I have long been a staunch critic of the street photography genre. One of the biggest problems I’ve seen over the years, most notably as a judge in dozens of major contests, is derivative work. In this article, I will discuss six types of street photographs that we simply don’t need any more of.
My criticism of street photography is well-established. In 2017, I published an article questioning the ultimate purpose of generating billions and billions of street photographs. The article, which initially went viral, was later updated and republished here. I was criticized for being too harsh in the article, and yet, I still hold to my opinion. At the same time, I have come to appreciate the historical value that some street photography can provide. With this idea in mind, I think street photographers should focus more on depicting their contemporary times in a unique way and less on producing derivative work.
Making photographs similar to those that we have seen receive great praise in the past is an attractive idea. But, just like the writers who ran out to write an “Oprah” book to reap the rewards of her attention, photographers who merely copy the work of others will never achieve any lasting notability of their own. Good photography must disrupt and enrapture, it must expose us to new ways of seeing. Yet, what I see in contests and on social platforms like Instagram most often is just more of the same old, same old. I see people copying each other over and over and over. Here are the six types of photographs I see copied most often.
- The Umbrella Photo. Please, photographers, stop making street photographs of people holding umbrellas. I understand that there is something visually appealing about photographing a person with an umbrella, but does the world really need any more of these images? This kind of photo has been made in every way possible. I guarantee you that you cannot show me an umbrella photo that I will think is unique in any way.
- The Gas Station Photo. The gas station remains a favorite among rural American street photographers. It is, apparently, especially appealing to photograph the gas station at night. Or, perhaps, during the day if it is a vintage-looking station or one with a big rotating sign etc. Stephen Shore is likely to blame here. His work is nice, although largely attractive because of its vintage. At any rate, Stephen has the gas station covered. You can take your own foot off the gas when it comes to making this type of photograph!
- The Billboard/Person Photo. You know the one I mean, a person walking by a billboard or advertisement and somehow their hair lines up with a line on the ad or their head with the head on the billboard. This has been a huge trend in street photography over the past few years, and the look is now overdone. Jonathan Higbee has done quite a lot of this kind of work, for example, and his work is excellent. The point is, however, we don’t need any more of it. Copying Higbee won’t make you a superstar. Move on.
- Person in the Subway Car Photo. Bruce Davidson and Richard Sandler have it covered. We really don’t need any more street photographs from the New York City subway system. Let me tell you a true story. A young photographer recently got himself in front of one of the most famous photography dealers alive. This young photographer proceeded to show a portfolio of subway photos — people looking through the windows, stuck between doors, as well as train cars passing with motion blur, etc. Good photographs in some way, however, the dealer looked at the guy and asked him one question: ”Have you ever heard of Bruce Davidson?” Consider the subway done.
- The Light/Shadow Photo. Think Alex Webb for this one. You know, those images where a person is in the shadows and there are a few rays of light beaming across the frame. Maybe the fedora is illuminated, but the rest of the man is in the shadows. There is a red ball nearby (precisely lit up), and a child swings on a bar over on the edge of the frame. We have all seen a gazillion of these images. Look up the word hackneyed in the dictionary, and you will find one of these photographs. Alex Webb owns this type of photograph. He is king, you are not.
- The Random Looking Startled Stranger Photo. This one belongs to Bruce Gilden. Bruce has given birth to a whole generation of dudes with cameras running after old ladies on the sidewalk. You know, the woman with the cane and the Goliath sunglasses photographed from 4.5 inches away with a handheld flash on the side. Not only is this the most aggressive and intrusive kind of street photography, but it is surely overdone. Even Gilden himself has given up on making this kind of image. You should too!
I write this article partly tongue in cheek. Yet, I am also serious in a way also. I’ve been judging contests, reviewing street photography books, and writing features on street photographers in major magazines for more than a decade. I’ve seen a lot of street photography. I can really assure you, in very real terms, that making these kinds of images may get you lots of likes on Instagram, but they will never get you properly noticed as an artist. The work is derivative and visually tiring. We’ve simply seen too much of it. So, if your goal is to chase Instagram and Facebook likes from the masses, then by all means, carry on. If, however, you seek to make your mark in photography, you will have to work harder to enrapture and disrupt our way of seeing.