In our development of this series Bill and I have discussed at great length what makes Street Photography an art form; it is, in fact, what inspired the series to begin with. We drew the conclusion then, that in order to appreciate and understand the Art of Street Photography, as is the title of this series, we first need to address the concept of art, and how exactly it applies to this particular medium, which we have hinted at to some degree in our previous posts with regards to its historical evolution. There seems to be considerable consternation amongst photographers and critics alike as to exactly what this genre is, whether it’s meant to convey a message or a story about the societies we live in, or whether it is meant to be a form of voyeuristic art for the sake of entertainment. There are of course many definitions and schools of thought in between, but what I’d like to focus on is the intent of the medium itself as a form of visual communication.
In this post, part two of Track B: The Art of Composition, and the Composition of Art, I will be addressing the following questions:
1. Why is Street Photography not ‘Art’?
2. How do we know the difference between the real and the imaginary?
3. When does Street Photography become art?
“[Images] can represent people, places and things as though they are real, as though they actually exist in that way, or as though they do not – as though they are imaginings, fantasies, caricatures, etc. And, here too, [such] judgements are social, dependent on what is considered real (or true, or sacred) in the social group for which the representation is primarily intended.”
(Kress and Van Leeuwen, cited in Goodman et al, 2007, p.131)
Street photography is distinguishable from other genres of photography or forms of art according to formal definitions, because in and of its nature it is a documentation of life as it happens around us. Traditional art on the other hand is an imaginative, stylised representation of either realistic or abstract concepts, where the image or object can be manipulated, i.e. elements can either be added or removed at the artist’s discretion in order to make a better composition, or invented from nothing to create something completely new.
With street photography however, there seems to be an unspoken but accepted rule that what is observed through the viewfinder can’t be changed. Compared to traditional art, it is a fairly conservative medium that has very specific predefined parameters, in that you are observing and recording what you see through an optic lens. The street photographer then, is like a treasure hunter looking for those little gems and relics of society and human life, as they stumble through the urban jungle, with the sole intention of collecting museum pieces. Unlike the artist who plays god inventing pieces from nothing seemingly, and whose intent is to display their work for posterity.
The conclusion that we might draw from this basic supposition is that Street Photography is distinguishable from traditional art in that one is a representation of what is real, and the other isn’t, or at the very least it is a loose representation of reality, an impression.
A photographic image is a highly detailed representation of the world around us, and thus represents what we consider and accept as ‘real’, so we naturally presume that it has a kind of historical veracity. Our eyes and brains are so accustomed to processing and responding to such detailed images of familiar social environments, that we automatically accept them as being markers of truth or reality.
It can be said then, that we ascribe a ‘high truth value’ to the images that are produced under the banner of photography and street photography in particular, because we trust and accept that due to the often impulsive and spontaneous nature of this style of photography, the images produced are not contrived or staged in any way, as is perhaps a traditional work of art that might then be attributed as having a ‘low truth value’. It is hardly surprising then, that photorealism in traditional art has been lauded as a mark of exceptional talent and quality, as we saw previously in our discussion of Renaissance art, and specifically the works of Canaletto. Yet, as impressed as we may be by such skill, we still accept that the painting, or sculpture is not real. The processes of producing a photographic image versus a traditional artistic image differs significantly in this way.
The invention of photography was a very decisive shift from the impressionistic to the documentary, and so through sociocultural acceptance and training we have come to accept the photographic image as real, and as having a ‘high truth
value, or ‘high modality’. Cultural influences notwithstanding, the photograph also fits our neurological imperative to evaluate reality in the way that we do. A photographic image then, has strong grounds for being very compelling, given that it is a simulated copy of what we see to all intents and purposes. As the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, there are many factors involved in the way that we assess what is valid and, what is real, compared to what is not.
What we consider real, ‘High Modality’, or not as real, ‘Low Modality’, as coined by Sociolinguist Michael Halliday, can be paired down even further within a photographic image in terms of what is in sharp focus, and what is not. This compositional device is something that is used within advertising and photojournalism in particular, where a specific message is intended. Often the subject that is being promoted or brought to the viewer’s attention will be in sharp focus and foregrounded so that it is clear what the intended recipient should be looking at and focussing on, and thus accepting what is actual and valid. The rest of the image will often be presented in much softer focus, which is designed to send the recipient the message that it is of less importance, or perhaps representative of an ideal, and thus supporting but not detracting from the product, or point of focus.
For example, in the instance of an advertisement for a brand of coffee, the product itself will be in sharp focus, often with accompanying text that promotes it in a way that sends the message that this brand of coffee is of good quality and worth indulging. The message is further reinforced by what is not in focus, perhaps the image of a couple in a romantic setting, or two friends enjoying the product, providing the viewer with a metaphor that says not only is this product of good quality, but that consuming it will improve and add value to your life. It also intentionally targets a very specific audience depending on social factors, like ethnicity, age, gender etc. But as the latter is not in sharp focus, we make the assumption that what is being represented is an ideal, or a fantasy. It isn’t intended to detract from the product or the point of focus itself.
The following images are of adverts popularised during the course of the 20th Century. Take a look at the images and see if you can discern the ‘ideal’ message in relation to the ‘actual’ product being promoted.
Consider for example, the work of early photographers whose images, owing to the nature of the cameras they were using, were not as crisp and sharp as we are now used to, and that with the passing of time have acquired a faded sepia tone due to degradation of printing inks, and exposure to light and atmospheric factors. Some of these images have acquired an almost ethereal quality that although we rationalise as being real due to the basic premiss of photography, given their lack of sharpness and observations of styles pertaining to a different social era, we are nevertheless taken out of the familiar environment of our current cultural era and socially accepted norms. This break with convention is also another key factor in the way in which we assess an image as having High or Low Modality. Click on images to enlarge. Lartigue
The way that the message within an image is understood therefore, has much to do with the intended audience. There are socially accepted cues and metaphors that are being adhered to and exercised in a visual representation that will either be conveyed with success or not, depending on who is viewing it and their own personal understanding of the inherent social references.
However, because we in our culture have been exposed to such devices within works of art, and specifically in the last century and a half through the advent of photography and advertising, we are more than accustomed to reading imagery in this way with an almost natural ability. Natural in the sense that we have skilfully internalised these conventions through years of cultural training so that we simply take them for granted. When those conventions are reinforced or challenged however, our sense of the real is either enhanced or altered, and therein lies the potential success or failure of an image, whether there is a clear message or not.
In a piece of street photography, these definitions may be more ad hoc, with the intended message or indeed the intended audience being more ambiguous. As a street photographer it isn’t always clear to me what my objective is for shooting a particular scene, but that I am connecting with a potential audience I am in no doubt. I make the initial assumption that what I am shooting will be mutually translatable to whomever may potentially see the shot, whether it is published or not. My imperative for shooting however, is to communicate an impression or an idea, and thus create a dialogue or a narrative with an intended audience. In fact it could be said that this is the very root of traditional art and photography, and indeed what makes a photographic image art.
In my next post we will continue with our discussion on the visual narrative of a photographic image, and begin to examine compositional devices in further detail, and the way in which they create a dialogue between the photographer, the image, and the viewer:
Goodman, S., Graddol, D., and Lillis, T. (Ed.), 2007, Redesigning English, Routledge, Abingdon
Halliday, M.A.K. (1978), Language as Social Semiotic, London, Edward Arnold
Kress, G., and Van Leeuwen (2006), Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, New York, Routledge