The Problem of Public Art in Street Photography

As a street photographer I’ve been keeping an eye on all these quirky bits of sculpture that keep appearing in places where you least expect them. I quite like one or two of them, like the Oscar Wilde memorial (above). Yet so many public sculptures are beyond awful.

What on earth were people thinking when they decided to ruin a lovely street corner with a cluster of fried eggs (Santiago, Chile), a crumpled plastic cup (Bristol, UK), or a drift of mischievous pigs (Adelaide, Australia)?

I usually avoid photographing statues and sculptures — in the same way as I avoid street performers, beggars, vagrants, and undercover police officers who are posing as beggars and vagrants. From a photographic point of view they’re all sitting ducks. Some of the sculptures are sitting ducks quite literally. An 85-foot tall duck sculpture by Florentijn Hofman supposedly “spreads joy around the world.” No it doesn’t, Florentijn. Stop it.

A Sample Collection
You can find collections of ghastly public art on Pinterest (including the duck sculpture and the others I’ve mentioned), where every piece contrasts unfavourably with all those wonderful examples of slick design elsewhere. Here’s my own collection — sample above — put together for this article. It’s called “Whose Idea Was This?” (click the link to see the full hideousness). Just imagine yourself taking a serious street photo anywhere near them.

‚ĶThank you for coming back to read the remainder of this article after being exposed to those “amusing” examples of (mainly taxpayer-funded) public sculptures. I didn’t include any with real quality.

Quirky But Brilliant
You see, I’m not opposed to quirkiness per se. London’s distinguished memorial to Oscar Wilde (the featured image at the top) who is shown reclining in a coffin-shaped piece of polished granite in Adelaide Street, conversing exuberantly — his hand dangling a cigarette — is genuinely entertaining and moving. Created by Maggi Hambling and installed in 2004, it makes a real and meaningful contribution to London life. Its inscription, from Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”.

My image shows how naturally Londoners interact with the Wilde memorial. However, the piece has not been without controversy.

Charles Spencer, former theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, found the representation of Wilde “loathsome” and threatened to break it up with a sledgehammer and pneumatic drill. But then, he was equally disparaging of Hambling’s wonderfully evocative tribute to Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh beach, calling it a “hideous pile of rusting scrap metal.”

Such philistinism! When widely published critics are so bone-headed about visual art it’s not surprising that local councils give the OK to mediocre work elsewhere. Hambling’s Wilde memorial emerged from decisions taken by a committee of distinguished artists, including the poet Seamus Heaney and actors Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. It’s the genuine article: fine art for the street.

Serious But Aloof
In our photos we can mock — or celebrate — the sculptures that have taken up residence in our cities. They vary in size from tiny busts on pedestals to huge structures that can be seen from miles around. Some of them disrupt the flow of pedestrians, others provide welcome shade. The worst of them are sometimes placed there as “photo opportunies,” in front of which people can take family snaps and selfies.

The coil at the entrance to Singapore’s Scotts Square (above) is an example of the “aloof style” of street sculpture: large, in keeping with the size of the buildings around it, but not in any way intrusive. Called “Undetermined Line” it’s by the New York-based French sculptor Bernar Venet, who once said: “It is not art if it doesn’t change the history of art.” Primarily a conceptual artist he explores ideas about indetermination, disorder, chance, and unpredictability — very much what I try to do in street photography. I like his work!

Unserious But Intrusive
I wish I could say the same for some of the sculptures closer to home. Britain is regularly assaulted with kitsch projects designed to involve the public not only in admiring but actually in creating the sculptures. They’re later put on display, mercifully for a short time, before being auctioned as garden ornaments. In the last few years we’ve had outbreaks of multicoloured cows, giraffes, even Wallace and Gromit figures, dotted around the streets.

Are they fun? Well, yes, they’re amusing and for that reason you can’t disapprove of them. They come and go, unlike some of the permanent installations that appeal to the same craving for visual stimulation. The street photographer has to find ways to come to terms with temporary sculptures, otherwise there’ll be a gap in the history of our artform when it comes to be written.

Whoever came up with the concept of painted giraffes had little consideration for the street photographer. Making a composition with such a tall object is too difficult. In the image above, I’ve solved it by chopping off the giraffe’s head.

Here’s my alternative solution (below). It’s the same giraffe, but head-only. I rather like the contrast between the figure of Victory on the solemn War Memorial in the background compared to the fatuously smug expression of the giraffe in front of it.

Mr. Spencer, can you bring the sledgehammer and pneumatic drill, please?

Leave a Comment