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Capturing the City: The Rise of Online Street Photography

Sept. 2, 2020, 7:41 p.m. by James Leach ( 452 views)

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Street photography is cementing itself as one of the 21st century’s dominant art forms. As we try to navigate down the speeding motorway of modern life- street photography holds up a chic ‘STOP’ sign, guiding our eyes deep into the urban spaces we too often take for granted.

Its definition is a little slippery, but pioneer Martha Cooper says that the term street photography ‘implies that a fleeting moment has been captured that can’t be repeated.’ In essence, street photography is a celebration of candid. Its images are not planned, setup, or contrived, like, for example, a headshot on the front cover of a magazine. This methodology speaks very profoundly to artists and consumers who live in urban areas (street photography is, after all, almost always centred on cities and people).

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Photographs have an unusual superpower: the ability to freeze time. Street photographers wield this power to its fullest extent- capturing the city in all its neon grime and iridescent smog. This style of photography is certainly in vogue; the term has been hash-tagged 82.3 million times on Instagram. But why this colossal rise? It’s fascinating that photographing the city is a contradiction of what a city is: always moving, always changing, never static.

Street photography enters into a beautiful negotiation with its urban subjects. Since the frame of a street photographer’s shots is always candid, the city and its people are caught unawares. They are pictured mid-motion- dancing to the double-time rhythm of the metropolitan melody as they commute, shop and nightclub through the streets. Most importantly, they don’t even realise that their moment has been captured, distilled, and preserved by a camera. Thus, street photographs possess strange kinetic energy. Rather than freezing a moment, the street photograph paints a metaphorically ‘moving picture’.

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I first encountered the genre through a friend and street photographer- Dan Twist. He’s been regularly producing content on Instagram since 2018 and on an online blog :https://danieltwist1.wixsite.com/ twistphotography/august His work is regularly featured in street photography magazines, most recently on ‘urban street photo gallery’, which boasts over 150,000 Instagram followers. His work is (almost) always black and white, and tends to focus on long shots of isolated subjects. He kindly allowed me to interview him on his work, street photography as a genre, and what it means for cityscapes.

One of the most intriguing themes Dan touched on in our conversation was the idea of street photography’s increased accessibility. When I asked him why he thought street photography had become so popular, his snap response was “everyone can take one… all you need is a phone… no fancy equipment.” Moreover, he pointed out that “you don’t need to be from a certain social class or skill level” to shoot. Street photography has had some sort of democratising effect on the production of art.

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However, what most interested me was when Dan pointed out that his tendency to shoot in black and white often produces silhouetted subjects (as you can see in the image below). The effect of people becoming silhouettes is that it “makes them anonymous. Surprisingly this makes the photos more personal because it means the viewers can see themselves”, says Dan. So, street photography is not only accessible insofar as it is open to all producers, but it is also wide open to its consumers. In fact, in the case of Dan’s work- the viewer is invited to put themselves within the frame of the photo, in the place of the silhouetted subject. This seems extremely fitting. I asked Dan about what he thinks his photos say about Birmingham as a city, and he spoke about the city’s mental health issues: “Even though it [Birmingham] is busy and multicultural, you can still feel lonely.” Dan’s photos not only paint an authentic representation of this experience, but they also offer a remedy to the problem. If the silhouettes in Dan’s images are blank subjects for his viewers to fill with themselves, then his photos become a colorless collage of organically constructed communities that offers kinship in the knowledge that other people are lonely too.

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Loneliness is becoming an increasingly dominant trope of the modern city. We are currently living through a mental health crisis; in Britain in 2018, 700,000 under-19’s were referred to a mental health service, which was a 45% increase over two years. With over 80% of Britons living in urban areas, cities become the natural setting of the mental health crisis. How then does street photography interact with this idea? How does it represent the city in tandem with its masses of suffering people?

Take the above picture. This was taken by Dan in Birmingham City Centre. Whilst the subject isn’t completely silhouetted, the wide long-shot Dan has used produces the same anonymising effect he was speaking to me about: a. it makes the subject’s personal features indistinguishable and thus anonymises them; b. it makes the subject small in the frame, especially when contrasted with the size of the cityscape. By framing it as such, the photograph is underlining the relationship between the subject and his city.

What then does the photo say about the city? Notice how the framing of the photo is virtually split in half by two buildings: the abandoned ‘Odeon’ building and the tall, cylindrical ‘Bullring’ building. While we usually think of street photography capturing a singular candid moment, this photo also captures a piece of history. Birmingham used to be a manufacturing centre of Britain- producing cars, toys, and steel, amongst other things. However, the city’s gradual deindustrialisation since the 1970s has meant that its landscape has become increasingly littered with empty factories and architectural relics of its industrial past. The ‘Odeon’ building in Dan’s photo is one such building. But, this photo is not simply a picture of ‘old’ Birmingham. Instead, ‘old’ is put next to ‘new’. The ‘Odeon’ building is dwarfed by the enormous and modern ‘Bullring’ building.

Finally, and crucially, notice how the ‘IN’ in ‘BIRMINGHAM’, on the sign at the bottom of the picture is obscured by the glare of the sun, making the word almost unreadable. The city is shown to be fragmented and broken; its very name is split in half. Add this idea to the decrepit, abandoned past embodied by the ‘Odeon’ building, which is overshadowed its new, sparkly ‘Bullring’ buildings, and Dan has photographed an image of a city wrought with conflict. The subject of the photo walks, tiny and anonymous, through the ills of his city. There are many specific social issues within Birmingham which Dan could be trying to draw attention to. Perhaps it’s Birmingham’s extremely high levels of child poverty. Perhaps it’s unemployment. Perhaps it’s the same police brutality and racism that led to wide-spread Black Lives Matter protests throughout Birmingham in recent months.

Street photography has always tried to innovatively represent urban social issues. In my interview with Dan, he said that street photography refers to “any photo that gives us a better understanding of our society and the people in it.” It is something, it appears, which fundamental to the DNA of street photography as a practice.

Cultural theorists Christoph Lidner and Miriam Meissner call street photograph ‘slow art’. According to them, ‘slow art resists both the acceleration of everyday life and the rapid transformation of social space in the global city’ in an effort to ‘redirect visual attention.’ In short, street photography slows down the breakneck speed of the modern city to point fingers at the grimy, dirty, suffering urban places we often choose not to look at.

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-James Leach

-from Birmingham, England- and I’m a graduate of English Literature and Creative Writing.

-I’m big into travelling, rock climbing and football; and of course, books!

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