Michael Ernest Sweet


Street photography is, undoubtedly, the hardest genre of photography to practice well. Notice the word “well”. This is the qualifier. One the one hand, street photography is the easiest, as there is little investment (any camera will do) and not problems with access (just need a street). On the other hand, this easy access, and therefore the ubiquitous saturation of street photographs, necessarily makes the genre a cluttered and noisy visual mess. Everyone takes photographs on the street. Everyone, or so it seems, is a street photographer. Just today, I walked a few blocks in Manhattan and saw nearly a dozen people (mostly young men) carrying around cameras – obvious street cameras (Leica Q, Ricoh GR, Fuji X100 etcetera). This was just on one day and on a few blocks. Street photographers in New York City are right behind rats and cockroaches, both in number and in certain other ways too. But let’s not digress too much.

Despite all of the above, which clearly sets out a very challenging environment, I remain compelled to practice street photography. It is a kind of drug, an addiction, rightly put. I am hooked. But it remains a love/hate relationship. It is a back and forth or applying the gas and then the break, both in terms of inspiration and determination. One day, I am gung-ho to take street photographs; the next day, I am unable to even have a camera in my sight. It is a kind of bipolar relationship, as there are few, if any, middle-ground days – days where I am indifferent about the whole thing. It just doesn’t work that way. And, thank Hercules that it doesn’t, as apathy has produced no good art in this world. Drive, determination, obsession – those emotions can make good art, as can disgust, anger, and disillusionment. Art is made at the poles – the opposite extremes of the pendulum – not in the middle zones of indifferent contentment.

I have retired from street photography at least four times over the past decade. I expect this to continue. But, like Cher and Ozzie, I will continue to re-emerge and continue to do what I do because, in the end, that is what I do. Street photography is what and who I am. Yes, studio work, or even documentary work (with its fixed focus and narrow scope) would be easier, but those genres are not me. I am not a portrait photographer. In some ways, I would rather work at the post office or drive a bus before I would go into a studio and make portraits. I have about as much interest in wedding photography, for example, as I do in knitting and ironing. It is not really a choice that I am a street photographer. As I said, I am hooked. I am a junky. I will remain a street photographer until Betty Ford offers up a program to get me out. For better and for worse, I am married to the act of roaming around and taking photographs. There are, perhaps, worse fates.



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