Archivi categoria: critique

Is Street Photography Killing Itself?

Is the most egalitarian form of photography, ‘street photography’, being destroyed by its own popularity? Is such a thing even possible? I won’t profess to have a clear answer to this question, but I do have some thoughts. Those thoughts may turn into a rant, but I’ll try to contain myself!

Egalitarian = good, right?

This question hits right at the heart of photography and, most specifically, digital photography. If something is easy, more people will do it. The more people doing it, the more ‘cultivated talent’ there will be (which is a good thing). However, there can be a cost: the dross can become overwhelming.

Street photography is easy for everyone to engage in. If you have a camera and are able to access public areas, you can shoot street photography. While this sounds great, I can’t help but feel something of a massacre is taking place. Cameras have become optical machine guns, mowing down everyone and everything with carefree abandon.

The problem, as I see it, is exacerbated by a particular catalyst: for want of a better word, it is ‘cool’. When something is fashionable in this way, the self-image can become the real target, rather than the photograph itself.

So what has ‘coolness’ done for street photography?

It has clouded judgment, that’s what it has done. Some photographers evidently struggle to see past their excitement at indulging in this fountain of cool. Twenty years ago, to pull this off, you had to tote a film camera around and go through all the palava of changing rolls, developing them, faffing with lightboxes, checking contact sheets and making prints. If a person was prepared to go through all of this inglorious hassle, there was a very good chance they were reaching a bit deeper, within and without.

Now, in the digital age, you can buy the right ‘stealth satchel’, blaze away and saturate Instagram and Flickr within hours. At no point in this process will you have to consider the merits of the photographs being taken, because it doesn’t matter. You’re a rock and roll street sniper. At least a landscape photographer has to deal with bad weather, muddy feet and uncooperative light to get his or her shots and that obstacle of effort acts as a filter.

When it’s raining, the street ninja just slides into Starbucks and takes 482 photographs of coffee cups, tables, people’s feet, the window, people walking past the window, people tying their shoe laces… and they’re all painfully boring. Sadly, this garbage is overflowing into the street so to speak. The visible face of popular photography is more and more being defined by street photography, when we’re not being overwhelmed by photos of people’s dinner on social media.

Why could this be bad?

The good street photography is being buried, that’s why. It is more difficult than it should be to find consistently good street photography taken by someone without an already well-known name. The work is out there, I have no doubt of that, but the process of finding it is exhausting and depressing. There also seems to be a bit too much ego in the mix. Far too many of these (often very young) photographers seem unwilling to learn. They’re already amazing, which they know, because that’s what they tell each other continuously on social media. They also have lots of ‘likes’, so that’s that.

On the occasions when I have seen really good photographs on Instagram/Facebook groups, the inspiring work barely gets a mention. Nobody cares. That’s not what social media is about and street photography has become the social media of photography: an avalanche of banal, shallow and unreflective nothing that hasn’t the time to consider its own context. Tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. In the same way, much of this ‘great street photography’ is, well, the new great.

Editing. What is that?

Too many street photographers don’t edit. They share everything, perhaps because they think the world wants to know what fifty different takes of groups of random people walking down the street looks like at 8:56 in the morning, on their way into work. I applaud the enthusiasm, but photography is like selling your house. You show the best bits, while trying to avoid scrutiny of the bad bits.

You put your junk into the loft, or carefully pack cupboards. You mow the lawn, give a lick of paint to that beautiful front door and make sure your new kitchen is sparkling. The whole point is to draw attention to the good bits and let them define your house as a proposition. You curate the impression you want to leave people with. What you don’t do is give them a guided tour of the junk pile corner of your garden, the rotten window frame you’ve meant to replace and then hand them a map of the broken floor tiles.

When you’re Magnum Photos, you can put out a book full of contact sheets when most of the photographers who took those hugely iconic images are dead! Everyone else is better off editing at least until it hurts.

Endless juxtapositions and their formulaic brethren

Visual juxtapositions are akin to a trick that can be performed according to recipe. They are cookie cutter photographs that deliver all of their impact (if they have any at all) in no more time than it takes to mentally identify the game. A boot on a poster steps on a passing pedestrian’s head. The man standing at a bus stop is being shouted at by a woman on a billboard.

See, you didn’t even need a photo to experience all that such photographs contain: a simple, boring, endlessly repeated ‘jingle’. You could only ever write one short line about such photographs, because they contain nothing beyond the superficial.

Some photographers have built entire series (in fact entire websites) crammed full of variations of the same thing. They’re no more interesting than ‘zonies’ obsessed with Ansel Adams’ Zone System, who 20 years ago produced endless photographs of tree stumps and sticks that showed how wonderfully they’d applied -3 compensation development. My personal hit list goes something like this:

Juxtapositions. If they say nothing and have no appeal beyond their initial visual recognition, they’re boring. Really boring. Even the ‘good ones’.

Juxtapositions are almost ALL the same. This is a quick screen grab after google searching ‘street photography juxtaposition’.

Random photos of nothing, for no reason, with no content, thought, insight or anything. They’re not so casual as to be cool. They’re just boring.

Faux edginess. People being made to look mean, when they aren’t. Intensity that has been added in Photoshop, or with a pithy title that over-eggs the pudding. Their landscape photography equivalents are the ones shot in Yosemite (or similar) during evidently pleasant weather, that have been heavily over-cooked in post, and then titled ‘_____, Clearing Winter Storm’.

Arrows and street signs. OK, so there is always going to be potential here. Never say never and all that, but I wish I could erase memory of every photo like the one below I have seen and wish I could un-see.

So what do you think about these photographs?

Note: These following street photos are being shared under fair use for commentary and critique. The names of the photographers have been omitted to not single any artist out in a negative way. Anyone who wishes to have their photo removed will have their request respected immediately.

What can you say about this photograph? Is there anything to say?
Posting a letter. Am I missing something?
Waiting for a bus. Is the appeal in her age? If so, where is this going?
The hand/scarf over her face does not make this photo any less banal.
The most overused street photography formula of them all: arrow with person going the wrong way. I don’t see anything here to elevate this image beyond formula.
Is this photo truly compelling because of the black and white theme?
Does this work? If so, why? I see an initial ‘edginess’ replaced by nothing (along with the realization that there isn’t actually an edge)
Everyone hates a mop handle in the eye. Is this an aspirational photo? If so, why? The ‘punchline’ is paper thin.
We see many images like this. Is there supposed to be humour in the sleeping man? Is there something else going on that I am just not seeing?

What goes in comes out

Really engaging photographs are never the product of laziness, or formula, but this does not mean it should be hard work either. “Endeavor” is perhaps the best term. If we put in effort (and some thought) we can generally produce photographs worth more than a quick glance. That does not mean waiting for all of two minutes until a man of the right height walks past a poster depicting a large open mouth. Such photos are simply the free version of buying a ticket to Yosemite and placing your tripod in the exact spot ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ was taken 75 years earlier. It’s easy. It requires no real effort, thought or (most importantly) personal investment.

I am not suggesting a hipster coffee approach here. Riding to the Andes on a unicycle to collect the coffee does not make it taste any different. Working your ass off in photography without that effort actually affecting your photographs is no different. However, just engaging in the subject of photography helps. Learning a little more about yourself helps. Learning about the people and environment around you and your thoughts and reactions to it helps. The sad truth is that most of our effort in photography amounts to nothing. We’ve all worked hard and come back with a slew of entirely disappointing images, but this does not mean we stop trying.

Street photography is fantastic and compelling, but it is also incredibly difficult to do well. In part, this is because we have seen so much of it before. Brilliant, obsessive workaholics have been doing it for 70 years, but they aren’t us. They haven’t had our experiences. They haven’t seen everything through the same eyes. Their insights are not ours. Every single person wielding a camera has the potential to say something interesting, or see something engaging. Again, it comes down to relationships and, even on the street, our relationship with what is in front of the camera is key.

Once a photographer has learned a few ‘tricks’, they are presented with a choice: keep chasing gimmicks or formulas, or look deeper. It’s OK to be lost. It’s OK not to know what you’re doing. It’s OK to fail. It’s absolutely fine to feel insecure about your work. In fact, all of these things are very cool because they state very loudly that a person is trying, striving, exploring and searching in a very personal sense…. call it what you will.

It is this highly individual engagement that makes photography interesting. Street photographs needn’t take that away. It isn’t an altar that photographers must worship beneath and it isn’t a sport either. Some years ago I read a passage in a men’s magazine advising young men not to approach their sexual endeavors in the same way as they might improvements to their sporting performance. And here we are back to the supreme importance of relationships, expression and connection. Without these things, both just become repetitive, predictable acts that lose their luster.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


About the author: After studying Biological Sciences at Bristol University, Thomas served in the British Army before spending fifteen years living and photographing in conflict zones as a civilian. His work has won numerous international awards and has been exhibited in the UK, US, Europe. You can find more of his work and writing on his website and The Photo Fundamentalist. This article was also published here.

Keegan is an Online A.I. Photo Coach Who Critiques Your Photos

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Want to have your photos critiqued… by a computer? Keegan is a new online personal photo coach that can do that. Show Keegan one of your photos, and he’ll do his best to give you technical feedback to improve your photographic skills.

“I might be tough but no hard feelings!” the website says.

Keegan was created by Regaind, a French startup that’s working on automatic image analysis. The developers trained the system with the help of professional photographers, teaching it to recognize and describe strengths and weaknesses in photos.

The homepage invites you to drag-and-drop a photo in to a box to show Keegan (you can also click the box and select the file from your file system). Once you send Keegan a photo, he analyzes it and then offers you some criticism in full sentences. You’ll also receive a number score out of 10 — 5/10 is decent, 7/10 is very good, and 9/10 is exceptional.

To test Keegan, we showed it a photo of Obama and the Dalai Lama, captured by White House photographer Pete Souza. Keegan wasn’t very impressed, criticizing the lighting and the distracting background:

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We also showed Keegan a photo captured by Ansel Adams. Keegan was much more impressed, praising the framing and the lighting:

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A special Hall of Fame page on the Keegan website shows photos by registered members that have received the highest scores from Keegan. It seems that Keegan is particularly fond of nature shots:

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If you’d like to see what Keegan thinks about your photography, head on over to the website and give it a shot.

How to Take Criticism to Improve as a Photographer

If you share your photography in any public manner, you’re bound to run into critics who point out things you should improve in. While some of the critiques aren’t worth listening to and should be tuned out as noise, others may be from more experienced people who have genuinely valuable feedback that could help you grow.

Photographer Don Giannatti wrote about this subject a few months ago, but here’s another take: above is a 3.5-minute video with tips on how to take criticism without getting defensive. It’s about criticism in general and is by the website The Art of Manliness, but the advice can be applied by photographers of either gender.

Analyzing a Collection of B&W Street Photos Captured Around the World

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Last year I launched a new initiative called the Streettogs Academy, a biweekly challenge for motivating and sharpening the skills of street photographers around the world. Photographers are given 2 weeks to shoot photos for the latest theme and upload 1 to 3 of them to our Facebook page.

Our latest assignment was “Black and White.” The submitted photos that received the most attention from members of the group were those that had the simple basic requirement of a good image: a strong visual hook. Here’s a look at photos.

Photo by Helio Tomita

Photo by Helio Tomita

Let’s start first with one of the best black and white photographers in the group. Helio consistently shoots great photos, and this one is one of my favorites from him. The hook of course is the faceless foreground character which is accented by everyone in the photo being faceless as well.

Photo by Monika Jaskowska Bablok

Photo by Monika Jaskowska Bablok

The first thing that catches my eye with Monika’s photo is the couple lying down on the floor. Juxtaposed with the nuns, its a clash of conservatives and free spirits. Excellent story in the photo.

Photo by Jimmy Yang

Photo by Jimmy Yang

The visual hook in Jimmy’s photo is repetition of the hands on the rail. One of the things about black and white is it doesn’t distract and keep everything simple. A black element placed on white or vice versa can easily make things stand out. Note that repetition in Jimmy’s photo.

Photo by Enamul Kabir Rony

Photo by Enamul Kabir Rony

Speaking of repetitions, check out this background by Enamul. This would be too much of a color clash if the photo is in color. Either way, the photo works well because of that background.

Photo by Brenden Burkinshaw

Photo by Brenden Burkinshaw

But wait! There’s more! Here’s another example of repetition by Brenden. The triangles and the X mark is a nice look but the visual hook here is the repetition was broken by the figure. Interesting image of something we see or encounter in the everyday. The previous sentence pretty much sums up what street photography is.

Photo by Brad Baranowski

Photo by Brad Baranowski

Brad calls this photo “Surrounded.” This is an excellent example of isolation both literally and figuratively. When you have a clean background, it’s easy to pop out your visual hook.

Photo by Kevin Weinstein

Photo by Kevin Weinstein

Silhouettes is an easy way of making a visual hook. The gesture of the “ballerina” suspended in air looks really nice. Plus all the heads floating about. The trees n the sides completes the framing of the image. Excellent work by Kevin.

Photo by Michael Wolin

Photo by Michael Wolin

Michael’s photo here looks like a still from a movie. Every element is beautifully distanced from each other making each a visual hook in on themselves. The 1:1 aspect ration is to be appreciated as well. It works well here.

Photo by Carlos Agrazal

Photo by Carlos Agrazal

Carlos photo here makes me smile. The shape of the architecture, the windows, and the shadow of the rook looks like an over enthusiastic kid. The visual hook is the man walking across. Jolly looking image.

Photo by Shaie Williams

Photo by Shaie Williams

Speaking of things that can make you smile, if this puppy photo by Shaie doesn’t make you grin at least, you are heartless! Kidding aside, notice the texture of the wall, the wood frame, and the foliage. Overall, works as a black and white image.

Photo by Tom Jouk

Photo by Tom Jouk

Tom’s photo got the most feedback and likes for this assignment. The fog, the depth of field, and the characters in the frame is a perfect blend that worked with each other. The solitary figure on the right balances the frame from the very busy moments on the left side. This is something that will look well printed large.

Photo by Helena Zanting

Photo by Helena Zanting

Architecture is very interesting in black and white. However, to turn it into a street photograph, you need to have the candid moment. The biker in Helena’s photo is precisely that.

Photo by Harry Fodor

Photo by Harry Fodor

The downside of putting signage or words in a photo is that it can sometimes detract attention away from your subject. Unless there is a correlation or juxtaposition to the main subject. As usual there are no hard and fast rules in photography that’s why despite the signage, this photo by Harry still works. The signage didn’t detract attention away from the lone figure walking across the sign.

Photo by Chilun Leung

Photo by Chilun Leung

Chilun’s photo looks like it was lifted straight off a horror movie starring a kid lost in a carnival. Black and white works well to create the atmosphere and the composition shows a lot of depth. The image looks very clean as well as if everything was set-up and deliberately placed there. Kudos to Chilun for this one.

Photo by Nic Wassell

Photo by Nic Wassell

Everything falls together well for this image by Nic. I like how the eye would glide towards the woman, the tree, and then her environment. Good call on him to keep the shadow detail.

Photo by Tanya Rempel Barnett

Photo by Tanya Rempel Barnett

I’m assuming this is some sort of zipline but then again, black and white can make an image surreal. Tanya did so in this image. I don’t know what it is but as usual, putting black figures on a white background makes everything pop. The structure and lines also made everything rigid which works for this image.

Photo by OC Ram Coballes

Photo by OC Ram Coballes

Using black and white to elevate your visual hook is the name of this assignment’s game and OC got that one here. The man in the hole plus his perplexed expression seems as though it was detached from reality or added in a badly photoshopped manner. A nice and somewhat funny image.

Photo by Gian James Maagad

Photo by Gian James Maagad

Every assignment, I have that one image that if it was explained further, it will just ruin it. For this assignment, this photo by Gian is that one. So many things happening such as the gestures, shapes, and emotions. Good job!


Which photograph from this set would you pick as the best image? You can chime in with a comment below. If you’d like to participate in the next Streettogs Academy challenge, you can follow along on Facebook.


About the author: Angelo Gian De Mesa is a street photographer based in Pasig City, Philippines. He writes about photography for the Eric Kim Street Photography Blog and is the co-host of the Third World Linux podcast for Channel Fourteen. You can find his work on his website. This article was adapted from a post that first appeared here.