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How Our Changing Cities Are Transforming Street Photography

Developers, the threat of terrorism, and smartphones are all challenging the genre.

Nick Turpin has been around the block, quite literally. He’s been a practicing street photographer for nearly 30 years. But times have changed–so much so that Turpin now prefers the term “candid public photography” to differentiate his art from the increasingly ambiguous genre of street photography.

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Turpin estimates that there are at least a thousand photographers roaming the city’s streets today, compared to the four or five photographers capturing London’s urban life when he started–all of whom he knew. Today, many use smartphone cameras they can fit in their pockets; some young people may never own an old school point-and-shoot. Turpin remembers what street photography was like in the 1990s and early 2000s, before the iPhone and Instagram and Flickr made photo-sharing ubiquitous and gave rise to the everyman photographer. But changing technology isn’t the only striking difference: Over the past 30 years, cities themselves have become more hostile to street photography due to terrorism threats and private development.

Tate Horsebum.

A Changing Color Palette

When Turpin first started out, street photography was usually shot in black and white. One of his first projects was made in the halls of the Tate museum, where he capturing the museum’s denizens as they contemplated the art–a series that was eventually exhibited at the Tate Britain itself. The photos each tell an entire story in one image, emulating the work of Turpin’s heroes at the time: The black-and-white street photographers of 1930s Paris and 1970s New York.

Through A Glass Darkly #34.

Today, Turpin says, most street photographers shoot in color–a change that is partially due to technology’s evolution. It’s now much easier to create high-quality color prints using digital tools than it was when photos were developed in a darkroom. But for Turpin, street photographers today prefer color for another reason–for artists who are interested in the everyday, it’s simply more realistic. “Color was the way to record reality,” he says. “You got away from the romanticism of the black and white. It seemed to have a lot of baggage.”

Turpin’s most recent project, Through A Glass Darkly, examines the nightly commute that many of us know so well. He spent three winters photographing London’s bus riders as they made their ways home, and the resulting photographs look like they could be paintings. “If I’d shot that project in black and white, it would have been more romantic,” he says. “The pictures would have been beautiful but they wouldn’t have the reality.”

The aesthetics of street photography have changed due to technology and to different interpretations of what the discipline includes in the first place. While Turpin has adopted color into his photographs, he still maintains a stricter definition of what constitutes street photography–candid photos shot in a public space. Some younger street photographers include flash lit photos and portraits as part of the genre, which Turpin views as a distortion of the medium. To differentiate his mode of photography, he aptly calls it “candid public photography.”

Phone Nation.

When everyone’s a photographer, what does the photographer do?

Just as smartphones made photographers of us all, they’ve also transformed public life–a change Turpin hoped to capture in his series Phone Nation. In each photograph, city dwellers huddle over their phones against a white backdrop that almost feels artificial. In reality, the background is the pale marble floor of the Waterloo railway station. Turpin shot the photos standing from the station’s second floor balcony.

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“They’re just studies of modern people. We take the mobile phone for granted,” he says. “It’s very much a part of the way we live and the way we behave in public spaces.”

It is this kind of creativity that has kept Turpin in-demand–he has shot advertisements for the V&A Museum, an addition to the London Underground, and IBM. Though Turpin and his colleagues had a hard time publishing or exhibiting their work in the ’90s–so much so that Turpin founded In Public, the first collective of street photographers, so that they could do just that–today it is decidedly en vogue, to the extent that big brands want the candid, unexpected moments Turpin is so good at capturing in their advertisements.

“People believe those photographs,” he says. “There’s a snapshot aesthetic, they’re believable. People accept them as part of their lives.”

Like Piccadilly Circus.

Threats to public space

While street photography might be in-demand from advertisers, cities themselves are becoming less accepting of photographers.

After 9/11, Turpin says, street photographers working in the financial district of London would be stopped by police over fears of hostile reconnaissance–using a camera as a tool in plotting a terrorist attack or other criminal activity. Turpin recalls donning a badge that read, “I’m a photographer, not a terrorist” and marching on Trafalgar Square with other fed-up London-based photographers. Photojournalists have also faced similar security measures and have rallied against it.

While this kind of scrutiny towards anyone with a camera is no longer at the levels it was during those years, street photographers face another, more insidious threat: Private developers slowly encroaching on public space.

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Cardinal Place, Victoria.

Turpin explains that in the ’90s, developers bought public land to build offices or apartment buildings. Now, they build malls and other kinds of developments that blur the line between private and public space. In one mall near Victoria Station, he says, there are restaurants, shops, and seating areas–but because it is privately owned, protesting, smoking, and photography are all banned. But it can be difficult to tell when you’ve crossed into private space; the only delineators are metal studs embedded in the pavement to show the boundaries of privately owned land.

“This has probably been the most significant change that most of us face,” Turpin says. “There are whole areas of London that we won’t go and photograph because you get stopped by security.” The list, posted on his blog, includes the Olympic Park from the 2012 games, King’s Cross Central, Paddington Waterside, and Canary Wharf. Turpin estimates that 150 acres of central London that were formerly public space have since been privatized.

Last year, Turpin started a new photography project specifically focused on this issue. He took pictures of people crossing over from public land to private land, then darkened the area of the photo that is private space in order to show that it’s unphotographable. “I wanted to find a way of literally showing it in a photograph,” he says. “But when you stand on the street it’s very difficult to tell or to see which is which.”

The French.

Despite the changes over the last couple decades, Turpin believes the core of street photography remains untouched by technology, popularity, developers, or rising security threats. Even if more people have access to a camera, the central reflex–the ability to spot and capture an unexpected moment–remains just as difficult to grasp.

“You have to be physically and mentally present to recognize these things and be ready for them, to recognize that something special is happening on the street in front of you,” he says. “That really is the skill. It’s almost more important than getting the photograph. It’s recognizing the significance of something.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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