At the end of Laura Israel’s 2016 documentary Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, Frank offers this advice to aspiring photographers: “The best way to be is to be curious, stand up, keep your eyes open, don’t shake, don’t blink.”
Distilling a lifetime’s experience into a single sentence, Frank was advocating for street photography as unflinching engagement with the world. This is the trigger for this f50 collaborative post.
We are here reflecting on the act of seeing/being seen and of personal vision fashioned from subjective experience of ‘the streets’ (wherever they may be).
In Frank’s magnum opus The Americans (1958) he showed that what he was seeing was an American experience very different from the fictional ideal presented through post-war popular culture. He did this by harnessing the political and sociological power of the documentary tradition to a new visual language for photography.
The Americans stands as a challenge to all street photographers who have followed. That challenge is to find our own point of view of a subject meaningful to us and to deploy the medium’s visual language to present it cogently. It’s a hell of a high bar!
For 21st century street photographer’s our practice is overlaid with much greater complexity (than was the case in Frank’s time) of course. The prevalence of identity politics, the smartphone’s democratisation of photography, the rise of the surveillance state, and the emergence of the parallel universe of social media have sensitised people to the power of images and, in particular, their ability to misrepresent.
The public’s increased awareness of the power of images – however misunderstood it may be in particular cases – constrains our freedom as street chroniclers. To be a street photographer now is to see while being seen, often with suspicion, so we better be very clear about, and committed to, the work we’re doing.
It is our awareness of this new complexity that is reflected in the images we present here.
With what eyes do advertisement posters look at you? Cold and distant eyes on passers-by. Nothing more. There is no sincerity in their seller pupils. As Billy Idol sang in the early Eighties, these eyes <without a face, got no human grace>. Not being able to ignore their messages, I decided to turn them into a game of improbable looks…