I often ask myself what makes good street photography. Granted, I only do so when I’m not shooting. While on the street, in museums, at your mama house, I just shoot what is. Ultimately, in those times of pensiveness, when I’m frowning at all the shite that spilled from my lenses, I’ll decide that is what good street shooting is. It’s taking what is — the mundane bits of life — and making them seem to be what always is.
Now, I know that sounds pretentious, but it isn’t meant to be. Great street photography should seem at once unique, surprising, and fresh, but also vaguely familiar. It’s a song you don’t know, but it has a chorus you’ve heard somewhere, maybe hummed by your funky Uncle Jethro with the cheap cigars.
Vivian Maier’s work, recently discovered and universally hailed, does exactly that. We see a shot of a girl in a museum, with her mom attired in yesteryear’s finery, and we are startled by the girl’s frankness, staring into Maier’s lens.
It’s just a photo, after all, of nothing special. That is, if you ignore the compositional elements: the mother standing cross-armed and her older daughter mirroring her demeanor; the little-girl matching socks that place the other child midway to adulthood; the negative space of the room, between the trio, and between the main subject and the camera; grandmotherly, stern woman in the painting sitting in judgment behind the child. We wonder if she would disapprove. The child herself is twisted; is she turning to the camera or away?
It is just a moment, most likely. A second never repeated and without significance, yet like the grandmother in the background, we can see it in a museum with 22nd-century patrons gawking at the odd clothing and manners.
That is what street is — nothing and everything; ordinary and shocking; the known and the unseen.
Like Ms. Maier, I find myself in museums and shooting not the people but the interactions between them and the art, or them and my camera. Sometimes it’s a small street camera. Others it’s big and black, like me, meant to glean a reaction. But the results are surprisingly familiar.
Now, in no way am I trying to compare myself to Maier, except that she shot subjects that I’ve always found fascinating. I suspect many other street shooters do too. But then I think of the thousands of undeveloped shots of hers, the myriad unseen prints, and I wonder if all artists give in to self-doubt. I look at my very ordinary shots above and wonder if any of them will look vaguely familiar and extraordinary decades from now.
I doubt it, but the wonder is enough to keep me shooting, and the gap between the quality of my work and self-taught masters like Maier is enough to keep me learning. Failure is a great motivator if you have the right mindset.