LONGTIME EXPOSURE: Considering Street Art Photographyby Hrag Vartanian
Katherine Lorimer (aka Luna Park) is a Brooklyn-based street art photographer. People outside the world of street art and graffiti probably don’t know what that means, but then again most street art photographers are figuring it out themselves. A librarian by day, she spends her free time scouring the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn looking for the best street art and capturing images which she will post online. Her passion knows no geographical bounds, and during the last two years she has taken street art vacations to Berlin, London, Los Angeles, Munich, Paris, and San Francisco. Driven by her love for her subject, she's part of a global movement of photographers who share a zeal for the ephemeral artistry found on streets around the world.
On the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, Stefan Kloo (a k a Lord Jim) shares Lorimer’s passion, and when I asked him his thoughts about the street art photographer's role, he replied with a hodge-podge of titles, including, “Hunter. Gatherer. Archivist. Art historian. Go-between. Envoy. Curator. Groupie. [Visual] VJ. Voyeur. ” He identifies himself as a street art photographer, since, he says, “Even though I don’t exclusively photograph street art, I proactively go out, drive around aimlessly and look for street art. I don’t do that for any other subject. ”
Others are less reluctant to call themselves street art photographers, Sam Horine (a k a f.trainer) shies away from the term, “There have been times when I was more active in the day to day scene but now I’m working as a photographer full time and therefore have a lot less time to devote to finding the newest stuff out there.” Horine's reluctance to accept the label may partly be the result of the field being crowded with amateurs who don't have the skill that he obviously has in his images, which are richly hued, beautifully framed and carefully composed.
Around the world there are hundreds, if not thousands, of street art photographers who gravitate to the natural hub of the scene: Flickr, Yahoo!’s massive photo-sharing social network. But there is an elite among the clicking hordes and in New York, for instance, in addition to Lorimer and Horine there is Jake Dobkin, the founder of Gothamist who also curates a popular street art photo site (Streetsy), Ray Mock (a k a Sabeth718), Becki Fuller, who recently began a street art photoblog with Lorimer (The Street Spot) and others, most of whom are better known by their handles, which are also often their Flickr screen names.
New York is unique in that there exists an older generation of street art photographers, like Martha Cooper, who have preceded the current generation, but today the centrality of the digital world has made the role of the street art photographer more immediate, more crucial to the street art scene as a whole. Even Martha Cooper photoblogs nowadays on the popular graffiti blog 12ozProphet. On a daily basis these passionate photographers curate photos of what they see in public and together they capture a portrait
“Because the art may not even make it through an entire day, and few people may get the opportunity to see it in person, I think that the documentation plays a very important role in street art, ” Fuller says.
The sheer number of images is impressive. They form an encyclopedia of individual documents, often labeled and tagged, with commentators updating with corrections or arguing about details, attributions, politics, and other insider news. For instance, since April 2005 Lorimer’s Flickr page has amassed 6,235 public images, which have garnered almost 1.5 million views and tens of thousands of comments.
The photographers themselves are marginalized by the art world, and their work is rarely displayed in galleries or museums. Bushwick's Factory Fresh curated a group photo show which included works by Lorimer, Dobkin, and Horine, but this year's retrospective of street artist Shepard Fairey at Boston’s ICA shut out street art photographers altogether, and, in the one case in which photos were collaged on a wall, listed no attribution to the images. Considering the role they play in the scene, it seemed an odd omission.
As a genre, street art photography is an emerging field with no clear way of generating income for its practitioners. Since many street artists are either fully part of the field of fine arts or shy away from commercialism of any kind, there is some tension over the notion of who owns an image of a work displayed on the street. As long as street artists think that a photo is promoting their work, they seem happy for the exposure but the sense that someone else is profiting from their work by selling pictures makes many uneasy. While street artists may not have a legal argument for their discomfort, their clique-ish nature makes these type of issues difficult to resolve.
Each photographer has his or her own rules. Dobkin tends to only photograph unsanctioned (read illegal) work. “My friend Josh says legal graffiti is like the special Olympics—there’s no time limit, and everyone gets a prize, but it’s just not as fun to watch, ” he explains. Others are less stringent about that dividing line. Dobkin also downplays his role, “Some street art photographers probably play a role as curators of the scene—deciding which artists receive the most attention on the internet. But I don’t consider myself a tastemaker—I shoot for myself and that's it. ” Recently, he has been rethinking his work in general. Late in August, he went to shoot a large wheat paste work on Kent Avenue and even though the paste was still wet and the artists were still laboring away, five or six street art photographers had already shot it that day. “Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad streetart had [sic] been so widely embraced. But it definitely has become less fun to shoot—more about getting the first frame up the minute a piece goes live, and the constant monitoring of streetart [sic] gossip and intelligence that entails...I think that might be a good time to step away from this [street art photo] project, at least in its current form, and try to find another less redundant way to contribute to the discourse,” he wrote on Flickr underneath a photo of the wall piece.
One New York street artist, Brian Adam Douglas (a k a Elbowtoe), is a cult figure in street art, best known for his contorted figures who sometimes use sign language. He often uses street photographers as models for his images and has created works portraying Fuller, Lorimer, and Horvine that he has in turn posted on the street. Others, like French artists C215 and Jef Aerosol, have created their own street tributes to some of these same photographers.
The serious street art photographers are rather easy to discern by the ease with which they capture the street and the effort they make to choose the right frame of a piece to post. Some people might dismiss street art photography as simply a form of photojournalism but while that term may fit some of the amateurs in the field, the best transcend it through conscientious use of shadow, light and details to illuminate their subjects.
I asked each of the photographers who they are influenced by and they listed everyone from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans to Cindy Sherman and Bernd & Hilla Becher. I would posit Thomas Struth or Candida Höfer as other antecedents, but I should mention that the street art photographers themselves aren't concerned about being seen strictly as fine artists. They seem happily driven by their love of capturing images of work that was never destined to last in the first place.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.