness of humanity within the vast city by dramatic use of scale and light. This expressive form arose in New York, the first great modern metropolis, and remained a vital movement there for half a century. By the 1980s, there was no longer a market for this kind of work and 'serious' New York photographers were doing other things. The great street photographer Gary Winogrand (whose work had a different emphasis owing more to Robert Frank) lamented that "our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves." This has been interpreted as a statement about the American malaise, but I think it is also an epitaph for a movement that had run its course.
But had it? Every second amateur photographer now aspires to make images like Strand or Winogrand, as demonstrated by the third image from an iPhone tutorial. A radical invention, that had a long and relevant life recording the rise of the modern city, has become a genre, a set of conventions that anyone can learn. At the same time, the means for doing so has become available to everyone; in fact smartphones are DESIGNED to promote photographic genres: from the choice of lens (almost always the classic street photography 35mm lens) to filters that mimic classic looks (grainy B&W, say, or lately Teal and Orange to mimic a popular Hollywood movie look).
So where does Trent Parker sit? His work is collected by the National Gallery and he is a member of the world's most prestigious photo club. He's no amateur; technically his work is stunning; it's just not very original. It has a 'look': a Magnum look, invented by photographers more than half a century past. To remain relevant, Parker has to work incredibly hard. 'Moving Bus' took him days, lying on a pavement shooting nearly four thousand negatives. Parker has to work this hard because he has a million iPhone users chasing his tail, aided by algorithms that automate the process of making images much like his.
Consider the difference to the last image, Henri Cartier-Bresson's 'Behind the Gare de Saint-Lazare', Paris, 1932. Cartier-Bresson was the pioneer of another street photography sub-genre, the capture of human drama through timing and composition. He took this photo by sticking his Leica through a hole in a construction hoarding, unable to compose or even see what he was shooting. It's a lucky snap, in a way. I'm not being patronising: Cartier Bresson hated the grind of taking lots of images and avoided the darkroom. My point is, there is a time when a new kind of photography is so fresh, you can get away with taking risks. But that time passes; if you're a Trent Parker you have to work damn hard; if you're the rest of us, the iPhone will do it for you.