A Look at the State of Street Photography: A Sea of Clichés?

The ability to capture the essence of humanity in a single frame is what draws many to street photography. However, the genre often finds itself trapped in repetitive patterns and clichés, hindering photographers from expressing their unique perspectives. 

Coming to you from Justin Mott, this passionate video candidly discusses the current state of street photography and challenges viewers to break free from the mold. Mott, a seasoned photojournalist, expresses his concern over the lack of genuine emotion and storytelling in many contemporary street photographs. He critiques the overreliance on predictable formulas, such as high-contrast black and white images with isolated subjects, often shot through puddles or reflections for added effect. While acknowledging the mastery of legendary photographers who employed similar techniques, Mott emphasizes the importance of infusing images with soul and character, something he finds lacking in many modern interpretations.

Mott argues that blindly following these established formulas, without understanding the underlying emotions and stories they conveyed, leads to a generation of "soulless photographers" producing derivative work. He encourages viewers to move beyond mere technical proficiency and explore themes that hold personal significance. Instead of replicating the styles of others, Mott urges photographers to discover their own voices and express their unique perspectives through their work. He advocates for experimentation with different approaches, whether it be shooting in color, utilizing wide angle lenses, or incorporating a series of images with a clear purpose and narrative.

The core of Mott's message is a call to action for street photographers to break free from the constraints of clichés and infuse their work with authenticity and meaning. He challenges viewers to dig deeper, explore their own motivations, and find their own visual language to tell compelling stories through their photographs. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Mott.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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One will not capture the essence of humanity in a billion photographs. That is essentialism, which is reductionistic. Mott is quite correct in my opinion, but he could have gone further in that any genre in photography is replete with repetitive, derivative, and decorative photographs. Yes, as he says we all do it at times. Mott is so spot on. Mott's complaints can be placed at the door of photography magazine editors and photography reviewers, who often enough support much of this and fan and fuel the embers of mediocrity too often.

Now come on, Alex, perhaps respond to this post as I seldom see you responding.

I think it’s easy to point out that a lot of photography has become repetitive and cliché ridden but considering how many locations have been photographed and the plethora of techniques already used, it is very difficult standing out from the crowd. It’s very easy to say ‘be more unique and expressive’ but much harder to actually achieve, especially when trying to define what is unique and expressive and also with ‘soul and character’ when so much has already been done before.

One obvious problem I see a lot is photographers who chose to stick to one style of photography (I don’t mean genre). For example capturing a single person in silhouette, surrounded by stunning architectural buildings or someone who uses deliberate camera movement in every photo. You see ten of these photos and it then becomes very repetitive very soon after.

A great street photography image compels you to stop and stare at it, demanding your attention longer than you would ever anticipate, and often asks more questions than than it answers. I agree with Mr. Mott that there seems to be a lot of technically perfect street images which are merely derivative of others' work than truly interesting and unique - at least now I know that someone else thinks similarly.

I feel it’s getting harder and harder to be unique as so much has already been done before and so many locations have been photographed many times over. Try being an original photographer in New York or London for example.

I prefer it when photographers TRY to be original or at least somewhat different. Often this comes down to whether they want to follow their vision or closely follow what others do (or something in between, perhaps). When one follows what others do, one is in the wake of the ship. One will seldom get ahead of that race. Many are fine with following, others not. If you want "likes" etc., do what editors and reviewers decree. Recently, I read a great article in the NYT - Why...All Artists Remain Perpetual Beginners by Aatish Taseer. In it it is stated, "Real artists bring about real rupture," but it is worthwhile to read the whole piece. (Real rupture is sometimes or even often ignored though, but then again, do you want "likes"?). I prefer to look at books with photographs from less well-known photographers with a strong fine art, contemporary, or experimental bent. Perhaps look at paintings, movies, performance art, sculpture and the like for ideas that may prompt one to take or alter photographs in interesting ways.