Reviewed by Edward Emmett
Masters of Street Photography is a 176-page hardback publication that layers photographs by sixteen contributing artists with Q&A interviews and an introduction by consultant editor Rob Yarham. The book appoints each photographer the ‘Master’ of something, from ‘Flash’ (the Bragdon Brothers) to ‘Complexity’ (Ed Peters), while Martin U Waltz (my favourite contributor) gets the ominous title of ‘Master of Night’. I’m not exactly convinced (having a master of both ‘Chiaroscuro’ and ‘Contrast’ sounds like splitting hairs to me), and ultimately it’s an editorial decision the book could have done without. Each ‘Master’ contributes six beautifully reproduced images, and answers eight questions about their approach to the genre.
Masters is edited by Rob Yarham, a writer and photographer specialising in wildlife and conservation. His introduction lays the groundwork for a basic understanding of the genre, hitting all the usual beats along the way: street photography was born of Atget, and formalised by Cartier-Bresson; it’s hard to define, but ‘we know it when we see it’. He asks whether street photography still has meaning in a world saturated with images, only to answer with a resounding ‘yes’. The introduction is a useful primer for newcomers, but feels a bit generic for a dedicated street photography volume.
Although Yarham sets out to prove that street photography has evolved beyond the restrictive definitions of the past, most of the work featured in the book sits pretty squarely within the accepted definition of street: it’s spontaneous, candid image-making in public spaces. Ok, so Masters might not be pushing the boundaries of the genre, but it does provide a curated cross-section of contemporary practice. The book’s sixteen contributors are split right down the middle, with eight shooting in black and white and eight in colour. It’s stylistically diverse, too, from the fine art aesthetic of Alexey Titarenko’s spectral long exposures of St Petersburg, to the social documentary of George Georgiou’s series Americans Parade. Giacomo Brunelli shoots with his father’s 1960s Miranda Sensomat and prints by hand in the darkroom, while Marina Sersale shoots on her iPhone and processes in Hipstamatic (in a cool postmodern twist, their images come out with the same film noir look).
At its core, Masters is invested in photography as a means of communicating the emotional resonance of time and place. The jokey juxtaposition and visual punning that’s so successful on Instagram is mostly absent here (some of the photographers actually express disdain for it in the Q&As). That said, the selection of artists is slightly more Instagram-centric than other titles in the street anthology genre. Granted, this is a product of the times and there’s nothing wrong with it creatively, but if you actively consume photography on Insta you might’ve already seen some of what the book has to offer. Finally, if I had to nitpick, New York is probably over-represented in the book, and there’s one or two photographers who shouldn’t have made the cut when there’s so much great work out there. Quibbles notwithstanding, Masters is a testament to the breadth of vision that can be achieved on the street.
The bulk of the text in Masters is made up of Q&A-style interviews. The questions are well tailored to each shooter’s individual approach, even if the Q&A format feels a little stiff (it’s more questionnaire than conversation). (On that note, the photographers’ introductions read more like resumés, and these are sort of doubled up in the book’s index anyway.) That said, the photographers mostly give in-depth and insightful answers. Photography can be an oddly opaque medium, and hearing artists speak about their work has always helped me to form a personal connection to their pictures. When you know, for example, that Sally Davies’ dog sat in the doorway of this church for twenty minutes, and that he passed away two months later, the photo takes on the contemplative quality of a silent communion. Melissa Breyer writes eloquently about her work; even if her series The Watchwomen didn’t resonate with me at first glance, learning the thinking behind it adds an extra dimension.
Yarham aims to ‘provide some inspiration for those looking to master street photography’, and this is where Masters really finds its niche. Detailed technical information is provided for every plate, and it’s a handy reference for those learning to see the world like a camera sees it. How did Ash Shinya Kawaoto capture this ethereal image of a snowstorm? Small aperture for deep focus, slow shutter for blur and flash to freeze the snowflakes. Going deeper, there’s a nerdy pleasure in learning what film stock your favourite Jesse Marlow photo was shot on.
The sixteen ‘Masters’ share hard-won tips and tricks for aspiring street photographers. Long-form photojournalist George Georgiou tests the waters in new situations by ‘randomly taking street pictures’ in order to understand the limits of candid shooting, and quickly find his ‘comfort zone’. Jesse Marlow recommends having ‘a few themes running through your work that can give you purpose on the days when you may not be feeling inspired.’ It’s sound advice that might give you a greater sense of purpose during your own photowalks. It’s interesting that Marina Sersale shoots on her way to the gym, or after a business lunch, or stuck in traffic in the back of a cab – photography is something that happens ‘on borrowed time’, and this gels with the intuitive, diaristic style that’s won her an audience on Instagram. It’s a helpful reminder that seeing photographically is not a special filter that we need to unscrew in the context of our professional lives.
It’s also reassuring to read the contributors on the emotional challenges of working candidly. Shooting strangers is always a process, and whatever rationalisation you choose to justify your practice, you can’t explain away people’s indignation, their insistence that their image belongs to them because it is them. Once, in Soho after dark, I photographed a lady with flash, and without permission. She was outraged. When I tried to explain, faltering, that it was ‘street photography’, she replied, ‘I don’t care if it’s street photography, it’s my face’. I haven’t used flash since. For Dimitri Mellos, too, shooting strangers is an ‘emotional inhibition’ that ‘gets a little easier with time, but it’s really a constantly renewed struggle’. It’s refreshing to hear photographers discuss the issue with candour and complexity.
Despite its flaws, there’s a lot to like about Masters of Street Photography, especially as a resource for beginner and intermediate street shooters. There’s a great diversity of styles on offer, but the quality is a bit uneven, and the editorial work is somewhat uninspired, albeit unintrusive. The design isn’t groundbreaking either, but the book is well-made (the blue ribbon bookmark is a particularly nice touch), well-printed and well-priced at £25 in the UK ($34.95 in the US). I’m always glad to see dedicated street-focused releases in the world of commercial publishing, and on the whole I enjoyed my time with Masters of Street Photography.
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