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  • Writer's pictureMichael Bastianelli

Rediscovering the Human Element in the Age of Smartphones: A Modern Street Photographer's Dilemma

Street photography has always been about capturing the essence of humanity in its raw, unfiltered state. It's a candid snapshot of the world that reveals the beauty, complexity, and sometimes the absurdity of our everyday lives. Garry Winogrand, a master of this art form, was known for his uncanny ability to capture the spirit of American life in the 1960s and 70s. Fast forward to today, and street photography has evolved with the digital age. It has become both more accessible and more saturated, resulting in a changing landscape that poses new challenges for the modern street photographer. One such challenge is the ubiquitous presence of smartphones and other devices that have altered the way people interact with each other and the world around them.

The Age of Camera Accessibility:

Gone are the days when owning a camera was a luxury or a specialized tool for professionals. Today, cameras are integrated into our everyday lives through smartphones, making photography accessible to almost everyone. This has led to an explosion of photographers, both amateur and professional, who are eager to capture the world around them. Consequently, the streets are saturated with images, and it has become increasingly difficult for photographers to create unique and meaningful work in this crowded space.

The Impact of Staging:

With the ease of capturing images and the pressure to create something that stands out, modern street photographers may be tempted to stage photographs. While staging can produce visually stunning images, it sacrifices the raw, unfiltered essence of street photography. The beauty of street photography lies in its ability to capture the unexpected, the fleeting moments that reveal the human condition. Staging robs the genre of its authenticity and dilutes the magic of capturing life as it unfolds.

The Aesthetic Shift: Fashion and Automobiles

Another aspect that has shaped the look and feel of modern street photography is the evolution of fashion and automobile design. While personal preferences may vary, many argue that the unique aesthetics of past eras have given way to less distinctive styles in both fashion and car design.

Garry Winogrand's era was marked by iconic fashion and classic automobiles that exuded character and charm. Today's fashion trends, on the other hand, often prioritize comfort and practicality over bold and unique designs. Similarly, the curving, aerodynamic shapes of modern cars have replaced the angular, bold lines of the classic automobiles of the past. This shift in aesthetics can make it challenging for street photographers to capture images that evoke the same sense of timelessness and style that characterized the work of photographers like Winogrand.

Turning Point - 2010 and the Dawn of the Smartphone Era:

I couldn't help but notice a significant shift in human behavior around the year 2010. This turning point marked the widespread adoption of smartphones, and with it, an unprecedented change in the way people interacted with the world around them. Before this period, I could still capture the essence of human connection and emotion without the interference of digital devices.

In 2009, the streets were filled with people who were present and engaged with their surroundings. While cell phones existed, not everyone had smartphones equipped with internet access, social media apps, and unlimited data plans. YouTube was not yet the go-to platform for on-the-go entertainment, and people were not constantly updating their social media feeds. This era marked the final chapter of a time when the human element was unencumbered by the constant need for digital stimulation.

The proliferation of smartphones after 2010 has led to a new norm: people looking down at their screens instead of engaging with the world around them. This shift in behavior has had a profound impact on street photography, making it increasingly difficult to capture images that convey the depth and complexity of the human experience without the intrusion of technology.

As street photographers, we now face the challenge of adapting to this new reality and finding creative ways to document the evolving human story. It's crucial for us to recognize the significance of this turning point and strive to preserve the essence of street photography while acknowledging the unique aspects of our contemporary world.

Paying Homage to the Greats: Quotes and Inspirations

While the landscape of street photography has undeniably changed, it's essential to remember and honor the work of pioneers like Garry Winogrand and other influential photographers of his time. Their unique perspectives and mastery of the craft continue to inspire and guide modern street photographers. Some notable contemporaries of Winogrand include:

Henri Cartier-Bresson: A pioneer of candid photography and the master of the "decisive moment," Cartier-Bresson's work has had a lasting impact on the genre. His famous quote, "Photography is nothing – it's life that interests me," underscores the importance of capturing the human experience.

Robert Frank: Known for his groundbreaking work, "The Americans," Frank's images revealed the raw, unvarnished truth of American society. He once said, "The eye should learn to listen before it looks," emphasizing the importance of intuition in photography.

Diane Arbus: A trailblazer in capturing the lives of marginalized individuals, Arbus said, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know." Her work invites viewers to question and explore the hidden stories behind her subjects.

Garry Winogrand himself once said, "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed." This quote encapsulates the spirit of exploration and curiosity that drives street photography. Winogrand's approach to the medium serves as a reminder for modern photographers to continually push boundaries and seek out the unexpected in their work.

In Conclusion:

Despite the challenges posed by changing aesthetics and the impact of technology on human interaction, the legacy of Garry Winogrand and his contemporaries lives on. By staying true to the essence of street photography and embracing the unique qualities of today's world, modern photographers can continue to create powerful and meaningful images that capture the human experience.

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