Thought piece: Utopia is in the moment – by James Horrobin
Today’s rant is something that I’ve been trying to formulate for a while, it came to a head whilst I was walking around Saltaire with my girlfriend. I was browsing in a local shop and came across a book called “Bert Hardy’s Britain”. It’s a collection of photos of Britain taken by Bert Hardy in the mid 20th century, seemingly focused on the poorer end of society.
His photos have a fantastic charm about them, he gives the working class people he documented a dignified, albeit raw and honest representation – a difficult thing to do when dealing with abject poverty.
This book in particular however will not be the focus of today’s writings, what it will be though is the match that lit the tinder on fire. It’s a great example though, so we’ll include some of its images.
What I’d like to talk about is how street photography has changed with the world.
Obviously the aim of street photography is to document life, be it a select group of people, a place, or just a random moment in time. If there’s someone there with a camera then it’s going to be remembered no matter how mundane or extreme it is. Imagine if we’d have had photography since the dawn of time, some amazing moments could have been captured – as a side note I’d love to see what historical moment you wish was photographed, I’d probably go with a Viking raid on Britain.
Street photography is a medium that I have always been interested in but never really made efforts to try, I think I might be too set in my landscape ways to have to deal with….people.
As I said at the start, I’ve been trying to work out how to word this for a while, I honestly don’t know if this is going to be a convoluted mess, so I’m just gonna go with it.
So what’s my point? Well we’ll start by looking at these example photos. To me they tell a story different to the one they show. We have a woman walking into a shop in the Gorbals and a boy having his shoes shined on the street, now I’m fairly confident that shoes and shops haven’t changed, but what has changed is the world these people were part of.
That’s my point.
Street photography is almost a magical thing in the sense that It’s a moment frozen in time forever, I find this absolutely mind blowing!
Now, there’s an artistic aspect to Street photography that seems difficult to achieve, these are matters of composition, lighting and subject, no doubt this is the “decisive moment” Cartier-Bresson was talking about, if we put aside all the artistic efforts they’re simply a record of time and place. This is where things get confusing for me, with many photographs of the past century there seems to be an unavoidable, seemingly accidental art to them.
This is both brilliant and infuriating, on one hand we have a huge stockpile of historical photographs to enjoy and analyse but it annoys me because it feels very difficult to achieve the same level of aesthetic quality and interest nowadays, now please don’t misinterpret this as me saying all modern street photographers are shit, I’m honestly not suggesting that, what I’m trying to get at is the fact that something has changed, it’s something that to my simple mind has made the task of street photographers a lot more difficult.
Take this photo for example, “The Steerage” by American photographer Alfred Stieglitz. It was taken in 1902 aboard the SS Kaiser Wilhelm. I’m not going to write a full rabble about it, but for more info go look into it’s wikipedia article, it’s a great read.
To summarise though, it’s a miracle this image was taken at all, Stieglitz had to run back to his cabin on board the ship, pick up his Auto Graflex 4×5, put the only loaded plate he had in and then run back to the scene. One chance and he certainainly carpe diem’d the hell out of it. Now I’m no scholar so I can’t go into the socio-economic symbolism of the image but obviously things have changed since 1902, even a layman like me can tell that the level of poverty seen on this ship would be pretty much impossible to come across now.
To bring this image back to our question at hand, could we create such an interesting image now a days on modern cruise ships?
The photo above is one of Bert Hardy’s. It absolutely fascinated me when I first saw it; it looks like a dreamscape, the ethereal light on the left and the creeping shadow to the right surround the people in the centre; the young boy looking into the shop, the woman who’s interest is leading her inside, the old man behind her who seems to be very interested in Hardy’s presence, and the two distant people at the back.
It’s such a simple photo but I love it.
Again, to bring this back to what were discussing; with all the hustle and bustle and things screaming for your attention is an imagine as barren and telling as this possible now?
One thing that is totally absent in this photograph are cars, no doubt this is partially due to the poverty of the area but it is worth mentioning that cars were obviously less popular back then. Not only are there no cars, there’s not really anything, no bins, no signs, not even the clothes shop has a frontage. I think this is why I find it so interesting. It’s literally just ‘a street’.
Now this is my question to you, it’s a long one but I would honestly really appreciate everyone’s answers.
As I write this article I’m sat in a cafe in Sheffield. I’m visiting my friends at university here but they’re busy doing boring computer work so I’ve wandered off for a cuppa.
As I look around this busy city I see signs, lights, metal, wood, glass, cars, noise and loads of people despite it being late. This isn’t a problem but it highlights the question we’re discussing now.
If we take street photography into our modern cities around the world now, would we look back at the photographs in 100 years with as much interest and reminiscence as we do with photographs of previous decades?
I know this is getting a bit pretentious but I find there to be something almost philosophical about this question. Will the fact that on average we all have more money and more things change our perspective when we look back?
I think this might possibly give some explanation as to why some under developed countries are popular destinations with photographers (myself included). Places that have pockets of poverty like India and Africa. Obviously these places have booming industries in other parts but there are large swathes of land that are totally different to what people are familiar with in their own countries.
Perhaps there might be a vague connection between our interest in early street photography and the modern sights we see in poverty stricken areas of today, it’s just a break from the norm; clean glass lines of offices replaced by chaotic knocked together shanty towns, flawless tarmac roads give way to muddy back streets. This aesthetic chaos is what appeals to some western folk.
In researching this article I realised how much I love the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Alvin Langdon Coburn, I can not put into words my adoration of the photographs that these guys made. If you go have a look at their work you’ll see a fair amount of street scenes, although they don’t really feel like “street photography”, I guess it’s hard to be candid with a plate camera, they do give an amazing glimpse into the world they were part of though.
This is “The Terminal” by Alfred Stieglitz obviously it shows a carriage being pulled by horses. It seems like an absolutely freezing day and the beasts must have been working hard as there’s steam rising from their ghostly backs. I feel like the composition of this image along with its exposure and subjects make it look like an engraving from Paradise Lost.
Now this is where we get back to the question at hand again: if we take the same camera and go to New York on one of its many snowy days and photograph a similar scene but instead of horses and carts it’s a row of cars with a man wearing jeans and a shirt, will that image have the same punch as our Stieglitz one?
As I’ve said, this bugs this shit out of me, because the answer to me is NO! A big fat NO! …and this no brings with it another question: have we lost this type of subject forever? Did we have just a few decades to capture these parts of history before they faded away with the worlds progression.
How do we capture the essence of this century, I cant wait to see what it is and I would love to hear your thoughts.
This is where this article was due to end, but there was a development. This article took a while to write, as I kept rewriting large parts of it. Eventually a friend offered to have a look at it and give his thoughts, so I obliged and sent him a rough draft. We had a bit of a chat about it and he raised a thought provoking point in relation to the last parts of the article where I mention if photographs from today would garner the same interest as those taken 100 years ago.
To my surprise he disagreed with me and said yes, not from a matter of photography though but through the lens of nostalgia.
It’s a very interesting perspective to take on the matter and it truly made me think, It’s hard to disagree or agree with him because we’re both living in the same world at the same time so this is just normal to us.
Add that to your thoughts before you add them below.
Thanks for reading!
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