New Kid on the Block - Cultural Photography
I had never heard the term “cultural photographer” until I saw it in the Bio of the Instagram account of C J Lucero, @rangefinder. I had no idea what a cultural photographer was, but I sure was interested in finding out. When I went to research it in Mr. Google, actually there were remarkably few articles written about cultural photography. Three, to be precise. And the hallmark of it being the new kid on the block is that there is no article about it in Wikipedia.
The clearest statement defining cultural photography can be found on the website of The Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture, which is a part of The University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. The same article was published in Lens Magazine, without attribution in either source, which is a little confusing to me.
“‘Cultural Photography’ is the art of taking photos for the purpose of telling about a people or a culture. The photographs may be as simple as portraits of faces, or as common as street scenes, or as complex as the capturing of scenes that illustrate social relationships.”
Let’s compare this with Wikipedia’s definition of street photography.
“Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography, is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places.”
Given those definitions, it seems clear to me that cultural photography and street photography intersect in subject matter and technique, but differ in intent. Street photographers do not necessarily have a social intent, whereas cultural photographers always do.
Cultural photography also has much in common with travel photography. Let’s consider Wikipedia’s definition of travel photography.
“Travel photography is a genre of photography that may involve the documentation of an area's landscape, people, cultures, customs and history.”
Again, cultural photography and travel photography can intersect in both subject matter and technique, but the underlying intent is quite different.
Even though we have not defined cultural photography until fairly recently, I certainly believe we have seen the work of cultural photographers in National Geographic, although most of that was related to remote tribal cultures and not to the cultures of developed countries. I also believe that the famous documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange, was largely a cultural photographer.
When I think about photographers that I follow on Instagram who are doing cultural photography, these three come to my mind:
Diane Beals, has been a professional photographer for over 20 years. One of her specialties is Documentary/Street photography. She has extensively photographed people on the margins of society, including homeless people and people with extreme political views. She constantly teaches me about their challenges and also their humanity. You can view her portfolios on Instagram, @diane_beals2, or on her website at www.diversephotographs.com.
John Farnsworth is a professional artist and photographer who does street photography by, in his words, sketching with his iPhone and painting with his iPad. He says of himself, “I travel slow. I pack light. I love life.” His compositions inspire me, as does his use of a mobile device to get sophisticated, beautiful photographs largely taken in Central America. You can view his portfolios on Instagram, @johnfarnsworthphotographer, and on his website, www.johnfarnsworthphotographer.com.
Susan Schiffer is an avid street photographer in New York City and, in my estimation, a cultural photographer in India and other Asian countries. She makes frequent trips to Asia. Her pictures reflect the connection that she has with the people she photographs. You can view her portfolio on Instagram, @susan.schiffer.
If you decide that you want to try cultural photography, what is the path? Adam Marelli has written an excellent blog, “What Is Cultural Photography?”, about his path. His cultural photography projects feature craftsmen and meditation. He made the incredible commitment to become a part of both of those worlds through a 10 year investment in construction along with a concurrent 7 year study of Zen Buddhism before he integrated them into his photography projects. That surely is the most rigorous path. Perhaps it could be argued that the least rigorous path is the use of mobile devices to take the millions and millions of pictures that document, every day, our cultures around the world.
I think cultural photography is a good fit for me. I am extremely interested in both the variations and similarities of people in different countries. I like to record the unique work of artisans in each country. I do not exactly know what my path will be toward better presentation of cultures, but surely the first step is to recognize that as a goal. A new Gallery, The Charcoal Burners of Serra San Bruno, has been posted as an example of a cultural photography gallery.
Street photographer, cultural photographer, travel photographer, does it matter if we choose a label? In a sense, the answer is “no”. These genres all have much in common. But I do think having a clear goal in mind will help produce a more coherent portfolio of work. When I go out, am I trying to catch a moment, paint a picture of a culture or capture the flavor of a place?
Look at some of your pictures. Are they cultural photography, street photography or travel photography?