Yes, as soon as HCB started making a living with his photography it became commercial. But as I said, he did most of his great street work before that, or in the interstices between assignment work, where the street work had nothing to do with the assignment itself.
Amateur (in the real meaning of that word) street work always has been the only thing with a future. If you look back at what was being published in Life, Look, Vu, etc., etc., you'll see that none of it was "street" photography. It was reportage. My favorite Gene Smith product was "Country Doctor." It was pure reportage, though it was very, very good reportage. That kind of thing is dying -- maybe even dead -- now that everybody out there has a cell phone with camera. There was a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal today on that very subject.
But street photography is no more reportage than the Mona Lisa is reportage. You're right: it's not commercial. HCB did street and he did reportage, but I have a hard time thinking of Doisneau as a street photographer. Doisneau mostly did setups that he intended to be commercial, as in "Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville."
As far as harking back to what was done in France decades ago, everything we do in visual art harks back to things even farther back than decades ago. My "Telephone" harks directly back to Elliott Erwitt's collection of ironies caught in flagrante delito. Most of the labored landscapes I see hark back at least to St. Ansel, and beyond that possibly to Eugene Atget's park pictures. Most of the genre photographs I see hark back at least to Andre Kertesz and beyond that probably to Fox Talbot. If photography were as old as painting every photograph we make would hark back to something first done at least centuries and probably millennia ago. But that doesn't mean what we do now isn't unique. Photographs embody time, but the best photographs relate time to the human condition -- which is why landscape photographs fade so quickly from memory. Elliott couldn't have shot "Telephone" because when he was doing his street work there were no cell phones.
By the way, I agree with what you said about Capa. He was a very good war reporter because, as near as I can tell, he had a death wish. I'm not sure whether or not he had it before Gerda Taro was killed, but he sure as hell had it after that. He died while I was flying out of K2 in Korea and we all heard about it and were sorry, but not nearly as sorry as we were when Earthquake McGoon got shot down over Dien Bien Phu about three weeks before Capa died. Capa's really outstanding accomplishment was to be the leader in the establishment of Magnum.
Russ - I wonder if we are chatting about the same Robert
Doisneau? Reference to the infamous de Ville shot and subsequent débâcle convinces me that we are, but the medium-sized brick in my hands convinces me, equally, that he is as ‘street’ as the next man on the list! I suppose it all comes down to our personal definition of ‘street’.
As to whether ‘street’ in the sense of hobby has a future, I’m sure it does, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t just a future in a redundant genre. As with most things I can think of, myself very much included, unless we serve a greater purpose than our own existence, we eventually die out. Hence, my music pics or the next desperate attempt at staying alive in the mind, keeping the juices out of the freezer. Not that I’m into cryonics, heaven forefend!
Your point about all works being derivative is true – not only painting but photography, as well. I also agree that that, of itself, doesn’t make either pointless; some very derivative works are noticeably superior to the models from which they draw, something perhaps very pertinent to the world of music. But in the sense of a style, a print genre, a viable vehicle for employment and I hope in the spirit of the reference which kicked this debate off, I have to insist that street and pj are as passé as Life and Picture Post, however good they might have been in their time. That’s now the preserve of tv news teams. Who are probably just as guilty of staging as RD may have been!
You mention Magnum. How long its future unless it changes radically? The recent history of similar photographic news agencies in France has been dismal; one after the other they have been absorbed, changed or simply have folded. They could seriously have considered help from the dodo on survival stratagies!
I mentioned tv a few lines ago. Having been without one for about a month, not missing it at all, I entered a period of disenchantment with digital photo processing, the Internet and fora, leading me into the purchase last week of a new tv set as alternative couch fodder to the above. I spent a small fortune buying one of those new things that are LEDs, enable stereo as well as Internet browsing, all this built-in and making my two recently replaced digiboxes expensive paperweights. A few moments of ooing! and wowing! at the quality of image, of looking at my own website on it, I began to see all the problems, greatest of which is that the station content has not improved, and is, if anything, lower than I’d imagined when the previous tv died. I suppose you get used to low standards after a period of indoctrination, but a respite gives your eye time to recover a little. As for my own site, what looks fine to me on my calibrated monitor looks too contrasty and glaring on the tv… the hell with it all!