Are You A Street Photographer? by Peter Levitan

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I am trying to decide if I am a street photographer.

The two images above are from my recent trip to Venice Beach, L.A. to shoot my The People series. They were shot on the beach. They are still street photographs.

My concept of street photography is based on growing up with images from Cartier Bresson, Fan Ho, Joel Meyerowitz, more recently with Vivian Maier and the truly awful Bruce Gilden (how about fame built on running up to strangers and sticking a flash in their face. Sound like a fun day out on the streets?)

A Question…

Are my isolated, composed street-portraits street photography? Is using a portable studio street photography? Do street photographs have to be candid? I don’t hunt for or ‘catch’ the great shot – I make it with my subject. OK?

I am not sure if I really care all that much about the definition itself. But - Big But… the sheer ubiquity of the term street photography - Google has 6,300,000,000 results for “street photography”, there dozens of street photography articles and books - means that many people seem to care. So, lets go.

A few photography websites use the Wikipedia definition as a starting point. Here you go:

Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places. Although there is a difference between street and candid photography, it is usually subtle with most street photography being candid in nature and some candid photography  being classifiable as street photography. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment.

Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.

Just for the hell of it, here is my rather abbreviated definition.

Simply put, street photography is made in public spaces - any public space (well, maybe outside). The images may or not include people. Street photographs do not have to be candid (and appear to live in a gotcha moment). There can be photographer to subject interaction.

The People

My portrait series The People is street photography. It is a very controlled system but is street nonetheless.

I shoot on the street – examples are L.A.’s Venice Beach; in front of a Selma Alabama Walmart; hanging out in Shanghai China’s People’s Park and San Miguel de Allende Mexico side streets.

I ask my subjects to stand in front of a portable white background.

My subjects are chosen at random - well, I actually choose them.

I interact with the subjects.

More Street Photography Definitions

Here are a couple of additional definitions. Just food for thought.

"I only know how to approach a place by walking, for what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner."

Alex Webb

 “I think this is the most controversial point I will bring up in this article. I personally don’t think that street photography has to be candid. I think that the best street photographs are the candid ones– but I don’t think that it needs to be a necessary element.

I think in street photography there are now lots of sub-genres as well.

I feel that we have candid street photography (what I might classify as “classic street photography”- think Henri Cartier-Bresson), street portraits (focused mostly on portraits of people on the street, instead of the environment– either with or without permission like Diane Arbus or Bruce Gilden), urban landscapes with or without people in them (think Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Joel Sternfeld, etc), still life street photography (think Martin Parr or William Eggleston), or socio-documentary street photography (think Bruce Davidson).

Erik Kim

What Is Staged Street Photography?

“The definition of staged street photography may differ depending on who you speak to. The hardened street photographer may suggest any kind of manipulation (including editing) of reality is staged and not authentic. Whereas the more relaxed street photographer may see it as a scene that is played out with ‘actors’, the positioning is set up and then the image is sold as a completely off-the-cuff street photograph. Personally speaking, I learn more towards the latter definition of the term.”

Phoblographer

Gary Winogrand, Color Photography and The Projectors by Peter Levitan

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Ah, The Projectors. Nice To Get Past Photography Show Installation Sameness.

I am heading to New York in a couple of weeks and am excited to see the new Gary Winogrand show at the Brooklyn Museum. I stress new because the show includes a series of rarely seen color work.

And, since I show my work on LCD projectors (and soon video monitors), I am looking forward to seeing the installation, which includes a large room full of ceiling-mounted LCD projectors.

Using projectors is a rather smart idea for this show given that projectors and Kodachrome (Gary’s film) are like peanut butter and jelly. I am expecting a big “WOW”.

That the Gods of photography at the Brooklyn Museum have gotten past showing even more matted and framed prints is a nice thing. Much of the time, the sameness of photography exhibitions aims the work squarely at boring. Sure, a ‘framed’ show shows the work, and framed isolation is a direct way for the viewer to see the photographs up close and personal. However, too many shows follow the same been-there-done-that pattern.

Photo Show = white room + eye-level prints + black frames + quiet.

No, not every photo show uses this format. But, it is like, um, easily 90% of the installations. A current New York photography show that will demonstrate the art of sameness is the concurrent Mapplethorpe show at the Guggenheim. I do realize that since the work is old and was printed by Maplethorpe, or under his direction, prints-in-black-frames is the way to go this time. That said, beyond the power of the work, how it is presented is kinda… meh. I can understand that the tried and true works for older photography.

Why repeat this format for fresh photographs?

Alex Martinis Roe “To Become Two” at ar/ge kunst

Alex Martinis Roe “To Become Two” at ar/ge kunst

For comparison, shows of video work, which by nature, are often shown on TV’s and TV monitors (old and new) have always strived to add an element of 3D surprise. Peruse how galleries show the video work of Nam June Paik and Alex Martinis Roe to see what I mean.

I see no reason why today’s photographers cannot go kinetic as well. Possibly, it is because the majority of photographers do not think hard about the exhibition experience – an end game -  or are so wrapped up in Instagram that once an image is shot and posted, it is time to move on.

Thanks to The Phoblographer for the review of the Winogrand show.

Also a big thank you to the curators – who are too often way behind the scenes:

Garry Winogrand: Color is curated by Drew Sawyer, Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator of Photography, Brooklyn Museum, with Michael Almereyda and Susan Kismari.

Which Is It? Photography, Visual Anthropology or Ethnography? by Peter Levitan

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Which Is It? Does It Matter?

I have been on definition kick. I recently wrote about the definition of “photographer.

Photographer is a term that has been diluted. Diluted by the ubiquity of digital cameras and mostly by the zillions of mobile smartphone users who took, get this, 1.2 trillion photographs in 2017. According to the statistical website statista, 85% of all photographs were taken with smartphones, 10.3% by digital cameras and 4.7% by tablets. “Traditional camera” usage and sales are in the dumpster. Why buy a sophisticated digital camera when you already have one in your pocket? I’ll talk about the declining health of the digital camera market in a later post.

What Do I Call What I Am Doing?

If you go beyond this photography blog and deeper into my website (for example my Selma, Alabama work), you will see that I have been travelling to make portraits of people in different locations. My goal is simple, if a bit grandiose, and egomaniacal.

Make more photographic portraits of more people across more continents that ever done.

Getting past egomaniacal, I started this series in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, my current hometown (I am a three-year full-time expat). I went out on the streets and local towns with a portable white sheet background and two assistants. The goal was two-fold. First, do a survey of my neighbors and community (check out the dedicated series website, La Gente). Second, I plan on mating these initial Mexican images with portraits of people that I make around the world. After Mexico I shot in Selma, Alabama and L.A.

The master point of the series is that we humans are more similar than not - that the current state of nationalism, anti-immigrant and general fear of the other is bullshit and harmful to mankind.

We are more similar than not.

Is using a camera to show cultural similarities (or differences) plain old photography or is this anthropology?

After I made 150 plus portraits of Mexicans, I asked a very serious anthropologist friend if my work was photography or anthropology. I was, after all, attempting to record people from every continent to show our global kinship – i.e. kids, parents, hipsters, worshipers, street merchants, business people and on. My goal isn’t to make art, though some of the portraits might wind up as art – another term that requires some definition.

My bottom line goal is to survey. To meet people. To travel. To share the portraits. To open some eyes.

The word anthropology conjures up an image of Margret Meade (and, OK, for some of you, the apparel retailer Anthropologie). I’ll stick with the original. Here is a description from Meade’s Wikipedia page for those of you who were not around in the 1960’s and 70’s when she was becoming famous.

Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. She earned her bachelor's degree at Barnard College in New York and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. Mead served as President of The American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1975.

Mead was a communicator of anthropology in modern American and Western culture and was often controversial as an academic. Her reports detailing the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures influenced the 1960s sexual revolution. She was a proponent of broadening sexual conventions within a context of traditional Western religious life.

The deal is that Meade, with her time in exotic Samoa and controversial writing, was my generation’s face of anthropology.

What Is Anthropology?

Here are a couple definitions of anthropology and related terms. I believe that it is important to at least understand the terms as they relate to today’s street photography, journalism, documentary work and portraiture. Of course, we can go a bit overboard here. However, many serious photographers clearly act as anthropological “observers’. After you read the definitions, it is not hard to think of many photographers, think Bruce Davidson, Catalina Martin-Chico and Platon, as being some form of anthropologist, especially visual anthropologists.

Visual Anthropology or Ethnography?

To keep things simple and consistent, I’ll use Wikipedia definitions again.

Anthropology

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. 

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology is a branch of anthropology focused on the study of cultural variation among humans. It is in contrast to social anthropology, which perceives cultural variation as a subset of the anthropological constant.

Cultural anthropology has a rich methodology, including participant observation (often called fieldwork because it requires the anthropologist spending an extended period of time at the research location), interviews, and surveys.

Visual Anthropology

Visual anthropology is a subfield of social anthropology that is concerned, in part, with the study and production of ethnographic photography, film and, since the mid-1990s.

Ethnography

Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.

Back To Me

“Peter, are you a photographer?”

After thinking hard about this question, my current answer is… I am a visual anthropologist or, maybe better, visual ethnographer — I think that I can say this because I am very focussed on my The People series. Photographer is too broad and amorphous. Anthropologist is too academic.

So, after all of this navel-gazing, it might not matter for now what the hell I call myself (certainly not that important until I make my 1,000 plus portraits).

Then I can go back to really being egomaniacal.

By the way, I just went to Amazon to buy John Collier’s 1967 “Visual Anthropology: Photography As A Research Method”. John taught photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and somehow I didn’t attend his class despite his methodology being where my head is at today. I’ll write a review of the book sometime.