Research notes – Contemporary street photography

The following summary notes are in response to my research into various contemporary street photographers and the points of reflection suggested by the course guide (p 32).

The adoption of colour in street photography brings an additional element of information to the visual impact of images. It is undeniable that colour photographs, by being a more realistic depiction of what we see, are naturally endearing and easier to see and interpret. Because of this extra appeal, the danger I can see is that the use of colour could glamorize or beautify the subjects in a way that may detract from the photographer’s message. This, however, is not necessarily always the case and the opposite may also be true. The series on food by Martin Parr (see for example here and here) required colour in order to have the impact that the photographer wanted). The movement away from black and white has also, in a way, brough a slight shift of aesthetics, from the play with light and contrast that characterised early black and white images (see for instance these images from Louis Stettner here and here, or similar ones by Brassai in here and here), to a more deadpan, straight on look of modern colour street photographs, such as these ones from Joel Meyerowitz (here) or Martin Parr (here), where colour has substituted shape and light as a drag factor.

It is perhaps because of this shift to colour, which is closer to reality, that street photography has become more grounded, more straightforward, and less focused on juxtapositions that evoke a sense of surrealism as a means to escape from daily life, often with humorous undertones (some examples of this from Cartier Bresson (link)(link) and also from some of his contemporaries including Rene Maltete (link)(link)). For sure, the early work of Meyerowitz still included some elements of this, such as his cinema ticket booth attendant picture (link) or Tiger, 5th Avenue, 1975 (link), but by the time he moved to his St Louis Arch series just a couple of years after that, he was talking primarily straight shots (see for example, this and this). Paul Graham’s photographs, from early on (he started publishing books in the 1980s), also exhibited this straightforwardness (see for example, this one from his A1 series or this other one from Beyond Caring. It could perhaps be argued that by freeing street photography from the influence of surrealism, contemporary practitioners have been able to focus on juxtaposition for other means, including what could be considered as ironic commentary on western values. While Martin Parr’s early work in West Yorkshire was quite straightforward and had some elements of humorous surrealism, such as this, his subsequent work has veered more and more towards subtle social commentary on contemporary life, including our obsessions with food, sexcultural identity and globalisation, achieved by combining seemingly dispar elements at the right time in a subtle way.

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