Introduction – What is Street Photography?
If you want to start an argument among street photographers, guaranteed, ask them, “Exactly what is street photography anyway?” Then stand back, and watch the lovely violence. Simply put, there is no consensus. Certainly, you will encounter a vocal group that will swear there are a firm set of rules, but the truth is much more complex. That is because street photography, like photography as a whole, evolved over a number of years and was influenced by a set of master photographers, each of whom had different ideas of what should and should not comprise the art form.
You can feel free to chime in your opinions in the comments section, of course, but know that other than curating, I won’t be joining in the fight. I’m too busy out shooting to worry whether my definition fits your definition. I hope you feel the same way about me. Still, I think we can all benefit from understanding what the evolving art form comprises (or has comprised).
In this series, Maria and I will attempt to discuss the history of street photography, some of the icons of the art, and talk about some of the rules – and from whence they came. Are they really rules, and if so, which should be followed and which should be broken?
Indeed, even deciding what is and is not street photography is a grey area that requires both a broad brush and a fine eye. Some, following in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s formidable wake, cite the “defining moment,” and lay out his rules for the form as though they were gospel. Others will point out heretics like Garry Winogrand who broke as many as he followed. (They will also snarkily point out that HCB’s most iconic defining-moment shot was staged.) So, how do we know which of the many ideas about photography should we follow? I have two suggestions: First, look at some of the work by the great masters of our art form. Second, grab a camera or two and go make up your own rules. If it works for you, and others can appreciate your vision, then it works. Art is like that.
So, where do we draw the line between street photography and other photographic forms?
Well, in my experience, we have to start with a few foundational premises:
- Street photography, in some respects, evolved from documentary photography.
- Whereas in its purest form, documentary photography intends to inform, street photography is also intended to be an art form that stands on its own (art for art’s sake).
- Street photographers primarily take candid photos of everyday life on the streets. However, 1) some of the most famous shots were posed (Arbus, Cartier-Bresson, Weegee), completely staged (Cartier-Bresson), or absent people completely (Atget, Daguerre ).
- Street photography, despite the name, doesn’t require an actual street (see Arbus, Dorothea Lange, et al).
- The definitions change and rules change, with time, opportunity, and even technology.
So, as introductions go, this one has gotten pretty long, but I encourage you to stick around as we try to make some sense of this mess and have a bit of fun doing it. There are questions to tackle – so many questions:
- Should we consider street shots without people a different art form?
- How does street photography differ than documentary photography?
- Can it be pretty? Should it be tough? Sharp? Grainy?
- Is color photography really street? HDR? Selective color?
- Can you use zoom lenses and still be street? Does the camera matter?
- Take a single shot or “Work the Scene?”
- What the Hell is the Defining Moment?
- Does composition matter? (Spoiler alert: It’s art; HELL YES it matters)
- Aren’t portraits on the street really just portrait photography?
- Where do you draw the line between documentary photography and street photography?
- What are the Schools of Street Photography? (I don’t think there are any, exactly, so let’s make some up.)
- Does street honor or exploit its subjects? Is everything fair game?
- Okay, what are these damned rules? Are there any left?
Obviously, we might never get to all of these questions, and if no one seems to care, we may not even get to any of them. But it’s an interesting topic to explore, is it not? But before we can start diving into these big questions, perhaps it makes sense to talk about the masters of street photography and what they brought to the art form. The History of Street Photographers, begins next. We have three dozen or so to talk about so it will be broken into 12 or so posts.
In terms of structure, we will be presenting this in dual tracks: I (Bill) will be leading the History of Street Photography track, presenting the contextual history of the Art. Maria (Ishaiya) will lead a simultaneous track called the Art of Composition, and the Composition of Art, showing the foundations and principles of Art that are reflected in street photography.
So, are you in?
(You can find a link to the posts already written to date on The Art of Street Photography page in the header above.)