Humor in Street Photography (or, photographs that are too easy to understand)
I’d like to discuss a topic that has been preoccupying me for some time now. Looking at the landscape of contemporary street photography, I have been noticing to what an extent many street photographers of the current generation are adopting a predominantly humorous approach to the kind of work they do. I think this is in contrast to what was meant by street photography in its heyday in previous decades. Of course, humor was often there in the work of older photographers as well. But it was usually not the main element, and it tended to be more subtle than nowadays. (There are exceptions to this, such as Elliott Erwitt, whose work is predominantly in a humorous vein. But, in my opinion – and I realize this opinion may be considered heretical by many – this is precisely the reason that Erwitt is not a very great photographer, or rather, is a much lesser photographer than he could have been, given his undeniable talent). So, my claim is that humorous work has become very widespread in contemporary street photography. Given my comments about Erwitt above, it will be obvious to the reader that I consider this to be an unfortunate development. My reason for saying so is not that I believe there should be no progress in our genre of photography – we should not necessarily be doing the same street photography that was done in the 1960s. Rather, my reason for being suspicious about this humorous approach is that it gives rise to photographs that are a little too easy, a little too obvious. They are easy to take, and easy to understand. That is what makes them appealing, of course. But they lower the bar instead of raising it. Instead of training the viewer to look harder, they offer what is already easy to see and notice. They offer comfort, the comfort of easy recognition, rather than the challenge of a new discovery. Many contemporary street photographs are like visual jokes, either depicting funny people or situations, or juxtaposing elements in the external world in a way that makes their combination funny. Of course, such juxtapositions of disparate elements of the external world are of the essence of street photography: street photography, more than any other artistic medium, is ideally capable of depicting the surrealism inherent in everyday life. But again, my point is that this should not be done in a way that is too obvious. I believe that street photography is aesthetically much stronger when it does not shout its message, when it is not trying to please the viewer, when it offers challenges and mysteries instead of easy answers and easy entertainment. I admire photographs that are interesting despite, not because, of their subject matter. Ideally, for me, a good street photograph is made out of nothing – out of the boring fabric of ordinary life, not out of a situation that is in itself interesting or funny. Of course, like most street photographers, I myself have often succumbed to the temptation of taking easy, funny pictures. That is my point: it is a natural human tendency to be drawn to what is easy. It is an urge in ourselves that we should always be on guard against, as street photographers. As a demonstration of the points I have been making, here are some of my own photos that are dangerously close to being a little too funny, a little too easy. Without trying to analyze each photo in detail, but as an incentive to the reader to think about the points I have been making and to realize that sometimes it’s a very thin line separating a photo where humor works well from one in which the humor is so obvious that it ruins the photo, I am grouping the pictures in two groups. The first group includes pictures where I think that the humor is too much, that it weakens the photo instead of making it stronger, or at least that it is all there is to the picture:
As opposed to the photos above, I think the second group of pictures below is different in that, despite a funny element, these photos are more subtle, more multi-dimensional, more emotionally complicated, they say something more about life rather than just making a joke, and are therefore stronger pictures:
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