AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE HAD MORE THAN A FEW ISSUES with the term street photography. I get to the point where I either think I know what I mean by it, and then there are times when I think I know what others mean by it. People other than me seem to think it describes human activity as it’s displayed and captured outdoors…little dramas recorded as folks gather in public places, near restaurants and bars, sitting on a bench, running for a cab. For me, the term should also apply to streets that are utterly devoid of human traffic, since even in “empty” spaces the mark or influence of people is still richly encoded into the works: in the buildings and businesses they build, in how they prioritize color or texture, in what they choose to preserve or destroy. In other words, people-influenced life without people actually moving through it.
Anything that happens on the street, regardless of whether people are seen, is “street photography”.
We understand this view whether we think we do or not. Consider the particular phenomenon of public art, either the institutional, statue-in-the-park kind or the sprayed-out-of-a-paint-can type. Chances are that when we behold the artist’s testimony…on walls, subways, sidewalks…the actual artist is nowhere nearby. Street photography occurs with or without people in the pictures, since they can be detected whether they inhabit the scene in physical form or not. Public art is just one way this happens.
It’s manifested in many ways: how a small business decides to dress its windows: the mystery of how the mottos or decorative touches on an old bank came to be: the crazy quilt of competing architectural eras within the same block…all these signs and more signal human activity no less than does a highway map or an electrical circuit. The skewed take on the Mona Lisa, seen above and painted on the side of a building in midtown Columbus, Ohio, implies the grins that will no doubt grace the faces of the many who walk past the lady’s mystic smile on their way out of the parking lot that frames her. What could be more human, more “street” than that?
Terms, in photography or any other pastime, are useful parameters for labeling and identifying major areas one from another. When they crowd the artist into corrals, however, they stop helping and start hindering. Street photography is easy to define. It’s anything that happens on the street.