Street Photography Is Now Dead – A Nostalgic Look at Dolf Toussaint’s Images of Amsterdam in the 1960s
Recently I seem to come across articles in which street photography is routinely declared dead. The authors generally argue that there was a golden age of street photographers, comprising practitioners such as Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz or hark back to even earlier times, naming people such as Brassai and Robert Doisneau. Then they go on to discuss the rise of privacy rules and regulations, the impact of anti-terror laws such as Section 44 in the UK, the encroachment of private property onto seemingly public domains, and the increasing belief of the public that photographers are not allowed to take their pictures unless very explicit permission has been given and even then.
Whilst I acknowledge that all of this does play a role in the apparent demise of street photography, I would like to postulate another and more fundamental reason as well. There simply are no people in the streets anymore. Of course there are people in the main streets of each city, but if you find yourself wandering during the day around back alleys, or suburbs or neighbourhoods outside the immediate city centre, there is hardly anyone. And I wonder where they all are. I would simply love to come across scenes that street photographers are famous for depicting, because I am struggling to find them.
There are people walking the streets, there are children playing games, women hanging from the window shouting at their neighbours. There are shops where people plied their crafts. There are local pubs where the folk get a quick ‘un after work. If I walk around the Jordaan now, it is usually eerily quiet.
If you look at photographs by for example Dolf Toussaint, a Dutch photographer now on show at the Amsterdam City Archive, you will find them full of people. The images are vibrant, they are full of life in all its guises. His images were taken during the 1960s in the Jordaan, which was a working class area in Amsterdam at the time. There are people walking the streets, there are children playing games, women hanging from the window shouting at their neighbours. There are shops where people plied their crafts. There are local pubs where the folk get a quick ‘un after work. If I walk around the Jordaan now, it is usually eerily quiet. Of course there is the odd lost tourist and the occasional cyclist speeding towards other destinations. But nothing noteworthy seems to be happening.
Where is everyone? Have gentrification, car ownership, long working hours, out of town offices and shopping centres driven people of the streets? Or have my eyes simply become attuned to the kind of pictures that Helen Levitt and others have made famous? Are contemporary street photographers stuck in a particular discourse which leaves them no room for renewal?