I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, the redwoods of California, the skyscrapers of NYC and the mighty Mississippi — and yes, America is awesome. But why, oh why, oh why do Americans (and increasingly Europeans, Brits, Aussies, and even the Chinese) want absolutely everything to be awesome?
I’ve just had another email from Awesome Books, but the books are exactly the same as the ones you can buy on Amazon, except there appear to be fewer of them. How awesome is that?
Far From It
As an activity, street photography is a far from awesome, which is one of the things I like about it. It’s all about photographing ordinary people in their everyday clothes, going about their normal business, on regular city streets. I don’t think I’d want to turn this activity into anything more spectacular, although I’m sure others will make the attempt.
For example, you could abseil down a city storefront with powerful flash gear and photograph passers-by as they gaze at you from below. You could “play dead” by lying on the ground clutching your Leica and photograph anyone who tries to steal it from you. Covered in silver paint, you could become a “living sculpture” of a 19th century photographer who springs into life and takes a picture whenever someone gives you a coin.
If you stage any of these stunts, I’m sure you’ll be written about in the media as a street photographer whose work is “awesome.” You’ll be pushing the boundaries of the medium as far as they will go. That’s what “awesome” is all about, isn’t it?
What It Really Means
Awesome means “provoking feelings of awe” but used as a slang word it just means “very good” or “amazing.” The Urban Dictionary describes it one of the three words which make up most American sentences, the others being “omygod” and “shit.”
Awesome things (taken from Internet discussions) include the singer Bono, pizza, a tea party held by someone called Edward, the fans of Veronica Mars, “that Calvo chick,” and “riding a rocket lawn chair through a strange portal while dressed in a disguise with a cat that happens to be a chef on your back.”
OK, the last one is definitely awesome. It would make a great street photo if it were not pure fantasy. In the meantime I’ll have to take what’s possible, namely the pizza (below). At least it’s wood-fired and stone baked!
Awesomeness in Art
Provoking awe has long been the purpose of religious art. The great medieval cathedrals still have the power to leave us open-mouthed as we wonder at the mysteries they evoke.
A new and more down-to-earth human element emerged in the Italian Renaissance beginning with the murals of Giotto, but it quickly became smothered by the awesomeness of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Now, in the present era, our most highly acclaimed artists are people who work on a colossal, awe-inspiring scale — like Damien Hirst with his “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.”
Even Bansky, who for several years painted wryly amusing urban graffiti, eventually had to “go awesome” with Dismaland, a full-scale funless entertainment park, a nightmare version of Disneyland.
By contrast, to take up street photography is to take a step back from awesomeness. The street photographer has seen the alternatives: the landscapes covered with plastic (Christo), the 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds (Ai Weiwei), the gigantic colour pencils of “Reverse City” (Pascale Marthine Tayou), and has made a conscious decision to go back to basics — to look closely at the reality of urban life.
To be frank: most street photos don’t seem at all awesome if you print them large for the exhibition wall. They work best as small scale images — fragments of life rescued from the muddle and chaos of the street.
Yet if you look closely at the finest examples of street photography, you can’t help but be amazed at their qualities. After all, it’s possible to be humble and awesome at the same time.
In music, Franz Schubert inspires awe with his small scale works — his songs, chamber music, piano sonatas and impromptus — as well as with his late symphonies. The same is true of the other great classical composers. It’s not the scale of their work that matters so much as its profundity: the degree to which it puts you in touch with the wider workings of the universe.
Does street photography have the potential to bring us closer to the truth? I don’t see why not. If we stop searching for awesomeness by making big statements with Big Art, I think we can find it on the street, in small scale works that enable us to see more clearly what is actually there.