Street Photography: A Brief Definition

Street Photography: A Brief Definition 

It is a branch of realistic fine-art photography that records unposed scenes in public places (streets, parks, restaurants, stores, museums, libraries, airports; train, bus, and subway stations, etc.) 

The primary subject is people, at rest or in motion, alone or with others, going about the every-day activities of life (walking, sitting, standing, waiting, reading, eating, talking, listening, laughing, daydreaming, greeting, parting, working, playing, shopping, viewing art, sightseeing, etc.). 

The emphasis is not on the subject’s personal identity, as in portraiture. And unlike photojournalism, there is no news here, rather, the commonplace; although, the line between photojournalism and street photography is often blurry. Many of the best street photographers were photojournalists. Unlike travel photography, that aims to entice the viewer to visit a certain place or to fondly remember it, location is relatively unimportant, though busy cities with interesting architecture are commonly seen in these works. 

The primary emphasis is on capturing a fleeting composition, a temporary arrangement of lines, forms, textures, and tones—balanced within a rigid frame. While such photographs often document clothing styles or automobile design, these details are subordinate to the artistic elements; whereas, in strict documentary photography, content is more important than artistry. In street photography, the image can be sharp or blurred and impressionistic. Many images feature strong graphic elements which—considered separately—constitute interesting geometric patterns. 

Consistent with their overwhelming interest in composition, many street photographers—not all—shoot with a black and white final image in mind, eschewing color as a distraction. Another reason for this is the generally-conservative nature of the discipline. The early masters are revered and emulated, their styles and shooting techniques studied. 

Some purists not only insist on shooting un-posed scenes, they attempt to compose entirely in-camera, without cropping. Finally, the tone of these images tends to be positive, celebrating life and its fleeting nature in the very act of seeing and seizing and sharing momentary beauty and meaning with the viewer.

Larry E. Fink

Bystander: A History of Street Photography

Garry Winogrand - Nonstop and Unedited

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY IS AN ATTITUDE (Nick Turpin)

More than anything Street Photography is an attitude, it is an openness to being amazed by what comes your way, it is unlearning the habit of categorising and dismissing the everyday as being ‘just the everyday’ and beginning to recognise that extraordinary, beautiful and subtle stories are occurring in front of you everyday of your life if you can see them. I actually think you can be a Street Photographer without a camera and without making photographs, it is really just the more insecure Street Photographers like myself that actually have to record and show off their ability to ‘see’.

How many other forms of photography essentially have ‘wonder’ at their heart? That’s what makes Street Photography almost a spiritual process for many because it is so personal and so akin to a kind of photographic enlightenment. Street Photography helps me understand the nature of my society and my place in it, I do it more for myself than I do for an external audience and like Buddhist enlightenment I do achieve a happiness through gaining that understanding. I have certainly experienced Matrix- like moments of revelation when in a public place I see things, moments just reveal themselves because I have put myself in the right situation for it to happen.

Nick Turpin

Nick Turpin’s work:

http://www.in-public.com/NickTurpin/gallery/67

Essay: Why Street Photography is not Documentary Photography

“Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth” - Pablo Picasso

Look-up ‘Street Photography’ in Wikipedia and the attempt to define it starts with ‘… a form of documentary photography’. But is it really? Both Street Photography and Documentary photography are well understood traditions, so why is it that the former is so easily confused for the latter?

Undoubtedly there are visual similarities when we compare the two. It can also be argued that Street Photographs can and often do, ‘acquire’ value as documentary images, especially with the passage of time, because they can offer a glimpse as to how people ‘looked’ in the past. But that is where the similarities end.

One of the reasons this confusion persists is because one of the major contributors to the development and the form of Street Photography was Henri Cartier-Bresson who made his living as a photojournalist. HCB never called himself a street photographer, but he also claimed to have no interest in documenting. Many of his photojournalistic images are unremarkable, but the images he created as a form of self expression have become iconic and went on to inspire the next generation of ‘street’ photographers, primarily in New York city. 

Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photographing people in daily life situations consisted of very careful and precise framing and compositions that were used to setup the capture of a ‘decisive moment’. That moment alone could bring full meaning to the image, a split second earlier or a split second later could not achieve the same meaning. HCB professed that for him photography meant recognizing when those moments were about to happen before they did so that he could line up his vision, his mind and his heart all on the same axis. Then and only then could his photograph be more than just a snapshot or a mere document.

Street Photography is not portraiture, it is not still life and neither does it concern itself with urban landscape.  Street Photography is instinctual, un-premeditated,  reactive and spontaneous, it  is unposed and untagged and most importantly it is candid. Candid in this context literally means it  is done in such a way that the subjects are not aware they are being photographed at the exact moment the image is being captured. The subjects are always people (who are strangers) and the the theme focuses around human moments - not ‘humanistic’ moments. This difference in words is subtle but semantically considerable. Eugene Smith was a humanist photographer. Garry Winogrand was a street photographer, though he hated the tern precisely because it was used so loosely by some.

The unescapable hallmarks of Street Photography are that it is enigmatic and quirky and more often than not surreal. That it creates relationships within the frame that may well not exist in reality. Relationships between strangers or between people and their surroundings. It achieves this through intentional juxtapositions, a combination of selective framing and exact timing. Asking a stranger for permission to photograph them in the street, instantly makes it a portrait, a street portrait albeit but not Street Photography. The moment a subject collaborates, he or she is posing. Documentary photography encompasses portraits and especially when it is humanist photography, but that is not the case with Street Photography. To call a picture a street photography portrait is in itself an oximoron.

Street Photography does not concern itself with the Truth. Rather, if it is a good Street Photograph,  it is a lie that might make us realize something about life, or some truth. As per Picasso’s quote, Street Photography involves creating a fictional narrative that allows the photographer to express him or herself. Street Photography has therefore, more in common with Art than it does with journalism. It is not documentary or humanist photography, however, these are the two genres that many amateur photographers most often confuse Street Photography with.

Let’s take a closer look at the motivation behind Street Photography compared to Documentary photography. 

There is only one subject in Street Photography: people. Conversely, the subjects for documentary photographers can be everything and anything; including people is not a pre-requisite depending on the topic being covered.

Street Photography is conducted in public places, primarily in the street. Documentary photography is conducted  at the specific place that the topic dictates and this may well be in public places but also non-public places (hospitals, schools, factories, corporate offices, business premises, private homes, the environment, the weather, nature, wildlife and so on).

Street Photography concerns itself with Life, Humanity, everyday random moments, human interaction, whereas documentary photography concerns itself with Life, humanity, human interaction but very specific moments or events or the outcome of a specific event.

Street Photography is expressed through unexpected and unpredictable actions that lead to a ‘Decisive Moment’, a poetic moment, a poignant instant. Documentary photography on the other hand, is expressed through the objective presentation of facts for an ongoing activity or situation over a finite period of time which can run from as short as a single day or as long as over a number of years.

Street Photography is completely subjective whereas documentary photography must by definition be objective. One creates a reality the other attempts to present reality. Street Photography is all about realising “a truth” compared to Documentary photography which is all about making us aware of “The Truth”.

A street photographer is not familiar, nor cares about the subjects, it is totally irrelevant who or what they are or what their ‘situation’ is. A street photographer creates the ‘situation’, where one does not exist. In contrast to this, a documentary photographer is deeply concerned and motivated about the subject, has conducted prior research and has formed opinions about it and is ultimately doing this in order to raise awareness of a situation or event. For example the victims of AIDS due to blood transfusion, or the victims of the tsunami or the poor and destitute, or a particular street protest and so on. These are all subjects that documentary photographers tackle because they have an agenda. The street photographer is only concerned with what a potential subject is about to do in front of the camera, how to frame it in order to create a situation and finally how to select the best timing to trigger the shutter in order to make that moment a meaningful one. 

In Street Photography the photographer must find ways to become invisible so as to be able to capture candid moments. This is most often achieved by shooting from the hip at very close range. The documentary photographer on the other hand, may or may not choose to photograph in a candid way, rather, he or she may have a need to photograph surreptitiously or from a considerable distance, due to potential risks involving the subjects and the specific ‘situation’. In order for the street photographer to recognize a decisive moment about to occur, he or she must be fairly close to the subjects and traditionally the practitioners of the form limit themselves to lenses of 50mm or shorter (on a full frame sensor or 35mm film).  The journalist and documentary photography, on the other hand, might choose a range of focal lengths from an arsenal of lenses depending on what they are photographing.

Street photographers wander the streets watching, observing, hoping that something will occur before them. They have no preference of whom to photograph and since Street Photography is reactive and spontaneous, there is little to no time afforded to think or intellectualize. Inversely, the documentary photographer has an agenda that narrows down the choices of whom to photograph based on that agenda. Martin Parr only shoots what is relevant to the particular series that he is working on at the time, such as ‘the mundane and boring’ or the ‘cheap and nasty tastes’ and so on. Martin Parr is a documentary photographer who has also been recognized and embraced by the art world because of his conceptual thinking, however, he is not a street photographer as many mistakenly label him. 

In conclusion, Street Photography as defined by the images produced by the greats during its peak (1950s - 1960s). As a form it is well defined and understood by art historians, academics, critics and curators has very little in common to documentary photography or environmental portraiture or humanist photography. 


Evangelo Costadimas

Hong Kong, June 2012

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Valencia, Spain, 1933

Alex Webb on Henri Cartier-Bresson:
My father, when he was struggling with writer’s block––which, unfortunately, was all too often––turned to photography, and as a result had a fine collection of photographic books.  At about the age of fourteen, I started to sift through these books in his study.  As I pored through The Decisive Moment, I remember coming upon this Cartier-Bresson image from Valencia, Spain.  I’d never seen anything quite like it.     As I marveled at the echoing rings of the mismatched spectacle lenses and the half-target on the door, set against––in deep space––that slightly twisted, ambiguous figure in the doors behind, I remember thinking: How can someone see this way?  How can someone find such an enigmatic moment in the world and bring it back as a photograph? I began to sense something about perception, about the moment, about space, and about the unique possibilities of the photograph. I’ve never forgotten this image.––Alex Webb
To see more of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work:
http://www.magnumphotos.com

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Valencia, Spain, 1933


Alex Webb on Henri Cartier-Bresson:

My father, when he was struggling with writer’s block––which, unfortunately, was all too often––turned to photography, and as a result had a fine collection of photographic books.  At about the age of fourteen, I started to sift through these books in his study.  As I pored through The Decisive Moment, I remember coming upon this Cartier-Bresson image from Valencia, Spain.  I’d never seen anything quite like it.     As I marveled at the echoing rings of the mismatched spectacle lenses and the half-target on the door, set against––in deep space––that slightly twisted, ambiguous figure in the doors behind, I remember thinking: How can someone see this way?  How can someone find such an enigmatic moment in the world and bring it back as a photograph? I began to sense something about perception, about the moment, about space, and about the unique possibilities of the photograph. I’ve never forgotten this image.––Alex Webb

To see more of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work:

http://www.magnumphotos.com

(Source: )

© 1984 The Estate of Garry Winogrand
I think part of the aim was to unsettle people’s ideas, whether his own or other people’s. To move people out of an unquestioning space and to some less settled space in which the authority of rules and structures was broken up a bit.
-Eileen Hale, Garry Winogrand’s widow Garry Winogrand confronted tough issues like racism with a sense of humor, as he did here by photographing this black man and white woman holding apes. The chimpanzees are dressed like children and resemble the human child standing behind the couple. The photographer’s close vantage point, the crowd, the dramatic winter light-all add a sense of spectacle. Winogrand was not simply reacting to a strange moment, but probably also to racial tensions sweeping the country at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The year this picture was made, black actors won Academy Awards, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state laws banning interracial marriage. It is not clear whether this man and woman were actually a couple, but Winogrand must have known that their togetherness was as unsettling to some people as their circumstances were comical. 

© 1984 The Estate of Garry Winogrand

I think part of the aim was to unsettle people’s ideas, whether his own or other people’s. To move people out of an unquestioning space and to some less settled space in which the authority of rules and structures was broken up a bit.

-Eileen Hale, Garry Winogrand’s widow 

Garry Winogrand confronted tough issues like racism with a sense of humor, as he did here by photographing this black man and white woman holding apes. The chimpanzees are dressed like children and resemble the human child standing behind the couple. The photographer’s close vantage point, the crowd, the dramatic winter light-all add a sense of spectacle. 

Winogrand was not simply reacting to a strange moment, but probably also to racial tensions sweeping the country at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The year this picture was made, black actors won Academy Awards, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state laws banning interracial marriage. It is not clear whether this man and woman were actually a couple, but Winogrand must have known that their togetherness was as unsettling to some people as their circumstances were comical. 

WHAT IS STREET PHOTOGRAPHY?

Although there has been a huge surge recently in the interest of Street Photography, the majority of its self-declared practitioners appear to suffer from a severe lack of knowledge about this tradition and their work has very little to do with the genre.

Most shooters today are amateurs and have little or no respect for the genre and have even less understanding of the legacy left to us by the masters. To them, we have a message:

JUST BECAUSE YOU SHOT IT IN THE STREET IT DOESN’T MAKE IT “STREET PHOTOGRAPHY”

'Street Photography' is not Urban Landscape, it is not Environmental Portraiture (nor 'street portraits') and it is most definitely not Still Life. 

On the contrary, Street Photography is about people, it is candid and it is about life.

When we say candid, we mean the subjects are not aware of being photographed right at the instant the shutter is tripped. They may well become aware of it a split second later, for example if camera flash was used, but at the moment of capture, they were still in their natural state, unaware that they were being photographed. Street Photographs must therefore always contain people. 

But Street Photography is a lot more than just candid. Street Photography is an instinctual reactive response to the unpredictability of every day life as observed in public places. It captures human or poignant moments. It creates juxtapositions from unrelated elements or creates relationships between people who do not know each other, simply by using the camera’s framing.

As such, Street Photography is subjective, its intent is not journalistic or documentary and it does not represent the truth in any way shape or form. To the contrary, the photographer lines up the elements in the shot so as to suggest a narrative or, better yet, to create an enigmatic situation. Street Photography has more in common with painting that it does with journalism or documentary photography because the author of the image is expressing their artistic vision and is completely disinterested in the subjects. Rather, the photographer is interested in what the subject or subjects are about to do or where they stand in relation to each other and the background. Street Photographs are often described as ‘quirky’.

The timing of capturing these moments is crucial and has been coined the ‘decisive moment’ by one of the forefathers of Street Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

As a fellow street photographer noted, the terms ‘street photography’ and ‘decisive moment’ are probably the two most misused terms to be found on the internet today.