The very idea of ‘inspirational’ photography is somewhat misleading due to common misconceptions regarding how people are ‘inspired.’ The conventional definition of ‘inspirational’ art and messages focus on a positive feeling or insight the viewer walks away with. This is only part of the power of truly inspirational art. We are inspired to dig deep within ourselves both by positive and also ‘negative’ or, at the very least, ‘not so positive’ art. In fact, one could argue that art that makes us ill at ease or shocks us from our complacency is no less ‘inspirational’ than feel good images that appeal to our better angels. Indeed, the awkwardness, confusion, and, often, sheer discomfort we get from images and media often does a better job at triggering self-reflection that lead to positive action. For the purposes of this essay, we focus on this broader definition of ‘inspirational.’ The following five street photographers have a knack for framing images that challenge, confound, shock, and otherwise move us from the cozy confines of our comfort zones. They remind us of ideals we’ve left slip or afford us a peek at different corners of our world we’d rather not venture to. The images they present put us in a frame of mind that demands honesty and reflection.
Prior to Arbus, much of street photography focused on slick, glossy commercial images or sanitized and safe portrayals of the ‘gritty’ side of American urban consciousness. While you may see images of dirty New York streets and alcoholics, these images were sanitized by the subtext that these were ‘deviant’ or ‘out of the mainstream’ images. Pre-Arbus street photography that subscribed to this subtext allowed the viewer the luxury of having an invisible ‘mental condom’ between the viewer and the subject matter. Sure, the images you were looking at were supposed to be shocking and disturbing, but you can still go home at the end of the day and go on with the details of your cozy suburban daily life. There was a safe disconnect between the viewer and the subject that protected the viewer from the deeper resonance of the subject’s image. Diane Arbus tore off this mental condom. Focusing mostly on handicapped people, transgendered individuals, dwarves, giants, and circus performers, Arbus’ lens centered the ‘unusual’ in our consciousness in such a way that we cannot safely retreat to concepts of ‘normalcy’ that shielded us from the uncomfortable emotional responses. Indeed, Arbus positioned much of her subjects in such a way that the whole concept of ‘normalcy’ was thrown out the window altogehter. Viewing classic Arbus photographs like ‘Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park’ or ‘A Young Brooklyn Family Going for A Sunday Outing,’ we are left in an awkward, uncentered, confused, and even terrified state. And this is precisely what makes Diane Arbus’ stark black-and-white street photography so exciting and real. Her subtext was that we weren’t watching freaks-we were watching parts of ourselves we didn’t want to confront or even acknowledge. Thoroughly refreshing and liberating, Arbus’ art was as much therapeutic as it was jarring. Sadly, she died too soon. She committed suicide in 1971.
iO Tillett Wright
You can tell a lot about a society based not just on its heroes and ideals but also based on who it chooses to marginalize. After all, in the bipolar cosmology of the West, if you aren’t an angel, you surely are the devil. This is precisely the outmoded, bankrupt, and ill-fitting cultural construct iO Tillett Wright’s work centered on the LGBTQ community seeks to expose and deflate. Long marginalized, oppressed, explained away, neglected, or overlooked, the LGBTQ community, along with women struggling with patriarchy and cultural minorities grappling with the remnants of cultural hegemonic ideologies, form an important community in the greater American narrative. Wright’s work seeks to find the seeds of cultural freedom and liberation in the personal narratives of individuals living with the impact of parochial American social norms. As gripping as some of her photographs may be, there is an underlying current of optimism and quiet strength arising from the sheer humanity of her subjects.
Class is America’s dirty little secret. Long shielded from the harsh, cheek to jowl class warfare that roiled Europe and turned it into a liberal socialist bastion, America constantly psychologically shields itself from the glaring inequalities that form industrial capitalism’s by-product. The American dogma that anyone can start out rich and become rich is accepted as an article of faith. The images of cookie-cutter suburban homes are trotted out as proof of the continuing viability of the American Dream. Of course, beneath the socially soothing talk is the reality that the gap between rich and poor continues to explode as the purchasing power of America’s have-nots continue to erode. This disconnect between comforting American ideas such as free enterprise and individual achievement and the cold hard reality of class divides is the shadow area Richard Sandler plays in. His photographs tend to show the raw power of unbridled capital in transforming communities. His documentary work on dot com gentrification should strike a nerve for many Americans displaced by technology and the instant millionaire army it created.
When it comes to exposing lies, hypocrisy, or incompetence, one of the most powerful weapons in a photographers disposal is the power of juxtaposition. Markus Hartel knows how to wield the graphic power of juxtaposition for maximum psychological effect and pathos. One of this most powerful images show police talking to a motorist with a smiling model on the upper right. The smiling model has a knowing look in her eyes. Hartel highlights the tension between the raw power of the authorities, the hapless and nervous motorist, and the billboard model who, it seems, appears to know a thing or two about police stops and questions. Hartel is a master typographer and graphics designer. This shows in his work. He is able to adeptly combine the clean fabricated lines of pure graphic design and the raw, edgy, and candid quality of unretouched street photography. Far from just using the power of juxtaposition, Hartel’s work embodies many juxtapositions itself.
Vladimir ‘Boogie’ Milivojevich
One of the saddest by-products of capitalism, whether the industrial or digital kind, is its effect on the psyche. Our cheap Walmart consumption habits and comfort-driven economy exact a big toll on our sense of personhood. In the mad rush to consume more and more, the needs of the soul have been neglected. It is no wonder that ‘developed’ countries’ top prescription drugs invariably fall into the antidepressant, antianxiety, or anti-hypertensive categories. Boogie’s street photography captures the effect of the hollowed out spiritual void of a post-Industrial world. While much of his recent work comes from the developing world, his first-world ‘gaze’ is all-pervasive in his art. His photography shows us as much of our spiritual vacuum as the harshness of the developing world. Boogie skillfully projects into the First World soul its issues while using a Third World slide show.
Who is your favourite street photographer? Should street photography be called art? Drop us a comment and let’s hear your thoughts on street photography.