I have a long and complicated relationship with street photography and I want to try and articulate that here. Wikipedia defines street photography as “photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public spaces”. It does not have to have people as the subject matter, but most of it does. The history of street photography is really tied to the technology of photography – once cameras and film became portable and quick to use then people started taking photos of the things that were happening around them. The genre really started in the inter war period, but it was the end of the Second World War that really kick started it. World War Two had seen death and destruction carried out on an enormous industrial scale – the methods of modern mass production lines had been used to exterminate millions of people. The American-Luxenbourgish photographer Edward Steichen, who at the time was the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, decided to curate an exhibition based upon the universality of the human experience as a counter to the war. Dorothea Lange, a leading light in photographic reportage, assisted Steichen in his project and on January 16, 1953 she sent out a recruitment letter to photographers asking them to “show Man to Man across the world. Here we hope to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil. If photography can bring these things to life, this exhibition will be created in a spirit of passionate and devoted faith in Man.”. In all 273 photographers from 68 countries contributed 503 photos. The exhibition opened at MOMA on January 24 1955 and then went on to tour the world for eight years making stops in thirty-seven countries on six continents. More than 9 million people viewed the exhibit, which is still in excess of the largest audience for any photographic exhibition since. The book from the exhibition has never been out of print and has sold more than 4 million copies. The impact was colossal – it exposed people to the idea of looking at photos of people doing the things that make us human and encouraged them to make their own photos.
When I look at my bookshelves the bulk of them are of street photography. Ever since I saw the exhibition Another Country by Chris Killip and Graham Smith in 1985 I wanted to try and produce work that showed that ordinary people and things are important. So I started buying books by people such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Elliott Erwitt, and Robert Frank. At the same time I started loitering on streets with a camera trying to summon up the courage to take pictures of strangers. I’ve referred to this previously as having delusions of Bresson. In the 1980’s photography was expensive – every shot cost money – and this meant that I had to ration my picture taking to 2 or 3 rolls of film a month which meant that progression was a very slow process. Digital changed that and you could go out for the day and take hundreds of photos and get instant feedback on how they looked. It was a fantastic time to be a street photographer and the result is that there was another explosion of interest in the genre as millions of people world wide embraced it as a life style.
Things began to sour for me in 2007. After 9/11 the world was gripped with paranoia and virtually every country in the western world started bringing in counter terrorism legislation which meant every police officer and every security guard saw anyone carrying a camera as a potential terrorist. Some were OK and were polite and friendly. Some just over reached themselves and saw themselves as judge jury and executioner. In 2007 I went back to England as my father was dying. A few days after he died I wanted to go out and do something creative. Now the town we’re from attracts tourists from all over the world and so you’d think it would be safe to wander around taking photos. Well no and I had an extremely unpleasant encounter with a police officer who was convinced I was Osama Bin Laden scoping out the local shops for a potential suicide bombing. After threats of violence against my person he dragged me off to the police station and proceeded to threaten me some more for another couple of hours. It was only when I started asking the desk sergeant to see the Australian consul that things started to improve and I was eventually released and told to get on the next available plane. So that started to make me wary of taking photos out in public. The next year, 2008, Australia was gripped by the Bill Henson scandal and suddenly every photographer was not just a potential terrorist but also a paedophile. I attended the Earth From Above exhibition by Yann Arthus-Bertrand some of which was held outside in Perth’s Cultural Precinct. I took some photos of people interacting with the exhibits outside and while doing so I was accosted by a women who accused me of being a paedophile which led to an unpleasant encounter with the police. So with that I decided to hang up my rangefinder and 35mm lens and concentrate on subjects that weren’t people. But it wasn’t just the problems with the police it was also the fact that at this time I also felt that the world’s culture was beginning to change – it was becoming more homogeneous and it was difficult to see any difference in photos. The final straw was the ubiquity of the mobile phone. Everyone seems to walk around staring at this thing they carry. The little spontaneous connections and reactions have now disappeared as everyone just stares at the screen on their mobile phone. I’m not the only person who feels this way. Joel Meyerowitz the doyen of New York street photography said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper “In the 60s and 70s you could look at my street photographs and trace lines from the eyes of people connecting with other people’s eyes, setting up these force fields.” Of now he says “Nobody’s looking at each other. Everybody’s glued to their phones…The street has lost its savour.” Meyerowitz has now largely given up on it and concentrates on still life.
So what is my relationship with street photography now? Well I’m not buying the books or looking at other peoples work, but I am starting to re-engage. By any stretch of the imagination it is not my oeuvre anymore, but it is something I quite like to do when I’m in Perth and got a couple of hours to fill. I stay well clear of the police and make sure that no children are in the shot and I make sure I wander around looking like a tourist.