Once upon a time, I was a painter. I made large scale work with absolutely no representative elements. I was fascinated by the ways in which color and texture alone could communicate non-verbally, and without any narrative. I liked that people could show up at my paintings with whatever they had inside their heads and their experience could be theirs and theirs alone. It should also be noted that I’m an intensely private person (seriously, it’s almost like a pathology) and so as an artist I shied away from making anything that might say anything personal about myself. Eventually, I began fiddling with representational work and then I stopped painting altogether. I’m not sure what the connection was between representation and the end of painting, I just know that I can’t communicate that way. But I WISH I could. Which I think is why, as a viewer, I’m drawn to photography more than paintings these days.
Of all the photographic genres, street photography really snags my interest–both artistically and stylistically. I love the way a person’s mood and personality can come through in a candid, spur of the moment click of the lens. I can stare for hours at a person’s eyes; trying to sort through that unattainable quality that makes them THEM. I love when a completely unexpected outfit perfectly compliments the ornery twinkle in the wearer’s eye. Or when a dapper old man is captured at such an angle that you can see back in time, seeing him as a precocious child or a cock-of-the-walk young man. Good street shots illustrate how it isn’t that the clothes make the person, but how the clothes ARE the person.
Somehow, I think a lot of contemporary Americans confusedly associate fashion and style with some sort of shallow elitism. Did the first hippies do this somehow? When they eschewed haircuts and tailored clothes? Or is it that our overly-masculinized, sexist culture seems to think that to be well-groomed is to be more feminine, which is thought to be inherently shallow and self-obsessed? Hence the amusing, but fucked up game, “Gay, or European?” Get it? [insert sarcasm now] Because both are SO feminine, because Europeans don’t have cowboys, and big cars, and are small, and trim, and care about how they look– just like gay men, just like women. REAL men look like shit.
It’s a flawed logic, since there are plenty of exceptions to all of those assumed rules. Except I don’t THINK Europeans have cowboys. I blame this unconscious cultural philosophy for spawning countless throngs of fashionably unappealing dudes (and dare I say it, fashionably unappealing masculine female-bodied people whose identification preferences I don’t know and won’t assume) that I have to wade through where ever I go. I don’t know how they get laid. But to be fair, I don’t know how most people get laid.
Point being, if you don’t put thought into what you wear, you’re missing a golden opportunity to tell part of your story. It’s not about being shallow, or even necessarily about wanting to look good; it’s about fully communicating who you are as you move through life. It’s fun, it’s intriguing, it can be as fluid and multi-faceted as you are. The clothes are the person. Additionally, you could up your chances to get laid.
Anyway, back to street photography. I like looking at pretty average people from around the world being fashionable. I like dreaming up their life stories based on the image the photographer captures. I like when a random girl in Paris or New York or Stockholm or Kansas becomes my style icon for a season. Which happens a lot. But mainly, I like the kindness and dignity with which street photographers treat humanity.
One of my favorite street photographers is this guy:
That’s NYT photographer, Bill Cunningham, of “On the Street,” with Bill Cunningham. He’s been bee-bopping around on his bike in New York and various other cities for 50 years, taking fantastic pictures of people as they’re going about their days.
Here’s a delightful slideshow with Bill’s narration. It’s all about how Parisian people are reflecting Spring in their clothes. I could listen to his commentary all day. That little peanut.
But before you middle of the country folks go and feel alienated yet again by the coastal urban centers, LOOK! Style isn’t just for New York, LA, Paris, etc.
Everyone’s always talking about the ways in which the internet has democratized information. This is true of fashion as well. Which is why so many fashion magazines are drowning under the weight of their own narrow view. I’ve mentioned before about my dislike of most fashion magazines. I generally don’t see myself in them. I like getting fancy, but not too fancy. I’ve never been interested in pithy sex tips. I will wear or not wear make-up as I please, and I generally don’t buy things with single seasonal trends in mind. I am not a good consumerist woman/lady type. What I see in most fashion magazines are dead and dying views of femininity, remodeled.
What I see on street photography sites for various locales, and sites like The Sartorialist, or even Bill Cunningham’s “On the Street,” are people being captured and honored for the ways in which they uniquely express themselves, rather than for their ability to fit into an antiquated ideal of articulated gender norms. Or articulated fashion norms, for that matter.
So here is what the beauty of street photography gives us: the encouragement to shed the notion that style is a side note, a mindless detail in life to be adhered to by the few, the chicken-headed, and the European. Street photography can also subvert the idea that fashion is something one has to fit themselves into–something that costs a lot of money, changes every season and every year, something exclusive. It’s not exclusive, it’s an expression of yourself; you decide how that expression manifests itself. Maybe you stay on top of trends, but maybe you find a tattered old sweater in a secondhand store in Missouri that calls to you.
If you think that what you wear is of no consequence to the person you are inside, you’re mistaken. When I see all those fashionably unappealing folks (and by this I mean people who don’t seem to put any thought into what they put on, not people who try but maybe do something kind of weird or controversial or different than myself), I can’t read the personality of the wearer. I assume, then, a certain laziness about life, or possibly an insecurity, maybe a low level of inconsideration. Your clothes say something about you any way you cut it.
If you want to tap into the fun and effervescence of thinking about style, look at the twinkle in the eye of the dapper old man at the bus stop. Maybe ask if you can take his picture.