Review: 10 years of in-public

Street photography is a strangely controversial photographic genre. When I started blogging, I was a little surprised at how divisive it seemed to be within the photo community and its ability to get people worked up, whether they were in the 'for' or 'against' camp. As with many other photographic genres 'street photography' is a pretty broad appellation. There is no dictionary definition of it but a fair assumption would be that it refers to photographs taken in the street (I won't wade in to the debate on whether those photographs have to be 'straight' i.e. not to have undergone any manipulation, as that is a blogpost in and of itself), which seems to allow for a fair bit of artistic license. And yet, street photography seems to find itself in a bit of an artistic ghetto, often being, or feeling, completely ignored by the art world. I have already added to the recent debate surrounding Paul Graham's essay The Unreasonable Apple on this subject, which, although it doesn't deal with street photography specifically, is a good place to start to get an idea of what the fuss is about.

To use a musical analogy, I sometimes think of street photography as the jazz of the photography world. A genre that requires great timing, a strong sense of improvisation and that appeals especially to men with beards. Arguably the progression of street photography over time has mirrored that of jazz pretty closely. Jazz went through a series of creative explosions in the 50s, 60s and 70s through which the genre was constantly radically redefined. Since then, it is generally perceived to have been unable to reinvent itself and people think of it as an old-school genre rather than a contemporary one. I think much of the criticism that is levelled at street photography follows a similar line.

I am like Switzerland in my position on street photography: neutral. I'm not instinctively drawn to it, but I definitely don't think of it as irrelevant or unworthy of a place in the art world. So I was intrigued when Nick Turpin recently sent me a copy of his latest book, 10, 10 years of in-Public celebrating ten years of in-Public, the street photography collective started by Turpin that is now twenty members strong. This seemed like a good opportunity to see a broad cross-section of what is going on in street photography, with ten images from each of the group's members. I won't name them all here, but a special mention has to go to fellow bloggers Blake Andrews and Jeffrey Ladd.

It's always difficult to review a book that covers as much material as 10 as it is never going to be entirely coherent with this many different voices being represented. For me the real strength of the book is that it makes a strong case for the continued relevance of street photography today and more importantly for how diverse a genre it can be. To go back to my musical analogy, yes this is a compilation album, but its more like one of those artfully put together Soul Jazz numbers than a 'Now That's What I Call Music' #472. You get work from right across the spectrum: classic be-bop images, fizzing hard-bop, free jazz, to the more spacey ECM ("most beautiful sound after silence") style ... thankfully I didn't spot any easy listening shots in here.

There are some attributes that are common to much of the work in this book: a sense of humour, a penchant for the surreal, but the overriding impression I got was one of a real diversity in style and approach. For my money, street photography really comes into its own when these moments captured on the fly can be woven into a broader tapestry of some kind, not necessarily a narrative, but tied together in a way that transforms them into something more than a collection of well-composed moments. This isn't the case of all the photographers in the book, but when it is, as in the case of Trent Parke (whose recent book Bedknobs and Broomsticks sold 1,000 copies in three days), it can be really rewarding.

The book includes an essay by the Guardian's Jonathan Glancey and interviews of all the photographers by the photography writer David Clark. Rather than posting several images, you can get a nice preview of the contents of the book in the slideshow below put together by Turpin. 10 is recommended, if nothing else as proof that street photography is alive and well.

10 years of in-Public, London: Nick Turpin Publishing, Hardback, colour and black-and-white plates.

Rating: Recommended

The photographic tinkerers

E and I recently won tickets to a concert by a Congolese band that I had never heard of, Staff Benda Bilili ('benda bilili' means beyond appearances). Apart from the incredible energy that these guys managed to generate despite 80% of the band being paraplegic and all of them living (or having lived) in the gardens of Kinshasa zoo, I was struck by one of the musicians, a teenage boy who somehow managed to extract some pretty amazing sounds out of an electrified tin can of his own conception. This got me thinking about the tinkerers in photography. It's no secret that photographers can be a little gear-obsessed (I think they even give musicians a run for the money in that department) and the explosion of digital and associated software has done nothing to temper that, but are also a few garden shed eccentrics out there who are doing it entirely for themselves.

The most recognized example of this that I could think of is Miroslav Tichý. He was 'discovered' a few years ago, living in isolation in his hometown of Kyjov in the Czech Republic in a house full of self-made photographic paraphernalia of all kinds which he used to surreptitiously photograph the women of his town. Thanks to his seemingly endless supply of completely unique vintage prints (helped by the fact that he had trampled on most of them for several years, before mounting them on cardboard frames which he then decorated himself... any photo dealer's wet dream) he has become extremely hot property and he is now represented by several galleries in Europe alone. While I haven't been swept away by his outsider art, I was fascinated to see the cameras and lenses that Tichý has made and how they had contributed to forging his undeniably unique aesthetic.

In a completely different genre, another photographer who has explored the possibilities of the self-made is Ryuji Miyamoto, who I have written about before on the blog. After many years shooting with a large format camera, Miyamoto developed a desire to be able to climb inside the camera after shooting his series Cardboard Houses on the cardboard structures built by the homeless in different cities. He ended up making a small wooden hut which he transformed into a camera obscura and which he lines with two sheets of light-sensitive photo paper. Miyamoto gets in, lies down and exposes the paper to light. The result is an upside-down image of the world captured in deep blue tones where his silhouette appears at the bottom of the image. Miyamoto's pinhole images and his recent photograms suggest that he isn't exactly enamored by the infinite reproducibility of photography in the digital age.

These are just a couple of examples that came to mind—I would be curious to hear if there are others. Perhaps none of this matters and just as buying the latest top of the line camera will not get you good photographs, building your own is no guarantee of a personal vision. But I like to think that in the process of building the tool with which you are going to photograph the world, there is a small chance of stumbling upon something that we may not have seen before.

The photographers' cookbook

I have just received a couple of emails from students at Falmouth University in the UK. Instead of the usual print auction to fundraise for their end of year show they have come up with something a little different: they are producing a cookbook with recipes by a pretty solid selection of contemporary photographers (Alec Soth, Elina Brotherus, Richard Misrach, Martin Parr, etc.). I think this is kind of great and proof that the future of photobooks although uncertain, is definitely not getting any less surprising. Find out more (and buy yourself a copy) here.

Photobook swap

I have decided to attempt a photobook swap over on eyecurious books etc. I have a few books (mainly Japanese photobooks) in duplicate and I feel that it's only fair to find them a new home. I've already posted a few of the books that I have available for exchange and there will be more to come in the next few days. If you see anything that interests you and have something to swap, then get in touch.

A dirty word?

As a lot of readers out there will be aware, a recent essay by Paul Graham, The Unreasonable Apple, has been making some waves (ripples?) in the photography/art world, and of course in our beloved blogosphere. I apologize for wading in on this discussion so very late, but it seems to me that there are a few points that have not been raised as yet. The main thrust of Graham's piece is that, "there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. [...]  [P]hotography for and of itself—photographs taken from the world as it is—are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag." This is a question that is unavoidable to anyone interested in photography who has stepped beyond the confines of the photography-only community.

Relatively speaking, as an art form photography is still in its infancy. This has several implications: firstly, a certain, potentially justified, inferiority complex or sense of exclusion within the photographic community vis-à-vis the art world; secondly a broad spectrum of reactions from within the art world ranging from a wariness or even disregard of 'straight photography' to a seemingly even-handed "who gives a shit what the medium is as long as the art is good"-ness. So where does 'straight photography', "photographs taken from the world as it is," stand?

My instinct in these kind of discussions would be to look at the data (past lives are to blame for this). How much is 'straight' photography represented in major art fairs versus other disciplines, how much does it sell for versus other types of photography and media, how many modern or contemporary art museums show 'straight' photography exhibitions? Sadly this is not information that is readily available to me, so I won't be winning this debate with some beautifully constructed Excel charts and will have to rely on my avowedly limited personal experience.

While I think it is an overstatement to argue that photography is somehow ostracized from or maligned by the rest of the art world, I believe it has yet to consolidate its standing. Until very recently the Tate Modern, one of the biggest contemporary art institutions in Europe, did not have a curator of photography. The Centre Pompidou in Paris does not do more than one pure photography show per year (this kind of unwritten rule doesn't apply to other media). My impression is that many modern or contemporary art museums are still reluctant to present straight photography exhibitions. Where I disagree, reluctantly, with Graham is in his plea for the art world to look up and take notice, giving straight photography its due. Ed Winkleman says it best: "anyone who had been promised that the art world was going to be fair should demand their money back." The phenomenon of artists being widely celebrated (and even a little bit rich) in their own lifetime is relatively recent... I believe Picasso was the first to orchestrate this... and as photography has only been accepted as an art form over the last four decades or so, it seems normal to me that it is still struggling to find its place.

In terms of the commercial art market, photography is everywhere: you won't see a contemporary art fair without a healthy dose of our beloved still images. But, my impression is that straight photography — as opposed to the photography of Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand mentioned by Graham — has less of a place in contemporary art circles. There is a sense that being a photographer does not carry the same weight as being an 'artist.' The word 'photographer' implies craft rather than concepts or ideas, key measures of values in contemporary art, and craft has become a dirty word in the art world synonymous with pottery or glass-blowing (to quote Blake Andrews). Some photographers have even attempted to rebrand themselves as 'artists', presumably to escape the photographic ghetto. One measure I think will support me here is price: I'm pretty sure that if you compared the price of straight photography to the price of 'contemporary photographic art' for lack of a better term, you would see a pretty significant disparity, even between individuals with similar visibility and at a similar stage of their career. If anyone's got an account with artprice or one of those services, feel free to check this out!

Let's say that you accept that straight photography is lagging behind the leaders of the art pack (insert your preferred reasons here), what should be done? While I understand his point that the only thing you can do is to make the 'best' art possible, I was truly surprised by Winkleman's idea that if you "get out there and make better art than anyone else around you ... the world WILL notice." This strikes me as more than a little naive for such a consistently intelligent commentator on the art market. Does anyone truly believe that the art market (or world) is a state-of-the-art machine, constructed to ensure that the better art is, the more it gets noticed (see a previous post on this)? Just take a look at the world of consumerism: products don't sell more because they are better, there are a million other factors that determine their success: advertising, marketing, lack of competition, pricing, demand, the total irrationality of the consumer, etc.. The art market (I am taking the liberty of equating the art market with the art world here, including public institutions and not only commercial galleries) is precisely the kind of market which is riddled with imperfections: it's tiny, full of different hand-made products each claiming to be totally unique and it's ruled by a handful of major players with a controlling market share trying to sell to a handful of buyers who have all the money. And even if the art market were a utopia where the best art would rise to the top, where exactly is this universal yardstick on which the quality of art is being measured?

There is also the notion, expressed by Jörg Colberg, that photographers are just wasting their time worrying about what photography is, that this navel-gazing is causing their self-inflicted ostracization from the art market. The suggestion here seems to be that if they just got on with making photographs they might be taken more seriously. I tend to agree with Blake Andrews on this one: I see this kind of internal debate and questioning as positive signs of photography's health. And even if it bores you, it is by no means restricted to photography: take the major debate over the death of painting in the 1980s for example. Questions on the boundaries of art, on what art is and what it isn't, are not exactly new, indeed they are a natural and necessary reaction to any major artistic development.

The idea that Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand and James Casebere are "being taken seriously because they are producing images without worrying themselves sick over whether it’s photography or not" runs counter to the history of art. I am currently editing a book on Impressionism, which features a number of letters by Pissarro, Gauguin and Monet. What emerges from the correspondence of these artists with their dealers, friends or their family, is just how deeply uncertain they are about the new things that they are attempting to do with painting and what reaction they will receive amongst critics, collectors and the general public.

My suggested course of action is that we worry even harder about all this stuff, about the nature of photography and about the quality, relevance and importance of individual photographs, and hopefully some of that "better art" will come out of it.