It seems a simple enough question: what is street photography? but it’s one guaranteed to turn most photography forums into a never-ending meltdown of disagreement and argument. In many ways street photography has become different things to different people.
So why is it so difficult to satisfactorily define? After all, there’s a lot of good definitions around:
Good old Wikipedia defines it as, “photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places…street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.”
The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Photography expresses it as “a form of photography that captures candid, everyday scenes in public areas, typically urban streets. A street photographer almost always chooses strangers as his or her subjects.”
The highly influential Street Photography Now muses that “is an unbroken tradition, stretching back to the invention of photography itself. It revels in the poetic possibilities that an inquisitive mind and camera can conjure out of everyday life…street photographers elevate the commonplace and familiar into something mythical and even heroic.”
And the seminal Bystander: A History of Street Photography simply implies it is photos of “people who are going about their business unaware of the photographer’s presence…(it is) candid pictures of everyday life in the street….(the street is) any public place where a photographer could take pictures of subjects who were unknown to him.”
[Post Edit 10/11/19] The excellent introduction to Magnum Streetwise, by Stephen McLaren, says “street photography revels in the incongruous, the implausible, the inconsistent and the ineffable. It celebrates ambiguity, hinting at parallel realities that we can only occasionally tune into, and then only for a fraction of a second.”
Whilst not wishing to disagree with any of these, and on the most part I largely agree with all of them, let me define what street photography is to me personally.
Literal interpretations and location.
One of the biggest issues that leads to people misunderstand what street photography is, is a literal interpretation of the very term itself. They think it has to be on the street and therefore any photos taken on the street are therefore street photography.
So let’s start with the notion of it having to be photography on the street. Quite simply, this is incorrect. The renowned street photography historian Colin Westerbeck in Bystander defines “the street” as, “a crowded boulevard or a country lane, a park in the city or a boardwalk at the beach, a lively café or a deserted hallway in a tenement, or even a subway car or the lobby of a theatre.”
We can take this to be any public space or place. It doesn’t have to simply be on the street or even in an urban environment.
Which leads me to the next misconception, that just because a photograph has been made on the street it is therefore street photography. Again this is wrong. Something I continue to try and explain is that there is a big difference between “street photography” and “photography on the street.” Let me clarify further.
The Philosophy of Street Photography.
So we’ve established that “street photography” isn’t a literal interpretation of the phrase itself. Therefore, what does the phrase stand for? For me, it’s a label for a certain philosophy, aesthetic and intention. It’s a term that stands for a specific look and approach.
As a result not all photography taken on the street falls within this philosophy. Confused? Okay, let’s go back to the definition provided by the Street Photography Now book. The key phrase in this is, “street photographers elevate the commonplace and familiar into something mythical and even heroic.” This is what makes street photography a philosophy rather than anything just taken on the street.
[Post-edit 10/11./19] This is expanded further by Stephen McLaren in Magnum Streetwise, when he says, “It’s more of a tradition than a genre.”
So what does this all mean? The word “elevate” is crucial here. To my mind, street photographers don’t just simply record what’s happening, they are looking to transcend expectations or, as Henri Cartier-Bresson may have said, seek out the “decisive moment” for a few fleeting hundredths of a second. In other words, street photography looks for what is not expected or the unfamiliar. It’s challenging and not easy.
So shots of random people walking down the road, stood looking at phones or just simply sat on a buses are, aside from being rather boring and uninteresting, exactly what you expect to see when you step outside.
It’ easy. Anyone can point a camera at people walking along a street. These photos aren’t elevating the commonplace or familiar. They’re just recording things as they are, in a pretty dull and uninspiring way. It might be “photography on the street” but it’s not within the philosophy of “street photography”. So that’s why I say street photography is a different thing from photography on the street. This can especially confusing to get your head around at first.
Street Photography Is Not Documentary Photography.
A lot of so called street photography I see is often really documentary photography. Again this is something that confuses people but there is a distinct difference between street photography and documentary photography.
Whilst street photography fits within the wider context of documentary photography, documentary photography itself is about faithfully documenting people, places, objects and events as they are. It attempts to provide answers for what it is photographing. It is objective.
Street photography tends to twist things, it’s not being entirely faithful to what is actually occurring. The way it’s framed and timed allows the photographer to be a lot more subjective and less objective in order to make something interesting or unusual. It tends to pose questions about what is photographed.
An example of this could be a Royal coronation. The documentary photographer will set out to faithfully record what is happening to give the viewer an understanding of the procession. The street photographer in many ways is looking for the opposite. They’ll be looking for the unusual, the amusing and the in-between moments that will beg more answers.
It’s the difference between a photograph of the Queen waving from a carriage and a photograph of a man drunk and asleep amongst rubbish at the feet of onlookers. They both occurred at the same event, but the former is taken by a documentary photographer whilst the latter was taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson. One sets out what is happening, the other poses more questions.
[Post-Edit 10/11/19] Again Stephen Mclaren explains this better in Magnum Streetwise: “Chris Steele-Perkins spent several months in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the early day of the Troubles; but instead of following the gunmen around, he trained his camera on the children who played happily in the rubble-strewn streets. They were…street photography that transcended the immediacy of their reportage.”
Street Photography Is About Humanity & Life
Let’s be clear here, humanity doesn’t mean there has to be humans in the photo. It doesn’t. There simply has to be something that says something about humanity and life or a trace of it. As the Wikipedia definition of street photography crucially said, “street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.”
However, let’s also clarify here, this doesn’t mean photographs of buildings, architecture or vistas. It’s more about the details and traces of life within these scenes rather the wider environment.
A term I particularly dislike is “fine art street photography.” This is usually reserved for beautifully composed photographs of an urban scene where there’s (usually) a solitary human figure in the frame, often standing in a nice piece of light. Whilst these may be good photographs, they’re not telling us anything about life or humanity. It’s the scene and composition that is important in these photographs, not the humanity. The person could be anyone, they’re simply a compositional element. They could instead be a lamppost or a tree. That’s not street photography.
The Street Photography Aesthetic.
Street photography tends to have its own aesthetic. It’ about getting closer, being inside the moment, rather than lurking on the outside from afar. As a result, that tends towards wide angle lenses like 28mm or 35mm. Once you start getting over 50mm, you’re outside the moment and looking in. That’s more a passive voyeur rather than an active participant.
Longer lenses also lead to perspective compression, which start to distort the scene and make it less realistic to human vision. The wider lenses provide more realism and are ultimately more dynamic.
Street photography also tends to fall within what’s known as the “snapshot aesthetic”, which the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Photography defines as, “any photograph taken quickly…(with) technical imperfections…and the concept of chance.”
In other words, it’s about instinct and spontaneous reaction, worrying less about the technical aspects and composition, and more about the raw moments.
Street Photographer Isn’t Easy
All of this adds up to the fact that actual street photography isn’t easy. It’s difficult and it’s challenging. Genuinely great and successful street photographs come along rarely.
Therefore, if it feels easy and you think you’re getting lots of good and great images, chances are you’re not really shooting genuine street photography.
So let me know your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree? How do you see street photography? I’d love to hear from you.