“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.