This year’s London Photography Festival seems to mark a change of direction for its organisers. This shift away from what was an exclusively street photography based group of shows last year, as the London Street Photography Festival, is not only the right move, but one that also sheds light on the problem genre in photography.
At a screening of his extremely well produced documentary on the art of street photography, as part of last year’s festival, esteemed practitioner of the form (and one of the founders of the collective In-Public) Nick Turpin, outlined the strict criteria with which one could categorise a street photographer. Interestingly, a picture having been taken on the street was not the most important factor , but rather more crucial was the inclusion of people or actions captured in some form of ‘decisive moment’. The photographers involved in the subsequent talk saw themselves as part of a dedicated group of chroniclers, documenting human interactions within and with an urbanised environment for posterity. Everyone there was devoted; committed to an ideal tied up with a process, a way of taking photographs, an ethos even. The Festival’s shift away from this ideal might well be perceived as a betrayal for those mentioned, especially when the motives are unclear. There are, after all, few spaces dedicated to this subculture.
The organisers might argue that to so narrowly define a field of image-making will invariably restrict options and thus could have hampered the festival’s growth, even if street photography is arguably the most accessible of the medium’s many variations. In repost, practitioners might state that this is the oldest and most recognisable type of photography, indeed the most photographic, as laid down in testament by old god Henri Cartier-Bresson. Both arguments may ring true, but I would argue the main issue is one of definition.
According to Turpin et al, ‘Street Photography’ is actually ‘Decisive Moment’ photography. By extension, therefore, a still street scene, without movement or action, would cease to belong despite having been shot in the right location. Such an image would then presumably become ‘Landscape’ or ‘Still Life’. Such rigid definitions would have made it difficult for the festival to include a show like Simon Roberts’ ‘Let There Be a Sign’ at Swiss Cottage Gallery, despite the fact that the project, by documenting the tent interiors of ‘Occupy’ protesters, is actually engaging with new uses of public space. The street photographers might have objected to this street photography.
’Let There Be a Sign’ can be classified as belonging to the documentary or photojournalism genres, the practitioners of which have been known to be as specific and exclusive as Turpin and his peers. Indeed, most photographers who are not part of the fine art world define themselves in allegiance to a type of imagery that can be easily demarcated as apart from others. And proudly so. People take pictures for different reasons and, therefore, think image-making should do different things. To imagine that the barriers that divide genres aren’t crumbling and paper thin, however, is a form of denial that requires the mobilisation of the type strict ideologies and practices aforementioned. They are a defensive action, designed to preserve aesthetics and philosophies at the expense of evolution.
It is equally unproductive to dismiss genre out of hand. Many galleries or art institutions in the UK will not display obviously ‘genre’ works, unless seminal, conceptual or as part of a survey. The contemporary category of choice, ‘Conceptual Documentary’, as pioneered by the likes of Paul Graham and Martin Parr, involves very similar work to what is on display in most of the exhibitions at the Festival now, but with an added level of ‘questioning’ and a more cerebral context. To question or push at the boundaries dedicated genre devotees work hard to preserve is, apparently, enough to qualify a series of images as superior or more worthy. This cannot be true and smacks of the snobbery pervasive in other forms of cultural practice such as literature or film, in which the mere fact of adherence to genre conventions is grounds for exclusion from the pantheon. There is good and bad ‘Conceptual Photography’, just as there is good and bad Street Photography. Being able to be defined as either does not in itself merit praise, even if one is more acceptable to the art world than the other.
The main problem might be that so much of photography is defined by intention and therefore process. Compared to cinema for example, in which most films are produced in the same way or at least similarly, the photographer must decide where, what and how to shoot. The technical process is the same, but the act can vary drastically. To photograph a war zone requires a huge amount more courage and dedication than to photograph water towers or the likes, yet the latter has become more valuable both economically and culturally. On the other hand, many more will look at the war photograph than the art photograph. Which viewer matters more? The collector or the member of the public? Perhaps the medium needs some genres as defined by reception, like the horror film scares or the melodrama saddens, in order to allow photographers to approach subject matter in a variety of ways, whilst still being able to belong to a committed community of like-minded peers. In so doing, both types of audience might be catered for.
The majority of the works on show at the London Photography Festival this year, could be best described as British social documentary, a category just wide enough to accommodate a diverse and interesting range of work, but specific enough to maintain an accessible and enjoyable experience for visitors in the high footfall locations secured. Street Photography is still there, just now part of a broader spectrum, celebrated in the manner that an event like a festival should. Genre, after all, is not the point, and for most of the general public, barely even a consideration.
Words/ photo Kerim Aytac © ArtLyst 2012