What is Street Photography?
With such a straightforward name, you would think that ‘street photography’ would be easy to define. Wrong… At least it hasn’t been for this writer! The genre is broad and it incorporates many different approaches to making pictures. Nonetheless, urban environments and a focus on human life are two everpresent characteristics, the pair underpin all street photography work. Despite this, a concrete definition for the genre remains hard to establish. Like with all things creative, subjectivity reigns.
In its purest sense, street photography revolves around the relationship between photographers and the urban environments they inhabit. Their job is to translate the way they see streets and the buzz of human activity within, through their pictures. This is part of what makes the genre so hard to define.
One artist might focus on humour in their work, as they are drawn to ironies and cynicism with which they personally perceive their urban environment. Another street photographer might instead capture visually striking, dramatic frames of the streets, a product of the awe that a city might inspire in them.
Image Credits: Bruce Gilden
The possibilities and directions are as good as endless. Likewise, so are the tactics deployable for getting street shots. More aggressive photographers, like Bruce Gilden, get extremely close to their subjects, invading personal space in an overt way to take candid photographs. In contrast, photographers like Martha Cooper capture scenes from afar, they engage with more of the environment. She, for example, is famed for sprawling documentation of New York graffiti. Pockets of colourful products of counter-culture, amongst dreary buildings and trainyards. There are no right or wrong ways to go about shooting in the street photography genre. Likewise, there is no detailed list of requirements for a street photograph; simply that it reflects the nuanced way the photographer perceives life in their town/city/urban location. In the words of Joel Meyerowitz, “the street is a text… if you are a reader, a curious reader…. You may be able to make some sense of it”...
Street Photography’s many approaches
So there is no rulebook for taking street photographs, except perhaps to have a camera on you at all times. Aside from this, there are numerous, popular approaches that people tend to group around. For many, mindful presence, or being keenly aware of one's surroundings is key. Elliot Erwitt says, “all the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for an inability to notice”.
Image Credits: Vivian Maier
Many street photographers will tell you to tap into the ‘rhythm’ of wherever you are, to ditch all distractions and become immersed in your surroundings, plus the people within. A key facet for many also is tenacity. Street photographers will often cover every inch of pavement available, in search of an interesting shot. Some will haunt specific locations they find engaging, and wait for the perfect frame to materialise. Others make the energy and movement of their environments their muse.
They walk and walk, exposing every nook and cranny they can fit their cameras into. Street photographers hate missing moments of interest, or not being able to capture something they like. Always having a camera on your person, preferably in hand, is perhaps the easiest way to get into the mindset of a street photographer. People in modern urban environments live in close proximity, the possibilities for interactions are as close to endless as they can be. The remarkable is out there at all times, you would be wasting this by venturing out, without the means to document it. However, taking photographs of people without asking, can be tricky. Many artists, such as Henri Cartier Bresson, choose to be ‘invisible’; not disturbing scenes by being as subtle as possible.
Image Credits: Martin Parr
The Frenchman was known for using black tape to cover the chrome accents on his camera. This was with a view to make his actions less noticeable and photographs more candid. In contrast, artists such as Gary Winogrand used more overt tactics to get close to subjects. He is known for his method of hand gesturing and camera checking, which allowed him to covertly capture unsuspecting characters. He would get close to them, and pretend to be checking the settings on his camera, waving his hand about, seemingly testing the light. Shooting the whole time.
Image Credits: Gary Winogrand
Conversely, many street photographers do like to converse with their subjects. Others, like to focus on specific groups in society, or themes in urban life. They work off of this inspiration, exploring them through their pictures. This may involve approaching and spending time with the group, actively profiling them in a mutually accepted arrangement. Works such as Rob Clayton’s “Estate” project, and Vladimir Milivojevich, aka Boogie’s work amongst the disaffected youth of Bushwick, New York, fall into this category. Whatever the case may be, a street photographer is always looking to document and evoke some kind of reaction with whatever they choose to expose.
New York- The Mecca?
It would feel wrong to write about street photography and not give ample mention to New York City. The pair seemingly go hand in hand. So many of the genre's greatest contributors shot their best work there and/or called it home, during their careers. Something about the vibrancy, sheer population density and energy that the city carries, has attracted an endless list of legendary names. From Alfred Stieglitz, to Jill Freedman to Diane Arbus, to Vivian Maier; the list is extensive and still growing to this day. Many argue that the city simply houses the best characters, or that it is exceptional in its rawness of culture.
Image Credits: Fan Ho
Whatever the case, photography and street photography more specifically, owes a great deal of its heritage to the streets of the five boroughs. However, this is not to say that work from elsewhere is of lesser quality. Where there are people, street photography can be shot. Some of my favourite feeling photographs in the genre originate from places other than the big apple.
The work of Chinese photographer Fan Ho for example, exposes the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong streets magically. Elsewhere, Josef Sudek and Alexy Titarenko have stunning catalogues of street photography, shot in Eastern Europe. Thus, just as there are few rules regarding the act of shooting on the street, there are few prerequisites in terms of setting and subject matter. Another quality which adds to the beauty of the genre.
Image Credits: Alexey Titarenko
In this way it is highly accessible. New York-based street photography has a specific look that many associate with the genre by default, however you can be anywhere with people and/or public space and make interesting pictures. Location is secondary; being in tune with the pulse and atmosphere of wherever you are and whomever surrounds you is the most important thing.
Street photography is a vast area. People have been taking street photos for a very long time and there is massive variety out there. I think it is very comparable to photojournalism, albeit with less of a focus on newsworthy subject matter and less importance placed on objectivity. Both avenues celebrate documentation for example. Consider street the more artistic, thoughtful cousin perhaps of photojournalism. There is significant historical value in street photography too. Iconic photographs from history might show great leaders, the realities of war and the climax of major sporting events.
Image Credits: Josef Sudek
Though it is in street work through-which the true nature of life at that time, shines through. Street photography often speaks to us in simpler terms, it is easier to understand and more stark in the way it makes us feel. A reflection of life as we know it, filtered through the imaginative perception of someone we do not know. It is not so much a window into their world, but a lens; through which we can view how they see our world. A powerful and interesting thing. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this serious or complex either.
On the other hand, street photography can be very humorous, sarcastic and light hearted. The directions with which it can be taken are endless. Whether you have never operated a camera before, or you’re a widely renowned portrait taker with your own modelling studio, anyone can turn to the streets for inspiration. Take Vivian Maier, who I mentioned above alongside greats of the industry; she spent her life taking street photos, purely as a hobbyist. Just like you or me. She walked the pavements, shooting what she found interesting. Mind you, at its core, that's all street photography ever comes down to. Granted, she was an insanely perceptive and talented photographer, but that’s not the point.
Interestingly, her pictures went unseen for decades, until they were discovered by chance in an auction. Her’s is an amazing story, told well by an equally interesting, recent documentary. For me, knowledge of her eclectic life and character add an intriguing veneer to her work. Though she is today lauded as a legend, it’s important to remember just how simple her methods were. Outside, there are countless photographs waiting to be taken, all you need are your eyes and your camera. Be like Vivian Maier; pound the pavements, be inquisitive, and document what you see. There’s no set of eyes like yours…