Will Street Photography Last for a Thousand Years?

I’m sorry for the ambiguity of the title. There are two questions here: will people still be taking candid street photos a thousand years from now? And will they still want to look at the street photos we’re taking today? Please note: I’ve already discussed the latter question from a 500 year perspective (“Will Anyone Want to Look At Our Street Photos 500 Years From Now?“)

Looking Back
To help us think about it, we can look back a thousand years, and, in the absence of photography, consider other media such as writing, painting, and sculpture.

For example, in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, those charming observations of daily life in Heian Japan are still vivid and alive, much like the best candid photography of today. Although the incidents the author described took place a thousand years ago, they have an immediacy that speaks to us directly across the centuries.

So, yes, literature stands the test of time. Painting is more problematic. A thousand years ago painters in the West had not yet felt the need to portray daily life in their work, concentrating almost exclusively on religious themes. Eventually, artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder could make ordinary life the subject of their work, as in his painting The Peasant Wedding of 1567 (below).

Ceramics and Sculpture
In both East and West, ceramics and sculpture from two thousand years ago bring us closer to the subject of daily life than do the more recent paintings of the early middle ages.

For example, in China, the funerary statues of the Terracotta Army, buried with the Emperor Qin Shi Huang around 210 BC, depict thousands of soldiers with individually modelled faces and physiques. Other figures, of acrobats, dancers, musicians — even bureaucrats — are probably the nearest we can get to “street portraits” in the art of that period.

For greater realism, for really candid poses and “decisive moments,” you would need to leap forward to China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907) for the finest quality wooden and ceramic figures like the one shown below: a woman playing polo. I think the person who made this figure could look at today’s street photos and find much to admire in them, while being a little surprised that so many photographers still cling to black-and-white, but that’s another matter.

[Woman Playing Polo, Tang dynasty, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: Sailko. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Back to The Future
Having glimpsed the past, let’s turn the clock forward.

According to the late Professor Stephen Hawking, the human race will not survive the next thousand years unless it escapes planet Earth and heads off into space.

As the juggernaut of civilization moves forward, internal threats to human life become added to those from space itself. Professor Hawking noted: “I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as a sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers.”

A genetically engineered virus? Heaven forbid!

People of the thirty-first century, voyaging the universe, will view our landscape photography and be reminded of how the Earth developed over millions of years; then they will check out our street photography to see what happened on Earth in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Changing the Viewpoint
By looking both backwards and forwards I’m doing what all street photographers do: changing the viewpoint — the angle, the perspective — trying to understand our role and position in the world, while all the time recording what I see around me.

Does it all matter? Clearly the future of the world matters hugely, but it’s less clear whether humanity’s future is of the greatest importance.

We may find ourselves replaced by beings of superior intelligence, when AI (artificial intelligence) runs amok and figures out ways to outwit us. Maybe AI will apply the brakes to stop us from destroying the planet, keeping us under control as pets in much the same way as we keep cats and dogs.

Perhaps intelligent robots will demand all the fun of doing street photography.

If there’s any photography.

If there are any streets.

Leave a Comment