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Photochart

July 17th, 2009

Having spent the last couple of months looking at a great deal of street photography to feature in the forthcoming PUBLICATION street photography periodical, I have become very aware of the photographic landscape and how the work of the photographers I've been viewing falls somewhere between three poles...

Fine Art Photography - Preoccupation with aesthetic values, shot for the gallery, usually larger format, less issue based, less 'moment' based, including a lot of non documentary work using computer manipulation and models.

Photojournalism - Issue/story/theme based photography, strongly themed collections of images, largely smaller format for editorial and web presentation, completely documentary tradition.

Street Photography - Preoccupation with the 'moment' and the 'found', generally collections of single unconnected images, largely small format for publication and web presentation, completely documentary tradition.

I started to try and visualise a photographic topography onto which I could place photographers that would show the degree to which their work reflected the aspects of these three poles and show how they related to each other, how some would be neighbors and some would live close but across the documentary/non documentary divide. The resulting diagram has many flaws, it is very generalistic, it sums up a photographer with a single point and the positioning of those points is very subjective. It is also very much drawn from a Street Photography perspective but it does help one think about ones own work and where it might fit into the landscape.

Photochart, where would you appear?

Where would you appear?

Please feel free to make suggestions and criticisms and I will look at updating it if I agree.

Whilst putting PUBLICATION together I contacted photographer Matthew Baum about an image of his that I had admired for a long time, I explained the idea behind PUBLICATION and we spoke for an hour one Saturday morning about the possibility of my publishing his photograph. At no point during our conversation did he mention to me that he used a computer to 'tidy' his scenes up, it was a few days later that a number of photographers expressed surprise that I wanted to include him and informed me of his process.

photograph: Matthew Baum

photograph: Matthew Baum

I still love the picture but in a different way now, the relationship between Baum's image and the real world has been further removed by his manipulation, however subtle. The picture and Baum move across a border, they cross my 'red line' into a new region of photography, a region that I respect less because it is easier to do.
In the world of Fine Art Photography it is only the end result that matters, the process is less important but in the world of Photojournalism or Street Photography the honesty of the process is as important as the image it achieves. I would rather see Baums image a little less perfect but with its relationship to reality less broken.

When I look at a crazy or beautiful street photograph, I am amazed by the real world and I am amazed that someone had the physical and mental presence and often good fortune to catch it. I see pictures like Melanie Einzig's 'Spring Corner' and it lifts my spirits, it makes me excited about the world we live in because that is where her picture was made, crazy scenes like this do occur and here is the evidence of that. Beautiful as it is, what is Matthew Baums photograph evidence of?

photograph: Melanie Einzig

photograph: Melanie Einzig

19 Responses to “Photochart”

  1. Eric R. Bechtold

    What? No Helen Levitt? I would put her up next to Garry Winogrand. If I were to put myself on the map, it would be next to Helen…

  2. Robert M Johnson

    I would like to be grouped with HCB and/or Robert Frank…

  3. Ian

    I’ve been thinking about your post. I was wondering if there was someone that fell right in the middle, and this question has lead me to disagree about where you put Cartier-Bresson. He scorned pure journalism and the photo story, but put himself into a lot of journalistic situations. He is one of the iconic street photographers, but did not exclusively shoot in the street (the many lovely portraits in his oeuvre). While his work focused on the real and the moment, he had a painter’s eye for composition and has a huge body of work that has beautiful abstract aesthetic qualities. He had this code, a set of limitations that helped spur him to excellence. He discovered his personal vision. This is what all great artists did, from Picasso to Polluck, or in HCB’s case the surrealists with whom he shared much. There are my two cents. Thanks for the great post.

  4. Sean McDonnell

    Great debate Nick

    The Fine Art axis of the triangle is loaded to the present day, but I’m sure you’d agree there are candidates from the documentary era at the turn of the last century such as Paul Strand could sit comfortably there too. Similarly mid-century street photographers Harry Callahan and Ray Metzker made powerful personal, “artistic” images too.

    My point is these photographers were just taking pictures, without the blessing or curse we have of so much retrospect. We can’t make new work today without it being referred to in some way to what’s gone before. For me the challenge is not to be constrained by that but liberated to work in and around these type of categories.

    Perhaps we need a new shape to describe this, maybe a triple helix!

  5. admin

    Some good suggestions, I will wait a few days and post a revised chart…

    @Eric > Yes how could I omit Helen Levitt, and I agree she was a pure street photographer and should be right up in that corner.

    @Robert > Your B/W work from the seventies very much has the Robert Frank feel about it, I need to add him too.

    @Ian > I’m persuaded, I agree with you about HCB, I’m going to move him more towards the centre. HCB is one of those photographers who makes a chart like this a difficult prospect because he excelled in several areas. I think he was certainly an artist in the sense you define one but I don’t think he shot for the gallery or for that market like those I’ve put in that Fine Art corner.

    @Sean > lol I think a triple helix may be beyond my design and programing skills but I certainly agree that times have changed over the last 150 years of photography. When I stated the chart I was keen to have mostly contemporary photographers but found it helpful to add the classics like Winogrand and HCB as well known ‘waypoints’ to help illustrate that region of the chart.

    I am traveling and shooting for a few days then I will return to the chart for version 2.

    Nick.

  6. jared iorio

    Magnum photographers is certainly broad, and you’ve taken a couple of them out and put them elsewhere on the chart, but as a whole they should probably be moved up the left side of the triangle towards street (how else to account for Parke, Gilden, etc..) and towards the right a bit instead of sticking them deep in the corner of photojournalism.

    My .02 cents…

  7. Joe

    Nick I don’t really care about your matrix, I think people first have an appetite for what they want to achieve, not what category they would fit into chasing it, mapping how they did it reveals nothing but statistics, but people love this stuff, so I’m glad you’re providing entertainment.

    I’d love to see you create a matrix of what “motivated” people to pursue what they did, I’d like you to show me where Goldin and Erwitt would fit into this self-drive puzzle and then you would reveal something I would like to understand better, according to this view they would be far too similar and nothing could be more absurd than that.

    But that’s not what motivated me to comment here. It was the tangent comment you made about Baum’s image. It made me think a bit about a question I once asked Alex Webb, basically I wanted to know what he thought of the constraints on still photography, the fact that it only captures the surfaces of life, how still images had such little power to reflect information that other media forms possessed (e.g. written, moving pictures, ect). He said this back to me:

    “For me, photography affirms reality, but does not explain it. Part of its strength lies in its ambiguity, its suggestiveness.”

    This made me think a bit more about the strengths and weaknesses of a still image in comparison to other forms of communication, especially thinking hard about the magic of seemingly pointless street photography images.

    I guess I really believe that a still image still offers an illusion in that you don’t know for sure what’s happened before it and you don’t know for sure what’s happened after it, but you know something has already happened by the time you see it and you have the luxury of looking at that image, contemplating that image, studying that image indefinitely for what it is, or indefinitely as a metaphor for something else.

    I suppose for this reason a still image will always have an unmatched strength against the flowing aspect of moving pictures and even written narratives, but… (and I even thought about this while walking to work today) only if that image actually carries the pedigree of authenticity; we simply need to believe that the image was not staged or we ‘will’ know what happened before (some one took a light reading) and we ‘will’ know what happened after (the model went back to his or her chair). Or worse it was created in P.S.

    Nick I think this is what disturbs you about the Baum image, not necessarily the supposed changed complexity of capture. It’s the fact that we need to believe an image is authentic or we don’t want to even bother speculating, exploring, and maybe even concluding, cuz it never effing happened.

    But then there is Jeff Wall. He just defies this reasoning, he’s so effing convincing with his complex staged street photography.

    Kind Regards.

  8. Wayne

    Thanks for this – it’s an interesting attempt to visualize ideas. One thing it got me thinking about concerns the red lima bean of “documentary.” Would purely scientific or documentary photography exist on the red line itself (or in the space between the blue and red)? The blue line is authorship?

    I imagine mugshots or photobooth self-portraits would be on the red line between street and photojournalism. NASA photos between fine art and photojournalism. Muybridge nearby, on the blue line, near Salgado.

  9. Joni Karanka

    HCB tended to think about it more as art than journalism for sure, he’s a bit too much on the left (specially at the time he came out). I think that Martin Parr is the guy that’s definitively in the middle of the whole lot, with some of his works more towards one place or another, but being able to embrace all.

  10. Sean

    I have only just come across your site, so I am a bit late to this post.

    In relation to your deifinition of street photography, and in distinction to other, similar photographic styles, may I recommend (I could find no mention of it through a search of your site):

    Clive Scott: Street Photography: from Atget to Cartier-Bresson. I.B. Tauris & Co. LTD. 2007.

    Good on the difference between street and documentary photography, the relationship between impressionism and street photography, and the concept of the instant.

    Best, Sean.

  11. tep

    You have Amy Stein, but not someone like Lauren Greenfield who’s been around much longer and is way more successful in the photojournalism, fine art, and even commercial worlds?

  12. Will

    Hi Nick, interesting observation, I have some thoughts that I think is a bit long to be a comment, so I posted them here:

    http://portfoliography.com/2009/10/true-color-of-photography/

    Keep in mind that I’m seeing it from a different perspective, so my views aren’t as technical as your research.

    Thanks.

  13. Jeff Gates

    Very interesting post and an idea that has occupied me for many years. I was a fine art photographer who suddenly found himself photographing a swath of land that was supposed to become a freeway in Los Angeles. Because of a court injunction stopping construction the landscape was “frozen” in time while the legal aspects were sorted out. This provided me an opportunity to photograph. Initially, I was attracted to the area because it reminded me of the bit of suburbia I grew up in. But as I got into the photographing and then the writing which accompanies the work, it morphed into more of a documentary. So, it started out as an artistic exploration but changed as I got into the project. The work is called In Our Path and you can see it at: http://inourpath.com

  14. zach wilson

    wonder where Scott Schuman, the Sartorialist would appear on this

  15. Taylor Davidson

    “The picture and Baum move across a border, they cross my ‘red line’ into a new region of photography, a region that I respect less because it is easier to do.”

    Easy to do, but not easy to do well. I understand that the surprise makes us feel cheated, but it doesn’t detract from its quality, and points to the need for photographers to communicate the context behind images.

    Photographs have always been slivers of reality, the only difference is how we capture / create those slivers.

  16. Jeff Gates

    William Eggleston is much closer to fine art photography than you have him. I’d put someone like William Christenberry (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5613101) closer to Street Photography (which I would rather see title as Documentary Photography).

  17. Felicia

    Where would Lorca Di Corcia fit into this discussion? His later work has been shot entirely on the street, but he uses light set ups to illuminate the subject matter, to guide our eye. It’s Fine Art shot on the street, even though there is a very present and purposeful aesthetic.

    I think it’s a little to didactic to create these categories because I see the work of really good street photogs to be beautiful works of art in that they stop beautiful every day moments and freeze them for us all, much the way that the photo of Melnie Einzig does. Sure someone like a Baum could photoshop that image, but to actually have the sensibility to watch and wait for the photo to create itself is an art form in itself.

    Yes, what Baum does in his image is purposeful and skillful, but to leave out the fact that he has indeed altered the photo completely changes the experience for me because I want to know what was taken out and why?

    I’m less interested in works like Baum’s the purposefully cross a line to create an illusion of “realness”, but I am interested in works like those of Melanie Einzig, De Carava, Robert Frank and the like that are simply transcendent, regardless of the school of photo making they ascribe to.

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