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.
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?
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.