STRIKE A POSE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS GENERALLY ABOUT CAPTURING PEOPLE in their most natural element, freezing the more narratively interesting samples from their daily activity. In theory, the format really offers a fairly infinite number of quick examinations of virtually every trait and pursuit, promising a lot of visual variety in the depiction of the human condition. However, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing number of pictures of people on the street seem to be about more and more of the same thing: fixating on our phones.
You must have noticed by now that random images of people on the street are, in more cases than ever before, pictures of them watching screens. Texting. Tweeting. Dialing. Reading. In a world in which we do more of our private business out in public, our engagement has gone further and further inward, ever more insular, isolated. This is not a critique of the value of these precious devices, or a wish that they somehow be magically uninvented. My point is that their ubiquitous use presents fewer opportunities for exploration of human behavior by the street photographer, since, even though our phones are holding us spellbound, the way we look when we’re on them is, well, boring.
This 21st-century “look” is a strange sort of update of the facial aspect of photography’s first era in the 1800’s. In a time when exposures took a long time and people were just beginning to formulate their relationship to this invasive eye known as a camera, people tended to look frozen, solemn, as if they were only reluctantly granting admittance to the blasted thing. They stood at attention, staring blankly, their faces a cipher. Later on, we learned to love the camera, to mug and model and talk to it, a habit that still shapes our candids at intimate moments or the tidal wave of selfies we create.
On the street, however, that is to say, on our way to something else (all our various something elses), we are facially as lifeless as a Victorian-era farmer posing for his first daguerreotype. Thus the man in this image, already physically alone by virtue of the space he occupies, is doubly isolated by his further act of pulling away into his phone. A key part of him, a part that has always been a basic element of street shooting, is simply not available.
Does this trend alarm you? Do you find yourself approaching street work in a fundamentally different way because of it? Or is the job of a photo-observer to merely record what he sees, or in many more cases, what he sees being withheld?