BEYOND THE “OWIE”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE THE CAMERA IS, FIRST AND FOREMOST, A RECORDING INSTRUMENT, it has always defaulted to the function of a journalist’s device, a reportorial machine for bearing witness to events. Certainly, it was inevitable that newspapers and magazines would, over time, turn to the camera as a way of marking or defining events, of making a visual document of things. And soon, of course, that simple recording process gave way to overt commentary, to an event being imbued with as much personal bias by a photographer as had always been the case with prose writers. It was possible for the camera to have an opinion.
Street photography, which allowed the amateur to stamp his view on what he saw no less than the professional journalist, should, certainly, have developed a judgemental eye toward the tragic, the awful in life. But, as often happens, it has spawned a school of thought in which people who fancy themselves “serious” artists reflect only rotting cities or crying children. This promotes a dishonest view of the world, since, sometimes, as Elton John once wrote, “the boulevard is not that bad.” And that makes our art lopsided. I call it “photographing OWIEs” (Orphans, Winos, Idiots and Eccentrics), and it has become something of a runaway industry.
It’s a popular conceit: only dour poets are “real” poets. Only depressed writers know anything of life. And only photographers who depict abject misery really “get” the human condition. This is flawed thinking, but invariably catches hold in every “authentic” gallery exhibit, every “honest” critical essay, and every other place pretentious humans congregate to celebrate their shared gravitas.
Street photography that reflects hope, or, God spare us, even a modicum of human normalcy should never be discounted or marginalized. Artists are charged with embracing both light and shadow. And certainly, for purely scientific reasons, photographs are impossible without taking both into account.