Are we documenting “today”?

Take a look at this photograph by Robert Frank taken in 1951. You’ll notice that it’s not just about the people and the relations between them. It’s also a documentation of a certain time. The cars, the buildings, the way people are dressed and their behaviour, with all that Robert Frank shows us bits and pieces of American life in the 1950s.

If I look at the popular work by contemporary street photographers, I often think quite the opposite is the case. They’re often trying to create retro images and make them look like they were taken decades ago. But by doing so, are they showing today’s way of life?

 

The Retro Look

“Things were better back in the day” has been a thought on people’s minds since ancient times. But with technology getting more and more prominent in our lives, the love for everything “retro” and “old-fashioned” seems to have reached a new level.

A lot of contemporary Street Photography seems to find value in showing things which reminisce of seemingly better times from the past. Shooting or emulating film, choosing retro looking subjects or avoiding images of people holding phones; all this in order to create that look from the past. I often even see images of retro looking film-sets tagged as street photography on Instagram, even though it’s at least debatable if this would count as Street Photography.

 

Modern Life

If you go for a stroll through a modern city, things couldn’t be more different from what these images show. You’ll find modern buildings, modern cars, abundance of commercialism everywhere and most importantly everyone being hypnotised by their phones. Many of us are purposely avoiding such features of modern society because they don’t like how things have become. But by doing so they’re portraying a completely wrong image of the 2010s. They’re sticking their head in the sand and ignoring a problem instead of dealing with it.

Let’s suppose that someone in sixty years looks at a popular street photograph from 2019. What are they going to imagine life must have looked like today? Everyone walking around in dresses, wearing hats, no phones anywhere and only Oldtimers driving around?

I sometimes have discussions about the legitimacy of Street Photography with people who approach me and ask me what I’m doing. My argument then is that documenting the real and unstaged life is incredibly important, especially today with all the fake selfies and glorification of people’s lives on social media. I’ve heard other street photographers name this reason as well and it seems to be a quite common desire among us to do so. But if that’s the case, then we have to capture life as what it looks like today, and not look for something which reminds us of better times. Isn’t (provocatively speaking) faking a retro image the same thing as all those fake lifestyle images in Instagram?

 

My Opinion

In my opinion, if we choose to do Street Photography, we have a responsibility to capture what contemporary life looks like. This can come in abstract, realistic, humorous or other forms, but the aspect of documenting the “now” never falls away. Now, of course these retro looking moments still exist, otherwise we couldn’t capture them. But if they are the only moments you photograph, what kind of image does that present of today’s streets? Do they really occur so frequently that they deserve to be your only subjects? I guarantee you that there’s more than enough beauty and interest in modern life. You don’t have to go back to the past. The past is past, so let it be.

Taking the usage of phones as an example, choosing not to have phones in your images is giving a completely wrong impression of modern life. I get that they’re not aesthetic and that it’s sad to see how they’re dominating our lives. But this is reality, these are the circumstances we have to deal with as street photographers now. If you see phones as a problem, simply ignoring their existence isn’t going to do anything other than deceiving people. Wouldn’t it be a better idea not to ignore them but criticise them instead. Show your audience why the usage of smartphones today is such a problem.

 

Retro or Modern?

I admit, I like it too when images look retro, and I think these images do have their place in modern Street Photography. But it should at least be proportionate to how often moments like these really happen on the streets. They do still happen, they’re still part of modern life, but (unfortunately) it’s only a small part. We shouldn’t pretend that they’re all the beauty which happens on the streets today. There’s a lot of beauty to be found in modern practices and culture. It’s our job as Street Photographers to capture that and represent that in our images.

 

6 thoughts on “Are we documenting “today”?

  1. I understand your point of view because it is a frequent discussion in Architecture. The appeal to the past creates a fake contemporary product.
    No doubt, past is source, reference, influence. It’s complicated when it is the goal…

    1. I agree, Ana. I’m studying landscape architecture so I’m familiar with this discussion. “The appeal to the past creates a fake contemporary product”…. Couldn’t have said it better.
      Sorry for the late reply 🙂

    2. I think I disagree with this idea. If a photo is made today then it’s made today. If it hasn’t been staged to look a certain way then it is accurate to reality. If I photograph at the Goodwood Revival in 2019 then it is a true reflection of 2019, regardless of whether they are wearing “vintage” clothing. Similarly if I photographed in Cyberdog that would be a true reflection of the time I photographed it.

      It’s interesting that in your assessment of Frank’s image at the start of this post that you use the sweeping “1950s” to describe the aesthetic.
      To me personally the 2000s, 2010s and I imagine the upcoming 2020s have a kind of blurred aesthetic, with everyone borrowing from everyone, all time periods and cultures shared via the Internet and unprecedented global travel.
      I think that photographers should be honest but hold no obligation to document the world the way anyone else sees it. I am drawn to iconography, cinema, and classic photojournalism, and I hope that the majority of my work reflects this.
      This means my portfolio will reflect my life and my world, and no one else’s.

      1. Thank you for your comment, Simon. So, you think that passing a photo of a film set as street photography from the 2010s is ok? I guess then we disagree in that regard. For me it seems wrong that many people try to go for a look that reminds them of better times instead of focusing on what’s going on today. They want to recreate what old masters did because they associate a retro look with quality images.
        And if you photograph in Cyberdog then yes, it’s a photograph which somehow represents what’s going on today but it’s not Street Photography. It’s not “life of the 2010s. Maybe a small part but surely not all of it.
        At least in my opinion, Street Photography always documents life of its time. But like I said, that’s my opinion. I agree that there’s no rule and that there are no obligations, and I also think that as long as you’re honest everything is ok. It’s just my thoughts that I’m sharing to spark up a conversation.

  2. Very interesting topic, which probably strikes a chord with me personally because I’ve found I’m very much drawn to the images you talk about (the ones with a retro, classic years gone by look to them). Maybe it’s partly to do with it being quite rare to see someone in a trilby hat, for example or maybe it’s just nostalgia. Ive always been fascinated by periods of the 20th century that happened before my birth. I do agree though, it’s important to document ‘today’. Interesting topic, be curious to read what others think. Would you consider sharing any opinions on your stories?

    1. Thank you, Graham! Most of the dicussion has been in the comments of my Instagram post where everyone can see it. Glad it stroke a chord with you.

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All images are subject to copyright © Aram Franke 2019

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