On clichés and identity as a photographer

I find that quite often, critics, “curators” and members within certain photographic genres love to appoint themselves as authorities on a given subject, constructing their own rigidity around what they feel is a valid identity for “their” genre (as if they own it), while dismissing what they see as illegitimate.  In the case of street photography, the irony of that prevailing sentiment against the “clichéd”, Cartier-Bresson-esque street photo in favor of the more abstract, vanguard approach has, in many ways, simply created a new and improved set of cliché’s:

  • The super high contrast, heavily shadowed shots of fragmented body parts both filling and darting in and out of the frame.
  • The deer-in-the-headlights subject being blasted with a flash.
  • The person or persons contorted into some compromising position.

Now, I have no issue with photographers or collectives whose works seem to align in this way for three reasons:

  1. First, if a group of people wants to identify with and organize around a common thought or approach, they have that right (although, hopefully they don’t think that their way is the only right way to do things).
  2. Second, the problem with any cliché is that it doesn’t start off that way – it takes shape over time because of the sheer volume of people with cameras, widespread technique adoption/imitation (of originators/auteurs such Alex Webb, Trent Parke, Ray Metzker, Bruce Gilden, etc.) and lack of personal evolution – it’s sometimes difficult to notice when an approach has become overly common and has overshadowed the subject which it is intended to examine – when form has superseded function – especially if you gain some recognition for your work.
  3. Third, it’s entirely possible to work within what has quite clearly become a cliché and still produce a level of quality that rises above the masses and thus has significant merit.

Rather than rejecting out of hand a certain approach (even if I think it’s just the newest cliché) I prefer to identify my own photography broadly, embrace various techniques and resist being put into a specific bucket, albeit safe in the knowledge of the eventuality that whatever approach I am using may already be or will eventually become cliché over time.  From that perspective, I really couldn’t care less about narrow identities today – whether I’m referred to or accepted as, say, a “street photographer”, and maybe you shouldn’t either.  Let me attempt to explain my logic, using street photography as an example.

When it comes to my hometown Detroit, rather than being interested in a specific technique of making “street photos”, I’m interested in exploring the city itself from as broad a perspective as my resources will allow.  Some days, that means wanting to walk and photograph on the street.  Other days, it means wanting to examine the architecture.  And still other days, it means wanting to fly above the tapestry: Detroit is changing so much and so fast from what I used to know that I want to see it from every angle before I leave to start a new adventure elsewhere.  It’s also meant trying (and sometimes failing) at many other experiments, such as Google Glass, 360 cameras and more.  But the tools and techniques are just a means to an end – what’s more important to me is examining a particular subject that interests me.  Do the resulting images from those different approaches need to fall neatly into certain narrow buckets (i.e. “street photography”, “architecture”, “aerial”, etc.)?  Perhaps.  But more importantly, do I need to center my identity around a specific approach (“street photographer”, “architecture photographer”, “aerial photographer”, etc.)?  Of course, narrow buckets make it easier to organize websites, attract gallery curators, pitch specialties to clients, and articulate very specifically what ends up happening when a given photographer grabs his camera.  A wedding photographer, for instance, may photograph lots of other things, but if he earns his bread and butter from shooting weddings it’s in his interest to focus his marketing and branding in such a way that will attract specific clientele.  The same could be said for any professional targeting a specialty (including architecture and drone work).  Thus, it would be foolish of me to criticize what others do – especially if it works for them.

For my individual circumstances, however, two issues challenge the notion of identifying narrowly vs. taking a broader view.  The first issue is that I love having the creative freedom to wander a bit, relatively speaking, within the boundaries of  2 or more different approaches.  That diversity and sense of experimentation is what keeps me interested in photography, even if it means sacrificing more rapid “mastery” of a single approach in the purest sense of the word – I enjoy doing the traditional stuff and making the effort to find something creatively that not many other folks around me are doing yet.  The second issue is that, as I’ve had the opportunities to exhibit and sell my work and discuss it in professional settings, potential collectors/buyers of work often don’t really seem to care whether they think I’m a “street photographer” or an “aerial photographer”; such prospective clients tend to be more broadly in an art mindset and want to see a range of approaches and subject matter based on some emotional or aesthetic resonance (right now there is a signficiant uptick in demand for all sorts of Detroit based images).  As such, I don’t really need a narrow label to better cater to my specific audience, because my photography is often viewed more in the realm of fine art in general – and I’m ok with that.  Of course, there is always the possibility that a collector could be looking for a specific approach, in which case I could miss out by not identifying more narrowly.  That’s a risk that I have to take (with street photography in particular, the fact is that I don’t typically view those images as a product to be sold so much as perhaps discussed and exhibited – or simply, to just exist as a record of my perspective).  Ultimately, at this point, for me it doesn’t make much sense from either a creative or a financial perspective to encapsulate my entire photographic identity around being narrowly known as a “street photographer”; it’s something I do, but it’s not all of who I am.

With that said, it’s probably worth noting that in time, others may well apply a label to your work that perhaps you wouldn’t have chosen, depending on what gets noticed.  As an example, if she were alive today, would Vivian Maier even care to identify herself as a “street photographer”?  Some of the legendary photographers over the years have scoffed at the term (see Winograd, Garry), while others have eloquently embraced it (see Meyerowitz, Joel).  From an outsiders’ perspective, using Meyerowitz as an example, if Cape Light was your first exposure to his work, what kind of photographer would you call him?  What about his powerful 9/11 photographs?  Of course, in numerous interviews, Meyerowitz often identifies himself as a street photographer, and who could argue with the man who is arguably the greatest to ever do it?

If I commit to a specific, narrow identity such as street photography, I risk suppressing my desire to explore other approaches and more easily being confined by clichés – not to mention potentially harming legitimate business opportunities.  In the end, if it turns out that I do have some sort of photographic legacy that lives on past my working days, I won’t have any control over what genre of photography others identify me with anyway – so I probably shouldn’t sweat it.  I’m not suggesting that I should start referring to myself a “visual storyteller“, but how about I just stay comfortable in my own skin as a “Detroit-based photographer” and call it a day?

How do you identify as a photographer and avoid (or embrace) clichés, and does it even matter?