I received a newsletter yestrday from WorldStreetPhotography.com containng the following piece written ( I use the term loosely) by one Michael Ernest Sweet who had just undergone what must have been, judging by his language, a torturous experience in curating a photo competition. My first impression was, the bloke must have been having a bad day. Then I looked a bit closer at what he was writing and followed that up by looking at some of his own work. Disclaimer / confession. 1) Prior to doing this I had no idea who he was. 2) I have photogrsphs on the site, but not in the competition to which he refers.
Michael Ernest Sweet: First, allow me to begin with a bit of a rant. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, there is too much repetition in street photography. Go out, photographer, and push the boundaries, break the rules and capture something different! If I ever see another street photo of a young woman on a cell phone, someone with an umbrella, or a failed attempt at irony by aligning a person in front of a billboard, it will be much too soon. This stuff is dead. Stop making what you think a street photo should be and just make photographs - work from the gut, not the head.
What struck me about his rant—and this is not all of it—is that for someone who had been given the honour of curating a competition, he seemed extraordinarliy frustrated not to say bitter. Hence my reason for looking up some of his work. Now, note his comment about the young woman on a cell phone. On the cover of one of his books – he has published two—there is, you guessed it, a photograph of a woman on a cell phone. Well, ok. So that was maybe a one-off. But no. It gets worse. You notice how he is sick of umbrellas. Well, lo and behold, on the very same website that bestowed upon him the responsibility for judging a street photography competition, I found that he had also run a competion in the past. You’ll never guess what the subject was. Or maybe by now you will. Of course, it was nothing other than umbrellas. With this I mind, his exhortations to “capture something new” rings just a tad hollow wouldn’t you say.
Of course, someone with such an exhalted opinion of himself would not be seen on the net wthout a photograph, and a photograph of said Sweet is there. He smiles his self-satisfied smile from beneath a jauntily tilted fedora much in the way of the late Tom Wolfe. Needless to say, the photograph is taken indoors. What self-respecting “artist” would not have a photo taken indoors without wearing a hat. And of course he has a few days unshaven growth to boot. “Break the rules and capture something different”? Photographer shoot thyself, to paraphrase.
And while on the subject of originality, his other book is a series of shots at Coney Island. Now there is an original thought. How many people in the past hundred years have done that?
I remember reading an account of someone who had participated in a Bruce Gilden workshop and had been mightily abused verbally by the great man for his feeble attempts at street photography. Some people are masochists and that bloke enjoyed forking over the price of a camera to be embarrassed and humiliated. Each to his own. It seems to me, that Mr. Sweet who, it turns out, now lives in New York is trying in some way to emulate the personna of the grumpy genius. Grumpy he may be, but the ranks of the world’s geniuses will not soon part to admit him I venture to say.
Martin Parr has praised the work of Sweet. I “tips me lid” to Parr whose position as president of Magnum speaks for itself. I can only say that had Sweet an ounce of the class that Martin Parr possesses, he might have decided against writing a peurile, self-centred piece of pomposity.
His own website has one of those awful third person bio’s that are obviously self-authored. You can get a measure of his self importance by his refrence to two Canadian awards—neither of which are for photography—The Queen’s Silver Jubilee medal and The Prime Minister’s award for education.
The ever humble Mr. Sweet allows as to how they are two of the most distnguished awards for civilians in Canada. Nothing like taking hyperbole to the absurdo ad reductio is there? No less than 60,000 people in Canada received the Jubilee medal and the people who have received the Prime Ministers’ award number in the thousands also. This is not to denigrate the awards, but his description, ironically, lessens their value while attempting to increase his own. In his case a Sysephean endeavour no doubt.
I find his comment, “Stop making what you think a street photo should be” to be the height of – there is only one word – hypocrisy given that he has done nothing but tell people what street photography is not in his exalted position, and by extension and implication preecisely what it is.
I suppose my argument could be countered by saying that anyone who was discouraged from taking street photographs as a result of Sweet’s hissy fit should probably not be trying anyway. That approach gives more credence to Sweet’s mean-spirited attitude than it deserves. For someone who boasts of his award for education, his is a curious attitude.
In an online interview with Sweet (an interview that to my mind displays the lack of real commitment Sweet has), Tim Huynh welcomes him back after being absent from photography for a year. Sweet’s response in part: “The ‘welcome back’ may be somewhat premature”
From what I have seen I can only endorse that sentiment and hope that it holds true for a long time to come.