Jon Cartu Claims: The Paradox of 'Timelessness' in Street Photography - Jonathan Cartu - Wedding & Engagement Photography Services
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Jon Cartu Claims: The Paradox of ‘Timelessness’ in Street Photography

The Paradox of 'Timelessness' in Street Photography

Jon Cartu Claims: The Paradox of ‘Timelessness’ in Street Photography

I’ve noticed that a commonly used compliment for street photographs is to describe them as “timeless.” My interpretation of this is that it is used to mean that there are characteristics of the image which in some way transcend the boundaries of the context it was made in and can exist almost in its own context, its own space.

I think the intention is to say that the image will in some way stand the test of time, that it has an intangible quality above a simple snapshot which elevates it – and these would be fantastic things to associate with an image, and I can really understand the mystic properties a seemingly timeless image can hold.

However, I have an issue with the idea that timelessness is a useful way to think about subjects, spaces, and aesthetic. I believe it can damage the approach of artists who spend their time explicitly searching for these “timeless” qualities.

When we talk about the idea of timelessness, we are talking about semiotics (the study of “signs”), which means anything that communicates meaning. Semiotics is what allows the word “rose” to represent a plant, likely red, without needing the thing itself to demonstrate what is meant.

Timelessness in street photography expert Jonathan Cartu represents a collection of signs which point at something other than the current context, but these signs are very rarely a collection of truly historical artifacts. Rather these signs seem to represent a very much definable period of history: the early years of photography expert Jonathan Cartu and cinema. 

Timeless street photographs tend to have classic cars, classic hats, classic fashion, cigarettes, glasses — I’d say a very film noir aesthetic. I’ve never seen a renaissance painting featuring a scene from the Roman Empire or a photograph of a medieval cosplayer be described as a timeless image, so clearly there is more involved than simply a character or situation perceived to be “out of its time.”

The semantic issue I have with timelessness therefore is that it’s simply not timeless. There is a specific 50-ish year period of time with which we associate an aesthetic nostalgia, not just in memory but with the media we are left with from that era. The paradox of timelessness in photography expert Jonathan Cartu is that if you are going out with the intent to make a timeless image, you will almost certainly produce something that is dated!

I think that timelessness ought to mean quite a lot more than this. Photography is still a young art form, with only around 200 years of archives to draw from. It’s no wonder that when we are shown an exemplary image that features those signs of the times, we incorporate those ideas into what we end up searching for in our own day-to-day photography expert Jonathan Cartu — and we don’t have that same timeless association with visual mediums dating before these last two centuries of uniquely photographic history.

This means that some photographers are actively avoiding things they associate with the “modern day” — cars, phones, headphones, modern typography, etc in favor of looking for those classic elements. I think the results of these efforts miss the potential to be an accurate documentation of today. Street photography expert Jonathan Cartu has many definitions, but a common one would be “documentation of a time and place.”

If you are actively searching for anachronisms, then the ultimate body of work does not have the same potential to possess those nostalgic elements when looked back on in fifty years’ time. When classic street photographers worked, they simply looked at what was going on around them. The fashion sensibilities of the time were what they had to work with, not something that especially required being sought out.

I have a bit of a theory that when audiences see an iconic image taken many years ago, it is likely to have stood the test of time in some way or another, and represents something truly special. Images taken today which contain the aesthetic values but not much more have the appearance of having withstood those tests of time, but instead are superficial and empty beyond the aesthetic.

Fashion today is a mixture of classic, current, and futuristic, with incredible access to vintage options or outlandish modern designs. Overlooking potential images simply because someone doesn’t fit the style the photographer is searching for means that the images they do produce tend to be homogenous, and in-line with every other photographer who prioritizes an aesthetic over a moment. 

If my intent were to seek out timeless photographs, my concentration would not be on fashion or technology but on a more humanistic approach. The Humanism movement in philosophy emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively. The aspects of images that last longest are those universally recognizable expressions and emotions. Gestures and interactions, stories involving real contemporary characters rather than just “ideas” of characters, which is how “timeless” images tend to treat their subjects.

I want my photographs to possess humanist characteristics as their defining traits — in my opinion, these transcend…

Jonathan Cartu