(Photos used in this interview is used with permission from Streetfoto and the respected copyright of the owners. Streetfoto Poster image by Jack Simon)
San Francisco is probably one of the most under rated US cities when it comes to street photography. Home to a lot of hard workers and street shooters, the city will be the venue for Streetfoto, a new international street photography festival. Lined up with exhibits, contests, portfolio reviews, lectures, and a lot more, Streetfoto is shaping up to put San Francisco in the street photography festival scene. We got a chance to talk to Ken Walton, the brainchild of this festival and we discuss what Streetfoto is about, his views on street photography, and what folks can expect when they go there.
A.G.: How did the idea come about for Streetfoto?
Ken: I started shooting street about a year-and-a-half ago, and quickly became obsessed with it. After about six months, I began to wonder where I was going with this newfound passion. I knew I didn’t want to just shoot-and-share forever. I was beginning to get a sense of how quickly this art form I’d undertaken is growing, and I realized that, outside of the Miami Street Photography Festival, there weren’t many big events at which street shooters from around the world could meet, share, and learn. I believed there was a need for another festival, and I am lucky enough to live in a perfect location for it. San Francisco is a great place to shoot and is home to many talented photographers, but on the global street photography map, it is a marked by a much smaller dot than places like New York and London. I wanted to showcase this city as a street photography destination, and a festival seemed like the perfect way to do it. When I shared the idea and others agreed, I decided to make it happen.
What are some of the biggest challenges for Streetfoto?
I suppose the biggest challenges are ones we have yet to encounter, as this is our first year, and we haven’t yet opened our doors to the public.
So far, our biggest challenge has been finding a good venue. Event space in San Francisco is very expensive, and we had to look at a lot of places before we found something that was appropriate and within our budget. We are very happy with the venues we found, but they didn’t come easily.
I was concerned about attracting well-known photographers to appear at StreetFoto, since I am a relatively unknown photographer launching a completely-unknown event, but to my surprise, I’ve gotten a great response from nearly everyone I’ve contacted. Street photographers – even the famous ones – tend to be very nice people.
Every organization and sometimes individuals have a differing view on the definition of street photography. There is just no one definition to it, so how does Streetfoto define street photography?
We take a broad view of street photography. As a general rule, we consider a street photography to be candid photos, usually of strangers, typically made in a public places. But all general rules have exceptions, and these include self-portraits or posed street portraits, as long as they are relatively spontaneous and not elaborately orchestrated. A street photo doesn’t have to include people, but if it doesn’t, it should be focused on some sort of evidence of humans interacting with each other or their environment. A photo of a phone booth probably isn’t street photography, but a photo of a phone booth with a discarded purple wig on top of it probably is.
Like most other modern arts, street photography is somewhat of a, “you know it when you see it” concept. A rigid definition isn’t necessary. For the purposes of the StreetFoto contest, our primary concern is that entries not be staged, photoshopped, or heavily processed. Aside from this, good photos are good photos, and we will leave it up to our entrants to know whether what they are submitting falls within the genre. Looking at the work of our judges is a good way to determine what is likely to do well in the contests.
What is it with street photography that attracts its practitioners?
There are probably as many reasons for why people shoot as there are shooters. Some people say they shoot to remember where they’ve been. Others like how street photography forces them to live in the moment, and relish the meditative aspect of being “in the zone” when they are on the street. Some shooters like the adrenaline rush of getting close to a subject, while others find satisfaction in finding a perfect stage and waiting patiently for the right subject to walk onto it. I once joked that I do it for the glory, and in a way, this is actually somewhat true. I feel triumphant when I am able to create an extraordinary image under difficult circumstances.
Ultimately, despite the myriad reasons for why the street photography attracts us, we all have the same goal: to make amazing photographs.
Where do you think street photography is heading? With improving smartphone camera technology but on the other hand people don’t want surveillance, do you think there will still be a place for street photography?
To paraphrase Dickens: It is the worst of times, it is the best of times.
Digital technology will make it continually easier to create high-quality photos in all sorts of conditions with little or no technical expertise. Combine this with a growing awareness of street photography as an art form, and countless ways to share photos with little or no effort, and you have an endless torrent of clichés and weak imitations. Today, more street photographs are made in a single day than were made in the entire decade of the 1950s, and most of them have little or no artistic merit. It is the worst of times.
And yet amidst all this, these same conditions have created an environment that is enabling and fostering creativity and surfacing new talent. Digital technology has unlocked photography for creative geniuses who might never have otherwise pursued it – people from around the world for whom high-end cameras and film might have been too expensive or inconvenient. These artists are creating some of the best photographs ever made, and their talent is being noticed and celebrated on the internet in ways that never would have been possible in the past. We are in the golden age of street photography, and it’s only going to get better. It is the best of times.
I do not think concerns about surveillance will affect the future of street photography. We are all growing accustomed to being in front of cameras all the time. There will always be some people who do not want to be photographed, but I don’t think this will affect the future of the art.
Can you give a profile of some of the photographers heading in for the festival?
We are excited to have three workshop teachers who will also be giving lectures at the festival:
- Richard Bram is a well-known and influential New York City street photographer with decades of experience shooting the streets. Richard is a member of In-Public, the original street photography collective, and an experienced workshop teacher. He will be teaching a 4-day intensive workshop that includes classroom time, shooting with students, and critique. He will also be giving a keynote address and presenting a slide show to the public during the festival, and is also a judge in our single-image street photography contest.
- Vineet Vohra is a prominent New Delhi street photographer and a Fujifilm X photographer. He is a co-founder of APF magazine and a member of the APF and The Street collectives. Vineet is an experienced workshop teacher who regularly sells out classes around Asia and Europe, and we are bringing him to StreetFoto for his first North American workshop, an intensive 3-day class called “The Art of Storytelling” that will focus on creating a series of photos with a common narrative. He will also be giving a public lecture at the festival, and is also a judge in our street photography series contest.
- Jack Simon is a celebrated and influential street photographer who is based right here in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work is striking, surreal, and contemporary, and is much-published and often-awarded. He is a member of the Burn My Eye street photography collective. Jack will be offering two workshops: A one-day class with online follow-up and a two-day weekend class. Both classes will include extensive in-the-field instruction, and Jack will walk, shoot, and talk with students in the neighborhoods in which he has created many of his iconic photographs. Jack will also be giving a lecture to the festival at large.
- In addition, we will be having a film screening and talk by Joe Aguirre, and anticipate visits from Blake Andrews (who will not speak, but will be here to take in the festival), as well as several members of the Burn My Eye collective. Many others have expressed interest, but will have to wait to see who actually makes it to the festival.
Finally, what would people expect when they head to Streetfoto?
Fantastic exhibits of great contemporary street photography, informative lectures by seasoned masters and up-and-coming contemporaries, eye-popping slideshows and films, immersive workshops, helpful portfolio reviews, and mingling, eating, and drinking with lots of other great street photographers from around the globe. All in one of the world’s most interesting cities.
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