“The End Of Street Photography” – At Least For This New York City Photographer, by Michael Ernest Sweet
I have written about the problems of street photography before, and my prediction for its ultimate collapse, but still it goes on. Nearly everyone agrees that street photography has become a repetitive, over-saturated, largely ignored genre in photography, yet no one has volunteered to do their part and bow out. No, we are all still clinging to our cameras, our particular sidewalks, and we are all still generating more images to add to the heap. That is until now. Finally, someone is leaving. Me. I am raising my hand and volunteering to exit the stage. Yes, that’s right – I’m going, while the going is good. Now, granted, I am only one guy with a camera, but I am one less guy with a camera roaming the already very crowded sidewalks of New York City.
So, why me? Why now? There is no one answer to these questions, not really. I just feel as though the time is right – that a number of factors have converged to create a perfect moment to exit. I’ve published two full-length monographs of work – The Human Fragment and Michael Sweet’s Coney Island – as well as individual photographs in countless publications both on and offline. My photography has appeared in a number of iconic publications such as Popular Photography and The Village Voice – both of which have also recently bowed out and said their respective final goodbyes. I’ve shown and sold my work through galleries in the US, Canada, and throughout Europe. I’ve spoken at conferences and photo gatherings, judged contests, and written forewords for the collections of others. I’ve contributed, regularly, to various photographic magazines as well as to these very pages countless times. I’ve even appeared in a feature-length film about Garry Winogrand! The sense of accomplishment is adequate for me. Simply put, I don’t feel as though I have anything more to contribute to street photography.
Now, this sentiment alone is not enough to cause one to permanently hang up their camera, not really. I mean, every artist runs up against these moments of inertia – moments of “feeling done”. I recognize this and, indeed, I’ve even been though it before. Yet, this time is different. This time, I really am done. I’m done for all the reasons I’ve enumerated above and also for those I’ve yet to mention. For example, the current climate in the photography world is also very off-putting to me. Everyone is self-concerned with, and self-absorbed in, their own work and careers to the point of failing to contribute to a wider community. Some will say this has always been the case. Others will argue that this is not the case at all. Yet, I remain committed to the statement above. I do feel many street photographers (and artists more generally) are neglecting their duty to their community. We simply don’t support one another, whether it be emotionally, artistically, or financially. Indeed, someone will attack me for writing this piece, troll the article, or send me hate mail. Someone will use the opportunity to tell me my work is crap, rather than wish we well. All, usually, without even reading what I’ve written. Such is the world of street photography and I feel seven years of this is enough. I fully realize that such a claim begs for a longer explanation and opens the door to fervent disagreement. Noted. However, I am not going to diverge into such a discussion here as it really is beyond the intended scope of this article – be it sufficient to say that this is merely another factor leading to my departure from the street photography world.
Another reason leading to my decision is the general and widespread disinterest in street photography by those who are not street photographers. To some extent this has, perhaps, always been the case with this genre of photography. None of the masters from the “golden era” had an easy time of it, granted. However, the rise of social media and the “me” generation seem to have only exacerbated the situation. The Joe and Jane public breeze over street photographs on social media channels with lightening speed, dolling out the occasional nanosecond glance, or tap of a like button, as if they were bits of cake in Revolutionary France. “I’m very selective with my cherished ‘likes’,” a friend once told me. Yes, by all means, don’t give out too much free praise, it might actually encourage someone in their artistic pursuit. Again, we have a comment worth unpacking here, but beyond my purpose. I’d invite another writer in these pages to take up this very worthy debate further.
Some readers have checked out by now, frustrated with my reluctance to engage in the various points I’ve lobbed out into the discussion. So it goes. Those who continue to read, please, stick with me. I do have a point other than to simply say goodbye. To uncover that point, for both you and me, we may have to go back a bit in time – rewind history to examine my relatively short-lived career as a street photographer.
I began shooting the streets in 2010. It was, as I was completely ignorant of “street photography”, a type of self-medicating – a kind of therapy for my over-anxious mind. I loved wandering around and I also enjoyed making photographs of those moments, largely, at least at the time, for my own enjoyment. This was my “hay day” in street photography, as it was pure fun unadulterated by knowledge of the genre, work by others, or a sense of false fame. I was a bloke with a camera making photos for my own enjoyment. This, of course, was the path I should have pursued. I did not. I quickly became enamored with the idea that I would become some kind of artist by walking the streets and firing a camera shutter. I mean, Gilden had done it, right? So too had Winogrand and Moriyama. Why not me? Adding to this delusion was the idea that someone out there.- somewhere – actually cared about street photography and was interested in what I was producing. On the very darkest of nights, after all the wine was gone, I even had fleeting moments where I was convinced someone would actually pay money for my work someday.
None of this would happen, of course. You see, no one actually “buys” street photography – not really. Okay, so a book here and there, or an occasional print by a photographer willing to sell their art for a couple hundred dollars. But that’s not art, not real art. Try and buy a Cindy Sherman (of any size) for a couple hundred bucks. Good luck! No, the joke is on us, on me. I began to realize this as time went on. Indeed, I’ve never been in anyone’s home and witnessed, first hand, a street photograph hanging on a wall – any wall (even the bathroom). No, not once. Not even in the homes of the street photographers I know. I’ve seen Basquiat reproductions, of course, or Irving Penn’s and even Richard Avedon prints. I’ve seen maps of Europe and, finally, even the occasional rack of collectable spoons but, alas, not a one street photograph. None. Never. The moment I realized, truly realized, this reality was, in fact, the beginning of the end for me in street photography. In any professional sense that is – perhaps I will, someday, return to wandering the streets snapping odd moments for my own under-the-mattress shoebox.
Now, to those of you who remain committed to this fool’s errand. By that I mean pursuing fame and fortune through street photography – good luck! Indeed I mean it. One of you, just one…. okay, maybe two, will, in fact, make it into the lexicon of street photographers. By that I mean your work will outlast you – to be more clear, I mean someone will continue to “retweet” your photos after you’ve quite the stage of life. For the rest of us it is really not a question of “if” we will quit, but rather, more correctly, a question of “when” we will quit – when we will reach this moment, the moment I’m trying to put into print here. For me that time is now. I’m content with the little tiny (teeny weeny) contribution I’ve made – by the one or two photographs I’ve taken that are of reasonable quality and of meager interest to someone (anyone) beyond me and my closest of friends.
Was this whole article a load of manure meant to disguise the exit of one burnt out (or burnt up) street photographer? Maybe. Surely it will be this to some. To others, it will strike closer to an artery. For me, yes, it is a final bittersweet goodbye – a moment to reflect and to lash out all wrapped into one. Am I bitter? No, not really. I say that because I do feel a natural calm and sense of satisfaction by leaving. Disillusioned, more correctly. Disappointed, maybe. I wanted to make photography that mattered. I really did. I wanted to photograph the streets of New York in a way that would engage others. I failed. I entered as some guy with a camera and a hope. I leave as some guy with a camera and a hope. What hope? Oh, did you miss it? My hope is that someday, somewhere, someone will slow down and look. Really look. Look at what we’ve made on our cameras in the visual age – the age of “me and my camera”. Until then, it just doesn’t feel right anymore. People on the streets have changed – screaming at any lens pointed their way. Cameras and camera makers have changed, to the point where they now make “street photography” cameras – a sign of death if I’ve ever seen one. The whole racket of street phtoography has become a gimmick. Blokes with camera selling “street photography workshops” and blokes with a camera buying them (I’m not sure who’s worse, honestly)! In the end, I think we killed ourselves. Or, rather, street photography killed itself. There is no art left in the mix. It’s just a lukewarm soup of social media, GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), rampant ego, and simply put – bad photography. And, that being the case, I’ve surely done my part.
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian writer and photographer. He’s a national recipient of both a Prime Minister’s Award and the Queen’s Medal in Canada for his contributions to public education and the arts. Michael lives in New York City.
**** This article was originally published by Huffington Post on October 17, 2017. It was deleted not long afterwards. I don’t know why.
16 thoughts on ““…fool’s errand.””
Keith I will stick with you. I hope you’re not leaving. I would miss your wonderful photos. My photography genre is Street/Urban photography. I may not be the best and Lord knows I have a lot to learn but I get such joy out of taking quirky photos that I can’t imagine stopping. Perhaps I will never be the next Diane Arbus (at least at age 58 I’ve lived longer than her) I just feel so happy with my snapshots which are mostly Brooklyn then Manhattan with some Queens thrown in. I find so many great things to photograph in Queens where I grew up and in Brooklyn where I now live. In my opinion I think that the outer boroughs are a bit neglected. Now I could be wrong but from what I’ve seen it appears Manhattan is a reigning favorite. Anyway I think each Photography Artist brings their take, their perspective to the Art. Since we all have different interests none of our photos will be the same.
I’m not giving up DeBorah! This is an article from someone else. I thought it interesting and wanted to open up good for thought. I don’t know the author personally, only his work. He makes some interesting points. Others I can live without.
Okay. Good to know that I will still be able to enjoy your photos. Also I am glad to read this article. It’s good to know what other photographers are thinking and doing.
Geez, Keith–you scared me! I read the line that “..someone is leaving. Me.” and thought it was you! I quickly scrolled down to the bottom only to read this was someone else. Strange that it was deleted, but glad it is not you. What do you think of what he says? He seems to have done a lot and now thinks he is going out on top. Am I missing something? Anyway, like DeBorah, I am glad you are staying. I do enjoy your photos.
I’ve had many of these same thoughts, often. It is true not too many people want to hang gritty b&w Street pictures on their living room walls and it’s true that many of us who continue to document our daily lives in the streets of cities are deluded in our dreams of some day being recognized as the next Winogrand or Bruce Davidson. I also do sometimes go through dry spells where I’m not inspired and, flipping through my raw files, feel like there’s nothing new or interesting or worth spilling electrons on. Lately, in fact, I’ve been thinking about looking for something new to do, possibly combining photography and calligraphy, another form that would allow me to be more pointed in this, my season of political discontent. I could also argue with some of Sweet’s points – I don’t think, for instance, that he pays enough attention to the role of technology in the changes he deplores, the ubiquity and technology-mediated quality of casual photography that is drowning the work of “serious” Street photographers – but that’s a story for another day.
I think for anyone that does creative work, they go through periods of self doubt and dry spells. I certainly do. But I know when I come out the other side, having worked and pushed myself through it, something else emerges.
I have a slightly different take. I’ve been shooting SP since the late 90’s. I still love it, and I’m still at it but by the end of 2012 — when SP worldwide was at its peak for popularity, I decided to modify how much attention I give to the genre.
SP is a fine art. The first motive of producing any fine art is expression. Automatically! Whether you’re a 4-year old with a crayon or 50-year old sculptor creating work professionally. The first and foremost thing is to express some idea in your head. Simple! Keeping this in mind, keeps me from throwing in the towel altogether.
Just because SP is art doesn’t mean that it is marketable as fine art or even highly collectable as most aren’t. Even the really impactful pieces. I live and do most of my shooting in Canada. The laws and culture here are such that you can shoot SP but you can’t market any safely. Galleries will not promote it or sell it. No one prints it except for the occasional photo book of some street shooter who is either dead or so long retired that no one cares who’s likeness is in his or her imagery. Just posting anywhere online, is taking a risk of being sued by someone who doesn’t want to be in a shot. None of this stops me or thousands of others across the country from engaging.
SP is not a fool’s errand, it’s a labour of love. Even though I don’t make money from it or get recognition from it, it’s still important to me. I still enjoy doing it, mainly for me. It is a bonus if others take notice. Sure, it would be nice to turn a profit from my SP but I think that hanging hopes on acquiring money and recognition from SP is missing the fundamental point of SP. As I can’t do that in my plot of the atlas, and expression through this genre — the holding up of a mirror to whatever community I’m shooting, is most important to me, I’m not worried about it not being lucrative. I’m still an illustrator, graphic artist and photographer of other genres. I’ll continue to market my other fine and commercial arts. SP will be for the pure fun of expression!
Yes, there was a time in the early 2000’s in which I considered leaving SP but I have had hard, saddening and even angering experiences that re-motivated to stay with it because, similarly to documentary, SP gave me an opportunity to shed light on the good and bad aspects of a community that means something to me personally. Again, this comes back to the importance of using art to express an idea, especially ideas that may cause me or others who see my work to come up with solutions to real problems within the community or promote the good things there. This is what’s most important about SP.
2012 especially showed that SP had become oversaturated, overly globalized and a fad largely because of the Internet. I even wrote back then that my hopes were, and still are, that only the truly dedicated will remain shooting SP while most others will eventually slip away. That over time; expectedly many years, there will be less of a glut of repetitive, un-impactful and un-inspirational SP online. I’m trying to make SP that matters to me and maybe a small portion of society, and I still believe that I eventually will.
After 2012, I not only scaled way back on how much SP I put online but even deleted a lot of wasteful shots. I even question heavily, as to whether or not I should take a shot in the first place. I have been exceptionally picky with my own work ever since that year. That’s all that it takes. There will be no wine before it’s time.
I see no logical reason to completely give up on SP. I’m just excited to hear when some other shooter does because those are the ones who probably should. By walking away, they are helping the cause. 😀
Keith, I’m glad that you’re still in it to win it! You ought to be!
I am with Allen. I have no intention of letting this all go. Sweet was looking for fame and fortune from the beginning. While he received attention, made books, I think he was disappointed that he could not make a living from his work. I never got into this thinking it would provide for a family, mortgage, etc.. That’s why I work a job to have the freedom to make the images I want to do. I have no illusions.That’s why when something happens, work published, an exhibition, a print sold, I am surprised.Those of us that hang on will get through in the end.
I realised the article wasn’t by you – your attitude has always seemed to me exemplary. There are professionals and there are artists, sometimes they are the same and sometimes not. Your pictures always engage me, you capture so many extraordinary faces and gestures among those passing by in the streets. I am glad you are not discouraged, especially by that eejit who stopped communicating with you when he cottoned on that you didn’t make your living taking photographs. By the way, perhaps the article was taken down because the author changed his mind….
Thanks Cara. I appreciate your comments. Wow, I forgot about the person who was criticizing me because I didn’t make my living just shooting. I always new that I would not be able to make a living from making the kinds of images that I do. Hence, the day job. Everything I do is photo related from working as a photo editor to shooting assignments. Unfortunately, the freelance work is too few and far between the days. I’ve pretty much decided to just concentrate on family, the day job, and shooting the images I like. Makes life easier and simple.
No one will buy my photos. I will never get to the top. That’s ok. Some people say I am a street photographer. I think I am not. I just shoot where I am. I shoot a city. I shoot for myself. It is so easy.
I think it is all about definition. One should stop calling oneself something to start being free.
I hate labels myself. It seems that Mr. Sweet had motives, to become famous when he started shooting. I do agree with all the “noise” out there.
Famous photos are created because someone has captured it. Our standard may not be the standard of others, we takes photos because we see the beauty at a time and we love to share it.
Images become well known or famous, because many people feel that it is iconic of a specific time and place. We should only live to the standards that we set for ourselves, not what others may set for us. Reasons for making imagery are varied and personal. All I know is that they should be made with one’s vision and heart.
Reblogged this on Event Horizon and commented:
It’s a happy coincidence whenver someone can pick their own time to exit. I congratulate you on your choice and wish you the best in your retirement. As for street photography, I thinks its longevity is secure at least as long as there are poets, authors, and photographers.