Must Street Photos Always Be Imperfect?

We live in an imperfect world — photography records the world as it is — therefore photography is always imperfect.

Looking at the impeccably finished images of advertising, fashion, and landscape photography you could be forgiven for overlooking this fact. After all, creative people strive for perfection — or at least try to make their work as good as it can be. Only in the street or on the battlefield does reality successfully resist our natural urge to make it appear aesthetically perfect.

I have a measure of sympathy with the view expressed by Canadian photographer Patrick La Roque, who makes this philosophical comment in one of his YouTube videos:

“To my mind street photography is not so much about location as it is about a method. It’s a way to approach photography; it’s a way to accept randomness and chaos; a way of reacting to what’s going on around you. I think this can be applied to anything.”

I agree that it’s necessary to accept — and perhaps even revel in — the chaos of the street. However, I don’t think we should necessarily carry this chaos directly through to our finished work. Like all artists, the street photographer brings order to chaos. That, surely, is the fundamental process of artistic creation.

Order and Chaos
A while back I read Camille Paglia’s book Sexual Personae and have already quoted passages from it in Street Photography Is Cool. Paglia believes the opposition of order and chaos is what produces all great art and literature. She finds figures in Greek mythology to embody each concept: the god Apollo represents order and control, while Dionysus represents chaos and the dark forces of the underworld that drive the energies of nature.

Working quietly in a studio, a painter may struggle to find inspiration but has no such trouble in bringing order to a composition. Outside on the street, the photographer can tap into the energy that’s being expended everywhere, but finds it harder to impose order and control — especially with an instrument that records what it “sees.”

In my featured image (above) I’ve placed three versions of “Downhill Walker” next to each other with varying degrees of straightening. Individually, none of the images looks perfectly straight because the woman is walking down a hill on which both a litter bin and a tree are at a slight angle. Placing the three images together, with the litter bin upright in the centre, seems to be the only way of making it look satisfying.

Far from Perfect
Maybe “perfection” is too strong a word. Most street photos are so messy they’re a million miles away from being perfect. We have to look at street photography differently from the way we view any other photographic genre. We learn to tolerate seeing one figure partially occluded by another; a face or a limb cut in two by the edge of the frame; or out-of-focus areas in the foreground.

In fact, these are all visual clues that tell us we’re seeing a genuine street photo and not an artificially constructed scenario.

girls snacking, chickens strutting

For example, you can tell that the scene (above) is a real street photo and not a staged pastiche. I don’t think I’d exclude even Canadian artist Jeff Wall from this statement: he’d pay the girls, buy the chickens, and devise the scene – but would he think of including a McGraw Hill logo which appears in the top right corner of the interior? I’ve only just spotted it myself — and McGraw Hill once published one of my books!

The image is very natural, very imperfect. Nothing counteracts the slant to the left and the chickens are dying to walk out of frame. Nonetheless, I like the image despite its imperfection because it’s not entirely chaotic. It pivots around the central strut holding up a tarpaulin which is out of frame at the top.

When It’s All in the Right Place
That said, there’s huge satisfaction in viewing — and even more in making — a street photo in which everything seems to be in the right place.

In the shot below, everyone is in a straight line, more or less equidistant from the camera. No, it’s far from “perfect” but it has a higher degree of order than the picture above.

Street scene with six people, one on a motorbike

For example, you may notice that each person is a lone player, except for the two girls walking away from us, side-by-side.

It’s this discovered order, chosen from the chaos of the street, which gives it a distinctive look.

So yes, street photos are always imperfect, but the street photographer is always striving — in vain — for perfection.

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