“Look at this!” a friend of mine said the other day, shoving his phone at me. “I took it completely by accident!”
It wasn’t a bad shot, a tilted, blurry image of some people on a sidewalk. But what had so impressed my friend was that it wasn’t what he usually took, i.e. shots of posed friends eating food, the food itself, sunsets, artsy posters, etc. My friend, in his mind, had just accomplished street photography. He had joined the club and was ready to don The Hat. I appreciated his confiding in me and loved to see him happy; friends are more important than photography after all. But it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the perception of street photography as basically just accidents.
It’s an easy assumption to make; the very nature of street photography is based on observations of candid, unplanned (by the photographer) scenes. And most people tend to extend that description of the subject matter to the practice itself. Street photography, in their minds, can only happen by accident. Practitioners of other types of photography note the lack of control they usually wield in terms of setting up shots, lighting, models, poses, etc., and conclude that, minus that level of control, one is left completely at the mercy of the universe (although in my experience the universe can and does provide better than I can, so I’m good with that). It also explains the acclaim for photos of actual accidents, mishaps, juxtapositions, etc. within the genre. People posting photos in online critique threads often also add long explanations to their submissions, saying this or that happened “by accident” to stave off any accusations or criticism. It wasn’t their fault, you see, because, well, street, you know…it just happened. By the same token, “Luck” is often used to describe more successful shots, but it boils down to the same thing.
One of the results of this view is a general sense that there can’t be much actual skill or technique involved in the practice of street photography; one is just naturally lucky or not. It’s a comforting thought for many people; no one can be to blame for poor results. In my experience teaching street photography, I’ve found that instructing students who see photos but need help refining how to express what they see through compelling work is a completely different endeavor than advising students who simply don’t see photos and complain that “there’s just nothing happening!” I try to meet students where they are, but this is difficult territory to traverse because I can’t tell others what should strike them as photographable beyond, well, just about anything and everything, depending on what you notice and how you perceive it. They assume that such work “just happens” and all they have to do is be at the “right” spot with the “right” camera and boom: ART. Presented with collected works of street photographs that were accumulated, crafted and edited over the course of several years or decades, their takeaway is somehow that all of these scenes must be just waiting for them, in perfect order and wrapped up with a bow, during a single fast-paced stride down the block, Right Camera held out in front of them to capture that inevitable decisive moment. When it seldom happens, or when they miss it when it does, the walk was disappointing and a waste of time. They conclude that they’re just not lucky and either give up or simply take bad photos of unhoused people they deem “interesting characters.”
Not long ago I responded to a post by a well-known photography blogger concerning street photography, including tips and tricks and other advice, some of which I found rather questionable, e.g.: “Have a friend with you...if you're a larger male, being in the company of a female works wonders. Women in particular seem to think: Well, she trusts him, so he's probably all right.”
The thing is, said blogger is not a street photographer, his experience largely deriving from equipment reviews, and has never shown much particular aptitude in that respect. Though I refrained from singling him out, I couldn’t help but observe that, unlike other genres, street photography seems to tempt those who don’t really do it very well to tell others how to do it. I never see people telling others how to do, say, fashion photography without at least having done it themselves with some amount of success, but with Street I see it all the time. When said blogger didn’t publish my comment, I thought: Perhaps he is rethinking the matter.
His very next post had my comment pegged in bold at the top, though without a link as if he were protecting me from myself, while he exhorted his followers to just look at the ridiculousness he had to put up with. His answer to my effrontery? “Well, of course! If someone is naturally good at something and has never experienced problems, how would they know what the problems are?” He then posted about how failure was a good thing, and then had some kind of existential crisis before boasting about one of his images making Flickr’s Explore page, with repeatedly updated Like and View numbers for our enlightenment followed by a print sale of said photo for several hundred dollars. This man went on a journey.
It would seem that even most photographers see street photography to be by its very nature accidental. Anyone can do it, and everyone seemingly does; I’ve seen “Street” listed in the bios of photographers who do everything from salon to product photography. In their minds, there are no problems to be experienced with street photography; it simply is, and the good shots “just happen.”
I’ve listened to people attending exhibits featuring classic street photography works by great artists such as Erwitt, Cartier-bresson, Maier, Parks, Frank, Levitt, Winogrand and Eggleston, and many if not most of the comments centered on the photographer’s “incredible luck” to have been where they were when they were, as if all of these scenes were just occurring all around them all the time. You can hear the frustration in the responses of Winogrand and Eggleston in interviews, resorting to mystic, haiku-like responses, clearly at a loss to describe to others how they perceive the world around them, how they convey their vision and interpretation of culture and society through photography when what people really want to know is how to be lucky.
The only thing one can do, according to the truly astounding amount of “instructional” street photography videos on Youtube by people who for the most part demonstrably don’t know what they’re doing, is increase one’s odds by traveling to as many “interesting” places as possible. Indeed, there is a group of people, mostly older/independently wealthy white people from Western nations who more or less constantly attend modern-day photo safaris held year-round all around the world, mostly in what they call “image-rich” third-world cultures, entering the resulting photos in the slew of online contests that charge for each entry and often “winning” them. And I can’t blame them; it sounds like an incredible life for those who have the means, and probably better than sitting around one’s mansion pool snorting coke and yelling at one’s trust fund accountants or whatever else it is rich people do. And if one indeed has entirely too much money, one can attend several Magnum workshops, use the best equipment, and, most importantly, rub shoulders with the people who can get one’s work out there, books published, with gallery exhibitions and articles in the New York Times and The Guardian. There’s a reason virtually all of the internationally published street photography compilations have been compiled by a group of straight white cis British men that could fit comfortably in a single taxi.
But say as it happens you don’t have access to a shit-ton of moolah, and have to work at a job every day just to make ends meet. You’re not “known” by anyone of consequence, which is a Catch-22: If you’re not known, there’s not much you can do to change that situation. It’s no accident that people such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston came from wealthy families, or that Magnum members in the early days could ask their friends at lunch at Le Dôme: “Hold on, you’re a photographer, how’d you like to join Magnum?” while Maier’s fame came about only after her unfortunate and sad demise, after she had labored to make the work she did while holding down difficult jobs her entire life, and after her work was “discovered” by a random white dude bidding on the detritus of her life at a public auction.
Wasn’t social media supposed to change all of that, to spread the opportunity a bit wider? It certainly has changed a great deal, but access remains a problem. The Instagram account “Photographers Photographed” typically features well-known photographers caught in the act of photographing. But if you yourself are not well-known, it doesn’t matter whom you caught photographing; the account’s owner only communicates with “known” photographers; your message will not be read. You might have caught a wonderful moment of ol' Henri himself taking a rare photo with his Leica in 2003 on the streets of Paris, but if you’re not on the list, it might as well not exist.
So in a way, accidents and luck do play a huge role in success in the street photography world, just not the kind of accidents most people have in mind. One can work for decades improving one’s craft, vision, observational and photographic skills to create a compelling, emotive body of work. That part isn’t luck; it’s work, effort and practice. What is luck is belonging to a class, demographic and culture where one’s privilege, means and connections allow for a relatively easy path to success. I personally have had access to opportunities other photographers did not through no fault of their own. Women street photographers have only recently made significant strides in this respect, and while it is not only amazing that it took so long to make even that amount of progress, such longstanding prejudices remain not only pervasive but are largely ignored by those in power. Why do African street photographers struggle to find representation in an international street photography sphere of influence essentially run by a handful of white British dudes? That, I’m sorry to say, is no accident.