Street photography is an acquired taste. It’s often criticised for showing people in unflattering situations and invading their privacy. Some critics claim it to be contrived or even faked. Yet by far the most damaging criticism — and one which is hard to deflect — says street photography is (to use a hackneyed phrase) riddled with clichés.
The definition of the word cliché normally refers to stereotyped expressions, such as an over-used phrase or a popular homily. We now apply it to other forms of expression beyond spoken language: to art, design, fashion and, of course, photography. Anything that’s trite or commonplace through constant repetition can be considered a cliché.
Sadly, clichés are a bit like faded movie stars who’ve lost the unique look for which they became famous. Every cliché starts out as a strikingly original thought — embodied in art or language — only to become trite with overuse. The phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” is a prime and self-referential example.
Street photography, taken “en masse,” certainly betrays a high level of cliché, a fact which is surprising when you consider how life in the street is constantly changing. I’m not a mathematician, but I reckon there are more potential combinations of figures, objects and environment in street photography than there are molecules on Earth.
Where the Problem Lies
The problem lies chiefly in two places: in reality’s superficial similarities — where one man in a grey suit looks much like any other — and in how we interpret what we see, selecting subjects which other photographers have previously chosen with demonstrable success.
Let’s take the similarities first. Street furniture in every big city normally conforms to a pattern: the bus shelters are similar to each other, the street lamps identical, the storm drains indistinguishable.
Take my featured image (above), for example. The brightly coloured plastic chairs say “Thailand,” the storm drain says “Bangkok.” I think you can also see the remains of a telephone kiosk on the right, now derelict thanks to the mobile phone.
However, in my treatment of the subject I’ve used these clichés to original effect, ironically by drawing attention to them. By chopping off the heads of the diners I’m left with a stereotypical meal, enjoyed on the sidewalk like a million other meals that day, with bowls, plates and beakers in clichéd pastel pink and green. I’m hoping the clichés have devoured each other. Am I right?
Now let’s turn to how we interpret what we see in front of us. In looking for shots we’re undoubtedly influenced by the work of other photographers. It’s hard to gaze into a shop window without thinking of Vivian Maier’s self portraits, or to see a vagrant without recalling Berenice Abbott’s “Bowery Bum.” There’s a temptation to take a similar shot, as if to say: “Look, I can do it, too!”
Is it wrong to imitate in this way? No one’s going to stop you, but only if you come up with something truly original and effective will people take notice. They’ll praise you, make you famous, and very soon they’ll start to copy you. In fact, they’ll turn your present-day originality into tomorrow’s cliché. Seriously, doesn’t Henri Cartier-Bresson’s puddle-stepping man in “Behind the Gare St. Lazare” (so original in 1932) look a little bit trite after so many imitations?
There’s a touch of Cartier-Bresson in my photo (below) of a mother and son taking a photo outside the former site of the Photographer’s Gallery in London. The clichés are obvious: the fancy decoration on the lamp-post, the ubiquitous phone kiosk (affectionately retained by popular demand), the counterbalancing red of the frequently seen CCTV notice.
But what delights me is the boy’s momentary lapse of concentration as his mother attempts to show him how to take a photo. He’s probably tired from skateboarding and fascinated by the bottle of water he’s carrying. The way in which his hand is frozen in mid-movement competes for “the decisive moment” with his mother’s adjustment of the camera (alarmingly pointed in my direction).
My shot does not imitate any photo ever taken by Cartier-Bresson, but his influence is there and I’m happy to acknowledge it. Despite the presence of ubiquitous objects — and despite the influence of HCB — I think I’ve avoided cliché.
In Quirky Mode
Does my final photo (below) do the same? I’m not so sure. Once you embrace the quirky mode of street photography there’s a greater danger of falling into cliché.
Visual humour has an obviousness that can be unsatisfying. We look at the image, we “get it” immediately, and move on. There’s no reason to linger if the point of a photo is (say) the apparent substitution of a football for a man’s head because the subject is standing in a certain position. These visual quirks have been done to death. I’m no longer amused.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist taking a shot of the Jimmy Choo shop in Hong Kong, prior to its opening. I wonder, did the shop designer plan this amusing scenario deliberately, with candid photography in mind? Or was it the PR company, looking for snaps that go viral?
I’ve no idea. But I have huge admiration for the original image, shot by Los Angeles-based photographer Cass Bird, with the Danish model Nadja Bender. Their whole photo shoot for the project was outstanding — and based on the idea of juxtaposing vintage and modern designs.
My juxtaposition — with the storeman at the receiving end of the fashion world’s chain of command — is somewhat more quirky. I think it works. You tell me.