OpEd: Appreciating Straight Photography

“But… what of those who work today with equal commitment and sincerity, using straight photography in the cacophonous present? I will not name names here, but for these serious photographers the fog of time still obfuscates their efforts, and the blindness j’accuse some of the art world of suffering from, narrows their options. It means their work will almost never be considered for Documenta, or placed alongside other artists in a Biennale, or found for sale in major contemporary art galleries and art fairs. This does not just deprive the public of the work, and the work of its place, it denies these artists the self-confidence that enables them to grow, to feel appreciation and affirmation, not to mention some modest financial reward allowing them to continue to work. It is also, most importantly, seeing the world of visual art in narrow terms. It is seeing the apple as unreasonable.” – Paul Graham

Every few weeks an essay or blog post appears that seems to strike a chord with a cross-section photography folks. Those YES! EXACTLY! type pieces of writing that seem to articulate ideas and thoughts we all intuitively feel but often aren’t able to communicate.  But when we read the words and see other people Tweeting and quoting the piece, we know that we’re a little less crazy.  It’s comforting, but more importantly inspiring.  One such article was Paul Graham’s essay ‘The Unreasonable Apple,’ a presentation he made at first MoMA Photography Forum, 16th February 2010.

In essence, he’s making an argument or plea for the importance and appreciation of ‘straight’ photography in the fine art world. He’s able to articulate much better than I, so I won’t try, but what struck me, and what I found inspiring was that he’s making this case even though he’s been widely embraced in art circles (or maybe not, but I think so).  He hasn’t strayed too far from the ‘New Documents’ that inspired him to pursue photography in the first place.  There certainly are many others working in this tradition that have broken through like Alec Soth for example, but for the most part it seems that if you’re out doing this work, there’s very little chance it’ll be widely seen in the fine art photography world.

But that’s nothing new, right? Very little photography deserves the accolades and attention.  But much like Paul, I believe in this type of photography and want to see it reach an audience that appreciates it.  I’m sure many of you can see where I’m going with this, and that’s the web.  Anyone whose followed ‘street photography’ the last ten years know that it’s having a bit of a renaissance because it’s practitioners and enthusiasts have been able to network through the internet, create communities (like iN-Public, HCSP, and many others) and discover an audience many probably didn’t think existed.  While I’m speaking about street photography, you should check out Nick Turpin’s post, Undefining Street Photography, which makes a point that I agree with about the essence of street photography, and really photography itself.

“When a child picks up a camera and pushes the button that simple spontaneous image is a Street Photograph, it is, first of all, a raw reaction to the scene in front of it, a person, a car, a color. That primitive urge to react, to make a picture is at the heart of Street Photography beyond any other area of picture making, it comes before any other agenda.” – Nick Turpin

It would be impossible for me to argue that these are novel ideas, but that’s not really important. What I’m excited about and what drives my passion for photography is that I know there are thousands of photographers devoted to and passionate about this type of work.  And regardless whether or not it’s accepted again in fine art circles, it will be appreciated.  The photographers I’m most interested in these days all seem to be working without ambition. And when I say without ambition, I mean they aren’t concerned with contests, portfolio reviews, gallery shows or a photography career (I also respect many that have fine art career ambitions. It’s not an either or situation).  They’re just out there making work, refining their vision and building their audiences online.  For many, that’s good enough, and for some of those photographers who were out there in the ’60s and ’70s when Winnogrand and Friedlander were making their name, gaining a bit of an audience online all these years later probably makes them feel like they’ve arrived.

We’ve been following a few photographers who have been shooting for years, and are now posting their work, new and old online.  We have a few features lined up, and are always on the look out for new work.  If you haven’t seen it before, check out our feature on Pierre Wayser whose a prime example of this type of photographer.

  • Guest

    irregardless isn’t a word, it’s regardless.

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  • johnf

    I think its just verbiage, like lettuce. Straight photography is not hard to understand, unless you make up the tall tale that its hard to understand and then write an essay about tall tales. Fact is, most street photography done decades ago and done now, is crap, The proof is the fact that out of the uncountable numbers of street photographers, few are known to us, except those who are tranmitted to us from the distant galaxy “Art world”. The Art world as far as photography is concerned is into wordy essays (for) the purpose of enhancing exhibits, usually about items of the past, like ‘the new topography’ which I believe as the last standard to which all photographers are supposed to adhere post-1975. While this sounds cynical, the fact is that Graham’s is just another essay in which a topic is stated, a general discussion, then a series of references to known photographers, and then a conclusion. In a good English Composition class, this would get you a B.

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  • http://www.mikepeters.com/TheDREAM/index.html Mike Peters

    Indeed, straight photography contains no inside information, does not require an MFA to understand nor big words to describe. It does not make the viewer feel superior for having understood it. What fun could the cognescenti possibly have by embracing such a low art form?

    What straight photography can do, when practiced at a high level, is describe the essence of the time in which we live in a way that any person with functioning eyes and a brain can connect with and draw something from. It is simple, and often, simple can be very hard to do well.

  • Blake

    I think the Graham essay was one of the best things I’ve read in a while. As Graham says, street/straight photography is hard to understand. Winogrand walks down 5th Ave and makes a bunch of photos and? And what? What does that mean? If you’re not a street photographer they probably won’t mean much. And in fact, his work didn’t mean much to me before I got into photography. It’s only from the other perspective, after having taken thousands of images, that their originality and power becomes more clear. You can try to explain this to people but it’s sort of hopeless. If someone hasn’t experienced the joy of street/straight photography for themselves there’s no way to explain it to them.

    Graham’s essay is written from the point of view of the resistance. He’s in the minority and he knows it. I know it. Every time I write on this subject I’m deluged with critics complaining I’m being dogmatic or arrogant or separatist or whatever. Why can’t we just group all photography together regardless of how it was made?, they want to know. I think the power of Graham’s essay, at least for me, is that it draws a line in the sand and says, “This is a valid position. You are not crazy.” So thanks to Graham for that.

    As for the last part, I’m not sure if we’re experiencing a renaissance in street photography or its last throes. Either way the tide against it has never been stronger.

  • http://www.fotambulo.com hugo

    well put and much appreciated. keep it up.