Street Photography and Non-Place

Author ········· Taylor Dorrell
Published ······ October 24, 2019

By Taylor Dorrell

    Underground trains vibrate the landscape of chain stores and Uber drivers as the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan funnel the clouds down to the thousands of individuals. Guided by their signs, iPhones, and airpods, the tension, anxiety, experienced in other cities’ Costcos on Sunday afternoons. Starbucks on the breath, fast paces collide with, and yell at, the slow and average. It’s here where the street photographer finds their subjects, where culture is collected. In such a seemingly inorganic social environment, the objectification of rushing subjects transforms the landscape into a representation of contemporary culture. However, the lack of stylistic change in popular street photography and the recycling of the past is taking place with a changing backdrop. What relation does this collection and presentation of culture contribute to the culture they reflect? Are we trapped in a cycle of lost futures?

Paris, 1908 - Vieille Cour, 22 rue Quincampoix by Eugène Atget

Cafe Paris by Robert Doisneau

    The commercialization of struggle, war is ephemeral, poverty is romantic, the streets are beautiful, but different. Marville and Atget’s urge to preserve the changes that Bresson and Doisneu utilized, even with the old European air remaining, highlights an awareness of the transitioning spaces of Paris. Very different from the US, which was creating itself, ‘the first new nation’. While Atget was preserving what was, New York was building what would be, Steiglitz catching the conception, fully realized in the transition from WeeGee to Meyerowitz as we look back from 2019. Today, New York can almost be considered post preserval, as Robert Frank put it “for the yupees” (the gentrified landscape). Yet, today’s context of the post-fordist workplace, the blending of life with the internet, the hyper-consumerism, and overabundance of events, has placed us in an unprecedented condition which transcends the ability to capture on the streets with a camera. A new perception, new quiltings of meaning, sense perception. However, where else would a depiction of the real be more accurate? Martin Parr’s anthropological images of the excesses of neoliberalism in the 80s do exactly what photographers had been doing for decades, but now grow away from in the supermodern age.

Point of Sale (1986) by Martin Parr

    Just as Marc Augé calls for, turning the focus on the seemingly mundane backyard. Today’s street photographers in New York City fight to remain in 20th century New York, striving for that nostalgia on 35mm, satirically critiquing the excess of selfie sticks and cell phones, yet contributing to the cycle that stabilizes their place in culture.

    Genuineness, the word Walter Benjamin uses to describe art mediums prior to technological reproductions and photography, the word a street photographer might use to distinguish between ‘natural’ (non/pre-consensual) street photography and posed documentary photography or more commercial forms (fashion, editorial, etc.). An awkward facial expression, an unappealing pose, more importantly, opposition to the preferential presentation of individuals in images. To be able to see how others want to be perceived, the street photographer now searches to fill the gaps in the market, to contrast the status quo, to go against what individuals want to see themselves as. Showing people in the same light as the new journalism movement, but in the context of selfie culture. To do this, the street photographer takes to the streets. However, the spaces, and the notion of spaces (phones transforming place to non-place) are changing, not just with the acceleration of technology and social media, but with the increase of what Marc Augé calls non-places.

    The anthropologist Marc Augé wrote the book Non-Places, Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, which is essentially a manifesto calling anthropologists to look at their own cultures. Naturally, Augé proceeds to do just this. Observing that during the period he wrote the book in 1992, there’s been an increase in ‘non-places’ (Usually inorganic social spaces, guided by signs: banks, highways, grocery stores, airports, etc.) where we find ourselves more and more frequently in daily life. While Augé considers this recognition of place vs non-place less of a black and white process (“Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed…” for example a mall could be considered a non-place to some and a genuine social meeting place for others, as Marco Lazzari argues), this is nonetheless a prominent part of our culture.

    But non-places are the real measure of our time; one that could be quantified - with the aid of a few con­versions between area, volume and distance - by totalling all the air, rail and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called 'means of transport' (aircraft, trains and road vehicles), the airports and railway sta­tions, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets, and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks that mobilize extraterrestrial space for the purposes of a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself.

From the series, ‘I Can Help’, 1988 by Paul Reas
    What Augé calls supermodernity, which he sees as “...three figures of excess which we have employed to characterize the situation of supermodernity - overabundance of events, spatial overabundance, the individualization of references”, has transformed our landscape and how we interact in spaces. This is especially prominent in the US where landscapes are being built and rebuilt in this image, relative to Europe where they are being integrated into, or built around, the past. Small towns are forced to compete for the attention of those on the highway, their only appeal being their gas stations and chain food, forced to “rebrand”. It is this dance that takes place on the streets, in the workplace, at home.

    As Walter Benjamin saw the art evolving in the age of mechanical reproduction, a battle rages between distraction and immersion. With an increase in these neoliberal non-places, we are increasingly less likely to find ourselves immersed. As we have a need to find meaning (another aspect of Augé’s supermodernity), the process of quilting meaning in daily life and what Benjamin calls our ‘sense perception’, becomes more and more affected by these larger structures, even if, perhaps especially when, they do not explicitly espouse it. If we accept these observations, how do they hold up today and what effect does the process and presentation of images taking place in these non-places?

    In street photography, the environments of non-places are often utilized as backgrounds and hunting grounds for subjects. The street photographer is not only photographing in these spaces, but presenting them online, in books, and galleries. The presentation is then experienced in their own forms of place vs non-place. For example, cellphones have the potential to transform every non-place into an internal place via engaging deeply in social media, however the effect on the physical space they occupy is the opposite, making it more of an inorganic environment based on how people are interacting within it. As we view photography that is saying something about the world we live in, we are also contributing to the space we inhabit while viewing the work. As Benjamin put it, “The audience is an examiner, but a distracted one”. Thus contributing even more to the battle between distraction and immersion. Phones shift spaces towards this dichotomy of place vs non-place.

    Street photography, especially in its instant presentation on cell phones, magazines, and websites, then contributes even more by blending the real (photographing people in non-places and on their phones, looking at images) with the presentation. New Yorkers look at images of New Yorkers while on the train, traveling, waiting, existing in places and non-places. The loop of photographing, presenting, and consuming are welded together, causing street photography to not just be the collection of how society and culture looks in the street, but a medium which contributes to the transformation of place to non-place and vice versa. This being true for most forms of photography, the cycle of simulation.

By Daniel Arnold

    Street photographers today are faced with this contribution to the culture that is being observed, a part of the blending. Taking place in a world which is constantly transforming, the photographer attempting to be no more than a collector of culture, yet being at the center of it. Projecting it into the devices that project a form of reality back into the culture that’s collected and presented. The non-places are no longer exclusively in the real, seen in the backgrounds of street photographers images, but now can shift through the social aspects of engaging with technology. Creating a pseudo place, where social media is considered social interaction, which is much more likely to happen in non-places, but happen in organic social environments as well to share with others what you’re doing. We are, as Augé says, “ contact only with another image of himself”. Guided by notifications, images, links, taking place inside and outside of the smartphone, the notion of place vs non-place has drastically shifted and those presenting this, whether intentionally or not, are contributing to it. 

    While this essay is about street photography specifically, all can be applied to other art mediums. As Benjamin said, it’s not photography, but art with mass attention.”Reproduced art is designed for reproducibility.”