Can Street Photography Be Picturesque?

When I was a boy, my parents bought me a set of Cumberland Pencils with a vividly coloured landscape on the front captioned “Keswick on Derwentwater.” I was amazed at the picture. My home county (Suffolk) had no lakes or mountains — and it certainly wasn’t as colourful. Even then I was a bit suspicious of pictorial representation.

What we call “the pictorial” or “the picturesque” is essentially a way of looking at the world, discovering its most appealing features and presenting them to their best advantage. It is never completely truthful. The artist or photographer will probably remove any ugly or discordant elements from the picture. He or she may intensify the colours, lighten the shadows, and make sure the image looks more cheerful than the original subject.

At its most extreme, the process of prettifying the subject can end up as “chocolate box art” — or indeed as pencil box art. In other words, it’s a form of advertising in which there’s an element of persuasion involved.

The Techniques of Advertising
I think such persuasion is acceptable in commerce. After all, you’d hardly expect chocolate manufacturers to place unappetising pictures on the front of their products. But when the product is neither chocolates nor coloured pencils — when there’s no product as such, just a photo — why do so many people try to give it the pictorial makeover? Why prettify the image when doing so will make it less truthful?

The answer is that photographers are constantly tempted to use the techniques of advertising to make their images more appealing to the viewer and hence more popular than those of other photographers. Their photos will say: “Look at me! I’m more attractive than the photo next door.”

As a result, the art of landscape and cityscape photography has progressed hand-in-hand with commercial and advertising photography, becoming ever more beguiling and seductive. Only the hardened street shooter seeks out the general truth of reality, not concentrating on specific subjects as a documentary photographer does but selecting various and unrelated subjects that make good images.

Collectively, the best images of the individual street photographer add up to a vision of the world that will give the viewer an insight into reality that cannot be gained from painting or literature. The vision needn’t be unpleasant or depressing. For all its ills the world is not unremittingly awful. In places it is joyful, colourful, and alive with beautiful people. There’s nothing wrong — or untruthful — in showing the good things of life. Let’s not give our descendants the impression that we never enjoyed ourselves. That would be blatantly untrue.

Back to The Lakes
What I failed to appreciate as a child was the fact that Cumberland — now part of Cumbria, the Lake District — was, and still is, extremely beautiful without any exaggeration being needed to make it so. It has all the necessary elements: soft light, subtle tones, lakes, islands, mountains, and buildings made of local stone. Perhaps not by coincidence it was the birthplace of William Gilpin (1724-1804) who was one of the first to use the word “picturesque” (in his 1768 “Essay on Prints”) to describe “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.”

Today, cultural critics have a habit of dismissing Gilpin as a progenitor of middle-brow aesthetics, but I think this description does him a disservice. He helped to bring the beauty of nature to the attention of a wider public, especially to city dwellers for whom the railways were making the countryside newly accessible.

Cruelly satirised even in his own day for suggesting that artists should “add a tree” here and there to improve their compositions, Gilpin eventually became the quixotic figure of William Combe’s comic poem “The Three Tours of Doctor Syntax,” the first of which is titled “The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque.” Riding around the countryside on his old mare Grizzle, the earnest curate Dr Syntax searches for the picture-perfect landscape but succeeds only in getting lost.

The “Acceptable” Subjects of Street Photography
Are we in danger of getting lost when we search the streets for appealing subjects, then try to compose the image in the best possible way?

Clive Scott certainly thinks so, and says as much in his book “Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson.” Noting that photography quickly became the “chosen medium for representing the picturesque,” he notes: “…the photography of the city seems simply to have become obsessively preoccupied with a new range of visual topics: people leaping puddles, empty chairs, road sweepers, markets, shop windows, café mirrors.” These subjects, he argues, are essentially a “photographic record of what is already a picture.” In other words, they are picturesque.

So what is the proper subject of the street photographer? Where should we point our cameras? Is what we’re doing worthwhile or are we not simply selecting scenes that have already been authorised by other photographers?

There are more questions, too. When we look for the most compelling arrangement of figures, when we balance our pictures by making sure “that lamp post” is in the right position, are we not guilty of following Dr Syntax — sorry, William Gilpin — in his advice to add a tree here and there?

Academic Over-Think?
If you read Clive Scott, or even this blog post, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that it’s possible to “over-think” street photography and worry too much about your motivation for doing it.

There really is nothing wrong with presenting a pictorial image that evokes pleasurable feelings in the viewer. If the viewer’s response has been conditioned by seeing other, similar images — well, that’s something you need to bear in mind. There’s no point in perpetuating the obviousness of a worn and tired aesthetic. As William Egglestone says: “I am at war with the obvious.”

I’ve illustrated this post with some accurate and largely unimproved images of the town where I live. Yes, they’re picturesque, but the town really does look like this — perhaps not as beautiful as Gilpin’s Lake District, but not unattractive in parts. In good light, on a fine day, I wouldn’t dream of searching for anything else.

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