I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed. – Garry Winogrand
What is Street Photography?
The meaning of the term Street Photography has become a debated topic and you can find personal definitions all over the internet. So since this is a Street Photography blog, here’s mine.
First off, there is no exact “definition” of Street Photography.
My biggest problem with the term ‘Street Photography’ is that it’s either used too openly for any and all images made in public or it’s used with too many rules and restricted to an elitist form.
The “Street” in Street Photography can cause a huge misinterpretation and give an image of being photography in a lesser form. Photography that anyone can do on a street. For one, it takes it’s name from the environment the photographer shoots in instead of the actual subject shot or how it’s shot. Those are what makes it Street Photography. Taking a photo of a street is not.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s such a pure form of photography that relies on the photographer’s eye and understanding of photography over technology that it can cause a lot of elitists specifying hard rules as if they invented it.
So what is it then?
How Wikapedia defines it:
Street photography is photography that features the human condition within public places and does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. The subject of the photograph might be absent of people and can be an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic. Framing and timing are key aspects of the craft, with the aim of creating images at a decisive or poignant moment.
To be honest, not bad Wikapedia. I’d agree with all that and it’s not overly restrictive.
Now time to make street photographers mad. How Urban Dictionary defines it:
Take a random camera, usually an expensive dSLR or ideally a “vintage” rangefinder then take photos of any old shit in an urban environment. Random people, beggars, buildings, leaves, garbage – the subject doesn’t matter, only that it has zero emotional value and you convert it to high contrast black and white before posting online.
“Aw crap my shutter button stuck down and now my memory card is full of worthless shots of town”
“Don’t worry dude, stick it through silver efex pro and call it street photography”
Unfortunately, this is what many people believe Street Photography is today. It’s laughable and completely false, but it’s not surprising when you look at some of what’s passed off as Street Photography online.
When it comes to putting it in my own words, paragraphs on personal definitions are usually boring. So to put it in simpler and more visual terms, I’ll make a list of what Street Photography is and is not to me.
What Street Photography IS NOT to me (the easy part):
- Restricted to Black & White
- A random photo of a street that says nothing
What Street Photography IS to me:
- Documenting life and the human condition. People, place and time in the form of moments captured.
- No control over any of the elements in the photo. You control only your eyes and your camera.
- Observation, anticipation and reaction. The ability to see or sense a unique moment in life and react to it. Your reaction to what you see influences the capture.
- Capturing the moments in daily life that go unseen.
- Combining reality with vision. From capturing specific realities to distorting reality with your camera, all in the way you see it.
- Minimalistic. Only you and your camera becoming one.
- The easiest to do poorly. The hardest to do well.
- Requires the viewer to really look at the photo. It’s not just a pretty picture of a flower, it’s much more, but that can sacrifice instant appeal for depth.
- Capturing moments in time for posterity.
- Making the real surreal and the ordinary extraordinary.
- Using framing and timing to say something in a picture. It doesn’t have to be deep, but it needs to be interesting.
That last one is what I feel lacks the most in the general idea of Street Photography today. A random snapshot of a street is nothing. A photo of a street scene that says something takes thought and skill. That’s what makes Street Photography.
Emotion or feeling is really the only thing about pictures I find interesting. Beyond that it is just a trick. – Christopher Anderson
Here’s a photography test. Look at the majority of the perfectly lit and highly edited photos that are popular online. How many of them do you think will stand any test of time? Will the photoshopped flash still hold the same appeal years later? I highly doubt it. Technology and flash always gets old. But you know what doesn’t?
A photo with depth. A photo that has a story, that shows emotion, or captures a period of time and place. Those photos get even better with age. They don’t get old because they have something to say, no matter the time.
This is what Street Photography should aspire to be.
It doesn’t always have to be powerful or emotional, but at least you should be going for something interesting that gives the person a reason to look at the photo for longer than a glance. Make their eyes move, hold their attention, and make them think. Leaving them with more questions than answers makes some of the best photos of all.
Does it have to be candid?
This is where I would probably get the most disagreement. I personally don’t feel Street Photography has to be completely candid. Most of the time this is what I would go for, but sometimes photos can capture a person aware of the camera without losing that raw, real life feeling of Street Photography. Sometimes that eye contact can even add to it. Being uncontrolled and authentic is what matters to me.
Does it have to include people?
I almost always prefer a human element in a street photo. It adds life for me and gives a sense of a moment that can never be captured again. At the same time, I don’t feel it’s an absolute for Street Photography. Using color, contrast, light, shapes and non-human gesture has created some great Street Photography. William Eggleston is a master of this. Eggleston uses color and mundane objects in a way that captures something more.
Basically, I don’t feel Street Photography should be full of rules and definitions. I just know when something isn’t Street Photography.
It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary. – David Bailey
Who really has the power and authority to define Street Photography?
The heart of Street Photography can branch into many genres, such as reportage, street portraiture, travel, abstract, fine art, and more. This is why so many great photographers, including much of Magnum, have ventured into Street Photography. Many of these greats, like Garry Winogrand, hated the term and preferred to just be called photographers. Even the man many call the father of Street Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, never referred to his work as street photography.
So why define?
Shoot what interests you. If you want to take it seriously then learn as much as you can about photography, especially in the styles and subjects you are most interested in. Learn from the greats, study their work, and then find yourself through getting out there and shooting as much as you can. If this passion and interest encompasses aspects of street photography in the general idea then great. Photography is a personal form of expression and creativity so make it your own.
When William Eggleston was asked about the subject of his pictures he said:
That works for me.
Now tell me your feelings and thoughts about what Street Photography is in the comment section below!