I don’t particularly like street photography. No. Let me re-phrase that. Based on my very limited exposure to street photography, mainly gleamed from a few photo magazines and some of the flickr groups dedicated to the genre, I have not been able to “get” it. Most of what I have seen appears banal, trivial and – dare I say it – boring. I take it for granted that this says a lot more about me and my lacking education than it does about street photography, but even with that said, I feel a bit like one of the spectators at the showing of the Emperror’s new clothes.
So as I was passing through London on my way home from York today, I made a point about depositing my suitcase at the left luggage and get down to Somerset House to see their exhibition Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour. As well as 10 black and white photos never before exhibited in the UK by Cartier-Bresson, the exhibition features 75 colour photos by “international contemporary photographers”.
I had planned on “taking notes” by photographing pictures and texts I wanted to remember, like I did with success when I went to the world press photo 2012 exhibition a few months ago. But I wasn’t allowed to do that at Sommerset House, and my only notepad was the reverse of a sandwich receipt from Kings Cross station. To make matters worse, the catalogue for the exhibition had sold out. So this is written based almost only on memory, and helped by a couple of websites where some of the images are reproduced (Positive View Foundation, Art Wednesday and the Royal Academy of Arts).
Firstly, having seen some of the great photos by “the master” himself, I now “get” the idea of the decisive moment. Although the famous picture of a man jumping over a puddle wasn’t in the exhibition, there were several others where it was clear that the picture was taken at the exact moment where everything came together – a second earlier or a second later might not have worked at all. Jeff Mermelstein’s picture of a lady with a tenner in her mouth in New York and Alex Webb’s wonderful picture of a boy spinning a blue ball in front of a blue-and-white official building are good examples of this. In fact, most of Alex Webb’s pictures in the exhibition made me nod my head and think “this is what the decisive moment is all about”.
Other of the photos spoke to me as reportage pictures, showing what life somewhere in the world is like, rather than “decisive moment” type images. For instance, I loved Carolyn Darke’s picture from New Kashgar in China, where the colours just work so wonderfully.
As much as I liked both these types of pictures, there were still plenty of photos that I just didn’t “get”. They didn’t appear to show anything special about the place or the situation, nor did they capture any unique situation or scene. To my untrained eye, they appeared banal, and I must admit I filed them away in the same mental folder as many of the meh pictures from Flickr. With the risk of causing offense (apologies in advance, I’m sure it’s due to my lack of comprehension), Harry-Gruyaert’s photo of the Commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo in Flanders, Belgium in 1988 falls into this category.
Although they didn’t stand out as “decisive moment” or “reportage”, the pictures that I spent most time looking at were Karl Baden’s series of photos called In And Out of The Car, 2009-2012 (several photos at Howard Yezerski Gallery). The compositions with several layers of content and unusual jutaxpositions of elements reminded me of the surreal paintings of Salvador Dali. And I’ve always been a big Dali-fan.
It took maybe an hour to view the exhibition, and I am glad that I took the time to do so. I discovered several photographers whose street photography I really liked, and came away with a better understanding of what makes the genre work. There is still a lot to learn for me in order to fully appreciate those of the pictures I didn’t “get”, but at least a door has been opened.
As I left the exhibition, I thought I’d try my hand at “street” with a picture for the blog. And what’s more appropriate than a decisive-moment shot of tourists photographing each other with the ubiquitous iPhone in front of Somerset House? In black and white, of course, as a homage to the old master.