Public Art Issues in Street Photography – John Lewell Photography

As a street photographer, I’ve kept my eye out for all the quirky statues that keep popping up in the places you least expect them to be. I really like one or two of these, like Oscar Wilde’s warning (above). Yet so many public statues are appallingly grisly.

What do people think when they decide to spoil a pretty street corner with a bunch of fried eggs (Santiago, Chile), a crumpled plastic cup (Bristol, UK), or a pile of naughty pigs (Adelaide, Australia)?

I generally avoid photographing statues and sculptures — just as I avoid street buskers, beggars, homeless people, and undercover police officers posing as beggars and tramps. From a photographic point of view, they are all sitting ducks. Some of the duck statues are sitting literally. Florentijn Hofman’s 85-foot sculpture of a duck is said to “spread joy throughout the world”. No, Florentijn. stop it.

Sample Collection
You can find chilling collections of public art on Pinterest (including the duck sculptures and whatnot I’ve mentioned), where each work stands in stark contrast to all the beautiful examples of slick design elsewhere. Here’s my own collection—examples above—put together for this article. It’s called “Whose Idea Was This?” (click on the link to see the full ugliness). Picture yourself taking some serious street photos near them.

… Thanks for coming back to read the rest of this article after seeing examples of “funny” public sculptures (especially taxpayer funded ones). I don’t include anything of real quality.

Unique But Brilliant
You know, I’m not against the weirdness itself. London’s famous memorial to Oscar Wilde (featured image above) shown reclining on a coffin-shaped piece of polished granite on Adelaide Street, talking merrily – his hand dangling over a cigarette – is both entertaining and moving. Created by Maggi Hambling and installed in 2004, it makes a real and meaningful contribution to London life. The inscription, from Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is: “We are all in the ditch but some of us see the stars”.

My image shows how naturally Londoners interact with the Wilde memorial. However, the work was not without controversy.

Charles Spencer, former Daily Telegraph theater critic, found Wilde’s representation “disgusting” and threatened to destroy it with a sledgehammer and pneumatic drill. But then, he equally disparaged Hambling’s highly evocative tribute to Benjamin Britten on the Aldeburgh beach, calling it a “terrible pile of rusty scrap metal”.

Such philistinism! When widely publicized critics are so ignorant about the visual arts, it’s no surprise that local councils give an OK to mediocre work elsewhere. The Wilde Hambling Memorial arose from decisions taken by a committee of eminent artists, including poet Seamus Heaney and actors Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. This is the original article: fine art for the street.

Serious But Away
In our photographs we can mock — or celebrate — the statues that live in our cities. They vary in size from small statues on pedestals to massive structures that can be seen for miles around. Some of them interfere with the flow of pedestrians, others provide shade. The worst ones are sometimes housed there as “photo opportunities”, where people can take family photos and selfies.

The scroll at the entrance to Singapore’s Scotts Square (above) is an example of the “aloof style” of street sculpture: large, fitting for the size of the surrounding buildings, but completely unobtrusive. Called “Undefined Lines” by New York-based French sculptor Bernar Venet, who once said: “It is not art if it does not change the history of art.” Primarily a conceptual artist, he explores ideas about uncertainty, irregularity, coincidence, and uncertainty — much like what I try to do in street photography. I love the job!

Not Serious But Annoying
I wish I could say the same for some of the statues closer to home. Britain is regularly bombarded with kitschy projects designed to engage the public not only in admiring but also in creating sculptures. They are then put on display, luckily for a short time, before being auctioned off as garden ornaments. In recent years we’ve had outbreaks of colorful cows, giraffes, even figures of Wallace and Gromit, strewn the streets.

Are they fun? Yes, they are cute and for that reason you can’t resist them. They come and go, unlike some permanent installations that attract the same desire for visual stimulation. Street photographers must find a way to come to terms with temporary sculpture, otherwise there will be a gap in our artistic history when it comes to writing.

Whoever came up with the concept of a painted giraffe had little consideration for street photographers. Composing with such tall objects is too difficult. In the image above, I’ve solved it by beheading a giraffe.

Here’s my alternative solution (below). It’s the same giraffe, but only the head. I prefer the contrast between the solemn figure of Victory at the War Memorial in the background over the smug expression of the giraffe in front of him.

Mr. Spencer, could you bring a sledgehammer and a pneumatic drill, please?

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