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We Don't Get No Respect

A street photographer's lament

by Priscilla Forthman

Is it just me, or have you noticed that street photographers don't get no respect?

After twenty years of intense work and nine thousand rolls of film, I still get the classic brush-off by so-called arts and photography professionals:
"Your work is very nice, but we just don't think you are ready to be showing"
"Very nice work, but we'd like something a little more contemporary..."

In other words...there's not enough "impact"--red filter, multiple exposure, wow pow nonsense--to get our buyers-clients, to buy buy buy. Sound familiar?

A good street photograph is clear, specific, and formally adroit, but does not call attention to its mastery of form. It has layer upon layer of meaning. It resists easy interpretation, though there may be an illuson of simplicity, usually due to the amazing formal clarity that we see when a picture really works, and/or the wit that is so often evident in work made by those lucky souls with a perverse appetite for failure... When a street photograph succeeds, one would not wish to change anything about it. What this means to the professional with attitude, is that the picture looks so well balanced, so obvious, that s/he believes anyone could have taken it, had they been there to "see" the "picture" . This discounts the fact that there was no guideÕ that such a photograph might exist, and the photographer was working in a speculative mode...hoping/praying/risking that a picture "might be there".

Winogrand said that he photographed to see what things looked like when photographed. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Isn't that what everyone does? Don't we all indulge the thrill of looking at wet film, of scoping new contact sheets? Like the best of propositions, this one is simple, but easily misunderstood. The implications for the photographer (and for the viewer, one hopes) are profound. In order to photograph to find out what something looks like photographed, one must be in a position of not already knowing. This means that once a photographer has a bit of experience, it becomes increasingly more difficult to NOT KNOW. It means that one cannot just keep taking the same pictures, whether yours or Winogrand's or Friedlander's or Frank's or Bresson's, over and over. It means taking a risk on the unknown. It means that one must have an appetite for failure, a lust for surprise, and disdain for the safety of known patterns.

I have seen so many intermediate photography students find some sort of success early on, and then spend the next dozen years trying to duplicate that success...grinding out the "same" picture, over and over (I am guilty, too, but at least I know it). The fundamental failure here is in not realizing that the good photographs come as gifts. Always. Surely we have all learned that taking a very good photograph is no more difficult than taking a lousy one...we try just as hard on every frame...there is no difference in the expenditure of energy...why is #27 a thousand, a million times, better than #'s 26 and 28? The great ones are rewards for taking risks, for photographing that which we do not already think we understand. So, put the ego aside, and take credit for trying, not for the success!

Winogrand's strategy required the highest courage...letting go of everything known, in order to jump into the unknown...That is courage! And it is unbelievably difficult to practice. He said that if he saw something in his viewfinder that looked familiar to him, he would "do something to shake it up." How many of us can make the same claim? To be brave enough to indulge real curiosity is all too rare. Photography gives us so much for so is far to easy to be satisfied with mere competance.

I shudder to think how many years I might have spent trying to understand something about risk in photography, had Winogrand, and others, not so clearly shown the way. Winogrand said, and lived by, the dictum, "a photograph can look any way." This is very good news for most of us street photographers...but perhaps not so pleasant a realization, even if unconscious, for a majority of photographers. A 'photograph can look any way' makes the photographer completely responsible for his/her photographic intentions, and this underscores how very transparent the medium truly is. What one is trying to do, shows in the picture. Period. To have one's practice so revealed can be terrifying. Hmmm...could this be why there are so many pictures out there that are about anything and everything but discovery and risk??

So why don't "they" get it?

Street photography represents a complex, and sophisticated requires a lot of effort from the viewer, as does all good art. But the viewer of the photograph must be willing to learn the visual language of photography, with all the nuances of syntax that each individual photographer brings to the idiom. This culture may be media driven, but as a people we have never been so visually illiterate. Did you know that Yale University Medical School is requiring all students to take a course in British Painting Appreciation? This is not for cultural enrichment, but because faculty members have realized that these best and brightest students cannot interpret visual information. The can sort of 'see' a measle or a rash, but are unable to interpret the information in order to know what it means! This is very scary. And you wonder why people cannot 'see' your photographs?

Street photography is seductive in its apparent simplicity...when there is a balance between content and form, a synergy is created that is quite different from the tension in other media.

Street photographs look too real. The so-called art world fails to realize that street photographs are fictions, that the meanings are new, that the world has been transformed as much as in any other medium. The seduction is in the surrealism. Yes, straight photography is surreal!

Good street photographs teeter on the edge of chaos. They may be balanced, but not secure.

There is a prevailing belief that art evolves, and that style must be reinvented every decade. Photography IS different. It was born whole. Once you had the optics and a way to fix the image, you had all the issues from the start...What am I interested in, truly? How will it look? What will it mean? A photographer's style comes from continually asking these questions, and answering them by working. The good news is that more difficult questions will always rise up to replace the ones that have been resolved.

When one is taking big risks in the work, it plays havoc with the market. How many great photographs can you crank out in six months? Me, I never know when I will ever get another satifactory picture. Dry spells are commonplace. The market needs a steady supply of predictable work. Street photography is anything BUT predictable!

The kind of theatre that Winogrand found in the streets of New York was perfectly suited to his animal energy and to his temperment. For me, street photography is not so much a place to photograph, but a state of mind, an approach to photography. The street is a great place to take on the unknown. By definition it is filled with surprises, energy. However, the street or the sidewalk are not the only places where street photography can be practiced. With photography, perhaps it is a bit more about how one photographs, and one's intentions, than where one goes to practice. The where is surely all around us, if we only open ourselves to the possibilities. How often have you slammed on the brakes, gone tearing out of the car to photograph some roadside thing, only to turn around and glimpse something behind you after you have "finished" photographing? You shoot it withut much ado, and guess what? That is THE picture. The best ones are gifts...who could have known?

What I have learned about photography has come from looking at great photographs (and from looking very hard at my own failed pictures) and from listening to others who have really looked at photography. There is no substitute for looking at pictures. If we don't show our wonderful "street photography" to as many people as possible, then we really can't blame "them" for not "getting it", can we?

Priscilla Forthman, a former tree farm owner, has been photographing obsessively since Richard Nixon was the President of the United States. You can see a sample of her work at her web site. She will begin studies for her Master's degree in Photography this fall, and can be emailed at