David Gibson, the curator (and author) of the newly published volume 100 Great Street Photographs, provides us with a broad and helpful overview of the street photographers working in the field today. He calls them the “Internet generation” and accordingly provides a website, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and/or Instagram address for each; he notes too how the vast majority of the photographs were made in the last five years.
There are issues, of course, around the use of apps and other recent technology, but Gibson’s sole mission is to highlight quality photographs, and he is not too bothered by debates concerning social media and camera phones. While he does admit that only 10 or so were taken with a phone camera, it seems that “Let a hundred flowers bloom” is his philosophy. As long as a photograph can justify its existence by earning his attention, its provenance is less important.
Most of the images are previously unpublished, and each one is generously presented on a double-page spread – text on one side, the photograph on the other. The result is a democratic window on un-staged, of-the-moment photography from around the world.
What lies behind the impromptu nature of street photography is the patience and discerning eye of the photographer, regardless of where the image has been made. For example, urban mythology rates the Shinjuku junction in Tokyo as the world’s busiest intersection but Dan Szpara waited there for twenty minutes (“an eternity for most street photographers”) in July 2016 before leaving with a shot that satisfied him. The result: a messy, on-the-hoof collection of pedestrians and consumers form a background that gives way, like the biblical opening of the Red Sea, to an uncluttered, black-and-white pavement space.
Szpara captures a theatrical moment where a hatted woman poses with a melon on a stick while her boyfriend, crouching with a lolly and a bag hanging from his arm, crouches to produce a memorable image of her. Reflexivity is granted by the invisible presence of Szpara with his camera and, adding another semiotic layer, a second woman—also wearing a hat—registers his involvement by gazing steadily in the direction where he must be standing.
Traffic junctions in Hanoi can be as frenetically busy as Tokyo’s, but photographer Richard Hernandez manages to suggest otherwise with his starkly elegant shot of pedestrians, mopeds and a cyclist. The overall composition and spacing has a purist, geometric quality to it as it draws our eye to the two women in the centre. Taken with an iPhone, Hernandez was concentrating on photographing the women, standing placidly and unaware of the encircling human and vehicular traffic.
Photographs like these two are arresting, and there are plenty more like them in this stimulating book—but there are also some images that may raise eyebrows. Street photography can be stirring in its simplicity, but some photos are merely clever or whimsical, relying on the serendipity that brings a camera and a street scene into an incidental relationship. While such a happy result is not necessarily to be disdained, it can also be less than inspiring or truly memorable. An example of this is a Martin Parr image, taken just before a Lord Mayor’s parade in London: a gleaming pair of rider’s boots pose perpendicular on the pavement. No one is standing in the boots, creating a quirky “invisible man” moment but nothing more; anyone on the spot could have taken the photo. For those who consider Parr’s vast work to be an accomplished oeuvre, this seems like a strange choice.
On the other hand, who but a street photographer like Michelle Rice Chan (aka Little Rice) could take a wedding photo of a couple laying on a rowing boat, drifting towards their unknown future; who but Shin Noguchi could rhapsodise over the colour yellow while catching graphic patterning on a pavement and on a skirt?
Street photography has an ethos and feels consistent with a roving spirit in our times. But it’s not all jetsetting and geometry. Julie Hrudova’s image, for example, captures the loneliness that can seem so unavoidably a part of the contemporary urban experience with the image of a solitary, faceless individual holding her handbag not on a street pavement but on ice in Moscow’s Gorky Park. This photograph is also key because it shows that the term “street photography” needn’t be literally confined to a public road in a street or town. Indeed, the book’s front cover is, itself, a challenge to any narrow definition of the genre. Thankfully, this wide-awake book is wise enough to allow the term to take on its full metaphorical possibilities.
100 Great Street Photographs
Selection and texts by David Gibson
Published by Prestel
Hardcover: 208 pages
Sean Sheehan is a freelance writer and the author of Jack’s World, with photographs by Danny Gralton and Ciaran Watson.