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'Pure' "snapshot" photography has always been the easiest entrance into the world of "personal" photography. The social interest of the subject in combination with the legendary speed of the photographer’s reflexes and the freezing of movement, all capture the interest of both the novice photographer and the visually uneducated audience. The teacher of photography also knows that a student will have greater ease in ‘accepting’ a journalistic style of photographer than one with a static subject matter, whose work gives rise to many more questions about the rationale of photographic intervention.

This type of photography is characterised as "street photography" which is an arbitrary and confusing term covering an exceptionally diverse range of photographers. The only characteristic that they have in common is that the majority of their shots are in the snapshot style. Of course, in the interest of broader communication, we are all often obliged to use this term that, in fact, has become established. There are representatives of "street photography" whose work is of high artistic merit and, consequently, of compound artistic proposal. For this reason, such quick acceptance of their work is suspicious, probably hiding an extemporary and superficial approach, having more to do with the journalistic style and social content of the subject matter and not with the fundamental artistic proposals that it makes. The photographic work of Cartier-Bresson, Kertész, Frank or Winogrand requires deeper and more careful study in order to be understood beyond the first apparent or thematic approach. It requires at least as much attention as the work of other theoretically more impenetrable photographers such as Evans, Atget or Sander. Moreover, the formula has been mistaken for the artistic dimension of an otherwise self-existent subject. In other words, for a large number of photographers and an even larger number of spectators, Winogrand is characterised by crooked frames, Cartier-Bresson by frozen movement, Frank by the grain of the film or unfocused internal spaces and the entire Magnum agency by ultra-wide-angle lenses. Despite the fact that these observations are not lacking in truth, it is not correct that they be generalised and turned into recipes. A more careful study of the work of the great representatives of "street photography" will show us that the form varies fundamentally from one photographer to the other and this, from the outset, creates a distinctive and substantial content. The form is then nothing more than the syntax and grammar of a personal poetry.

The widespread view that street photography is about geometric composition has led even an estimable Greek photographer to make, what is in my opinion, a mistaken observation. In a magazine interview some years ago he claimed that street photography has a great deal to do with form and that is why it developed in Europe with its cobbled streets and old buildings. He further wondered how street photography was possible on Lekkas or Praxitelous streets.[1]

Similar viewpoints have led photographers in this country either to eschew street photography, because they consider that it represents a completely superficial photographic language, able to be expressed by anyone in possession of a wide-angle lens and perhaps a motor-drive, or else to reproduce, with depressing monotony, exactly that which a wide-angle lens and a motor-drive are able superficially to express.

In art, however, what seems easier is essentially more difficult. So, let not new photographers all over Greece suppose that the opportunistic bombardment of their unsuspecting and defenceless social environment will provide them quickly and easily with interesting photographs and a personal artistic style. More often than not, they will end up with a selection of folkloric or humoristic snapshots, which will be to artistic photography what witticisms are to literature.

If, however, these new photographers were to study the great "street photographers" they would ascertain the following: Firstly, that most often, their subjects are of no real interest beyond the relationship they bear to the photographic (and not the actual) event and furthermore to the overall work of the photographer. Thus, it should not surprise us that a photographer such as Robert Doisneau, who is clearly inferior to Cartier-Bresson, should have a plethora of pictures of noteworthy originality, which bear witness to an investigative ability and side-splitting humour. By contrast, Cartier-Bresson’s photographs cannot be described due to the absence of any thrilling details and yet, despite this, they show an incomparably more original and interesting approach to the world and to the photographic medium than do those of Doisneau.

Secondly, that for all these photographers, the process of taking photographs is directly related to the result (as moreover happens with all forms of photography) and that this process demands daily devotion to the subject and many metres of film and not seasonal employment, something that might suit another style and form of picture. One can create great work like Sander working at sparse but regular intervals, but one cannot create great work like Kertész if the camera does not become an extension of ones body. This is not a notable judgment of one or the other version of photography, but simply an observation that each photographic work has a process that fits it.

Thirdly, that the choice of lens, of style of printing, of high or low angle shot is less arbitrary than it seems. With all great photographers these elements (whether they just happen or are decided upon in advance) make up a personal view of the world and not an opportunity to impress the more susceptible (or more uninstructed) sector of the public.

Of course, it is worthwhile for new photographers to undertake "street photography" which has so significantly been bequeathed to us. Only, they should do it with the seriousness, the dedication, the perseverance and the knowledge that it deservedly demands. An acknowledgement of its difficulties will lead to more mindful work and will rid us of the boring repetitions of "photographic moments" which are nothing more than a simple description of insignificant events or indifferent beauty. New photographers must realise that there is no event so significant or a beauty so absolute that it deserves to be photographed. They draw their worth from the flux of the life they are part of. Merely isolating them is not sufficient in itself to add a value equivalent to the life denied them. The photographer must realise that a "photographic moment" is different from a "life moment", and that if the desired metamorphosis is not achieved through his own intervention then there is no photograph beyond the pale imitation of life. Moreover, to attempt to create interest by calling on the real life significance of those portrayed betrays, finally, an artistic vulgarisation of uncertain outcome.

Great photographers (whether street photographers or others) have succeeded giving birth to their photographs, even though it mistakenly appears, as in the pictures of Cartier-Bresson or Kertész, that they discovered them. Without their presence what is portrayed would be completely devoid of interest. In the process of this metamorphosis, it is certain that form also plays a leading role without in itself being obvious or isolated. Besides, there is no good photograph, of whatever kind, without dynamic form. It is putting an unwarranted and arbitrary burden on "street photography" to lumber it with a formulisation that it can neither lay claim to nor justify. In all forms of photography, a bad photographer is one who provocatively reveals the garment of the photograph leaving the content bare. On the contrary, a skilful photographer is one who transforms the garment, in other words the form, into content, so that the viewer is unable to remove it (and the imitator to replicate it.)

However, another confusion that works against "street photography" is that which equates it with photojournalism. This also harms the latter since it imposes on it an unnecessary demeanour. We must stress here that photojournalism is nothing more than an applied form of photography with specific goals, some humanitarian, which it must certainly serve, among which are to report and inform. The fact that it deals with subjects or moves in circles related to those of artistic street photography should neither surprise us nor lead us to comparative judgements. Else we should consider the booth for automatic passport photographs a colleague of Sander and the compilers of police reports equal to Dostoyevsky (since the latter frequently described criminal acts). Unfortunately, however, new photographers confuse their ambition for recognition through journalistic publications and their desire to alter the unsatisfactory status quo with aspiring to resemble the greats of "the street". Sooner or later recognition will fade, though initially it satisfies, change will prove as always to be a fraud and what will remain is the illusion of imitating the greats, which will in itself recede in view of the evermore serious dictates of career. Thus the moment will arrive when the new photographer will realise that it is impossible to kill two birds (much less three) with one stone, and that it is preferable to clearly pursue success of a single aim.

Then we will be rid of the current supposedly artistic photography of newspapers and magazines. In other words, the following view will recede: for a good journalistic photograph we choose black and white film, preferably high grain, we use a Leica, if our finances permit it, a wide-angle lens, at least a 28mm, or even better a 24mm, or if we are at a loss, 21mm, we make sure that at least one disproportionately sized element intrudes into the foreground, such as a hand, a gun, a head, etc., while a plethora of other information (?) crowds the frame, based on the principle that the more there is and the more disordered it is the better. It will be replaced by the view that: the photojournalist has something specific to say and he should say it quickly, clearly, effectively, with good taste and distinction.

Then new photojournalists will understand that they are not leaving behind them a work of art, as an artist would, but a style of professional conduct identical to that of the journalist, the quality of which will be determined by the sum of their good articles (which in any case, never constituted literature). It is precisely then that these new photographers will realise that the photographs that made the abovementioned photographers famous could never accompany a journalistic text other than after an extremely arbitrary and distorted reading of them. Their photographs do not speak of subjects that are specific and, to an even lesser degree, interesting in the real world, but of moments, personal to the photographer, in the photographic world. This is exactly what gives particular value to what would otherwise be an insignificant crossroad in a work by Kertész, or an otherwise insignificant signpost in a work by Evan, or an otherwise insignificant chimpanzee in a work by Winogrand. The form, sometimes more or less obvious, but always present and always dynamic, sets the content. It neither replaces it nor drowns it.

We should also note here another misconception held by photojournalists far and wide, which is that form works independently of content and not in equilibrium with it. If, however, they are faced with a charged subject in real life, one of those that it is extremely difficult to transpose to fragments of the photographed world (beyond the issue off whether or not there exist reasons for doing so), then the form that they adopt should be discreet and make use of the subjects own power. They should not try to compete with it with form nor try to add formulistic tension to the existing one. W. Eugene Smith could provide a lesson for many of our contemporaries, especially in the handling of charged subjects, such as the mental home in Haiti or the Pacific war. On the contrary, today’s photographers will handle an everyday street scene, which they are called upon to make interesting by their own intervention, in the same way as they would a starving child or a wounded soldier. In the latter instance the ingenious photographer would use form to lessen his own presence.

Consequently, if new photographers were to regard artistic creation as separate to the dictates of their professional career (opportunities for combining the two come as happy coincidences rather than as the rule), if they were to realise that each subject requires its own form and that that does not in itself guarantee an interesting photograph, and finally, if they were to understand that street photography describes the photographer’s obsessions rather than moments in the world, then we would acquire both better photojournalists and more significant artists.


[1] Lekkas and Praxitelous streets are narrow, grey, commercial streets in central Athens.