What is Street Photography?
By ERIC KIM
I want to write regarding a subject which is highly debated online: “What is street photography?”
There are countless forum threads, Facebook discussions, blogs, and Flickr boards which argue what street photography is and what street photography isn’t.
I have thought about the question: “What is street photography?” for a long time– and my thoughts and views have changed and evolved over the years.
I don’t have all the answers to defining what street photography is (or isn’t) but I will attempt to come to some sort of logical conclusion on what street photography means to me. Consider this article as part of a self-reflective essay for me to better understand my own personal views. And I also hope that you can take some of my thoughts and incorporate it into your own personal views– and reach your own conclusions for yourself.
What street photography isn’t
I believe that often the best way to define something is by defining what something isn’t. For example, we don’t know what makes us happy (but we damn well know what makes us unhappy). This includes the morning commute, an overly-demanding boss, problems with the spouse, and pursuing a career we aren’t passionate about. So in a simple sense, to pursue happiness is the avoidance of unhappiness.
So to start off a discussion and brainstorm what street photography means to me– I will start off by saying what personally isn’t street photography to me by exploring some two popular genres of photography which directly contract what I feel is the soul of street photography:
1. Landscape photography
If I see a photo of a tree, water, and a sunset– I don’t consider it street photography.
Why not? I would not consider landscape photography street photography as nature is the primary subject.
Therefore I feel there needs to be an “urban” element that ties into street photography.
2. Studio photography
I would also not consider studio photography street photography. The nature of studio photography is to have everything staged and pre-conceived, and a bit on the artificial side.
Consider the model, makeup, hair, background, how it is shot indoors– all in control of the photographer, makeup artist, lighting assistant, etc.
Therefore I feel that street photography needs an element of spontaneity and uncertainty
rather than the predictable/manipulative nature of studio photography.
To transition, I will write out some certain misconceptions I feel exist when it comes to street photography:
It has to be candid
I think this is the most controversial point I will bring up in this article. I personally don’t think that street photography has to be candid. I think that the best street photographs are the candid ones– but I don’t think that it needs to be a necessary element.
For example, consider the following street photographs that weren’t photographed candidly:
a) William Klein: Kid with gun
The photo looks candid enough– but the contact print that William Klein shares shows that in the next frame, the kids are laughing and completely aware of the photographer.
Not only that, but William Klein has shared that when he saw the kids playing with the toy guns, he yelled to one kid, “Look tough”
which prompted the kid to turn around and point his gun straight at Klein.
William Klein has been challenged on his approach of “provoking” his subjects. After all, how can the photo be “genuine” if he is simply telling his subjects what to do?
To paraphrase, Klein responded by saying that although it was he who provoked his subjects to play up a certain reaction or expression– it was his subjects who ultimately reacted the way they did.
For example, when he told the kid to “look tough”– the kid could have interpreted that a hundred different ways. He could have simply stood with the gun by his side, pointed the gun at the air, etc. However– he decided to point the gun straight at Klein with a sinister look. This is possibly a reaction that Klein even himself couldn’t have expected.
Also when looking at the photograph itself– it doesn’t look staged or posed. It looks authentic. The kid’s expressions look visceral and bleeding with realism.
Therefore I feel that for myself personally, I care less if a photograph is staged or not– but whether it elicits some sort of reaction in my gut and heart. Who cares if a street photograph is posed or candid– if it doesn’t stir something in my soul?
b) William Klein: Kid & Family
This is another famous photograph by William Klein In a bizarre photo, a family is posing for Klein’s camera head-on, with the mother pointing a toy gun at the child’s head (reminiscent of Klein’s ‘Kid with Gun’ photo).
This is certainly an odd image– because even though the mother is showing some sort of murderous intent by pointing the gun at her kid’s head, the family is smiling and laughing– and they look like they are having a great time.
When I look at the photo, I would still classify it as a “street photograph” even though it is certainly done with the subjects being aware of the photographer. To my understanding, Klein didn’t tell the mother to point the gun at her kid’s head. I believe Klein said he could have never expected the boy’s mother to do something of the sort.
What I feel makes it a great photo is that it is full of energy, excitement, and life. The backstage is in the streets (in an urban location) and the shot looks spontaneous enough. Klein didn’t elaborately pose them according to how he wanted them to. He might have provoked them or chatted with them while photographing– but it is the family that ultimately chose how to pose for him.
So I suppose that even though the photo was photographed with consent– it still feels “unposed” in the sense there is that spontaneity to the shot.
c) Diane Arbus: Kid with grenade
Another photograph that was photographed with permission and cooperation from the subject is Diane Arbus’ famous “Kid with grenade” photo in Central Park. This is once again, another photograph I would classify as a quintessential “street photograph.”
If you look at the contact sheet of the photographs Arbus took of the kid, you see that she took many photos of him– in different poses and arrangements.
Obviously the most stirring and bizarre photo she took was the first frame, with the kid clutching the grenade in one of his hands– with his other hand curled up like he was about to die. The look in his face looks like a mix between confusion, fear, and anxiety. To top it off, he even has a shoulder strap falling off his shoulder– which adds to this feeling of uneasiness.
Some street photographers I know say that street photographs have to be candid and shot without permission from the subject. But would these street photographers say that this photograph isn’t a street photograph?
Many of Arbus’ photos were taken in public of people she didn’t know– many of them with implicit or explicit permission from her subjects. Almost all street photographers I know would certainly classify her as one of the great “street photographers” in history.
So as a personal conclusion to myself– I have concluded that street photography doesn’t have to be candid. But still having a “candid look” makes a photo feel more authentic and interesting. Even the photo Arbus took of the kid with the grenade– I feel that the expression of the kid is something she couldn’t have ever dreamed of. Rather, it was the kid who was the willing participant who put on some sort of strange show for Arbus.
Public vs private places
Another point I would like to discuss on the debate of what street photography is or isn’t is the issue of photographing indoors versus outdoors (or in a private versus public space).
Does a street photograph necessarily need to be in a totally public and open space? I don’t think not always necessarily.
For example, the subway is a grey area. On one hand, it is a public space (as many countries provide the subway as a public service). But then, it isn’t outdoors– it is “indoors” and in a closed space. And some countries don’t offer the subway as a public service– but rather it is privatized.
But there have been many great street photographers who have done great works inside subways. One of my favorite books that come to mind is “Subway” by Bruce Davidson (who never even considered himself a street photographer– and despised the term). And the majority of his photos were taken with permission as well (but not all).
However there is still a feeling of “publicness” of a subway– as it isn’t somebody’s home. But can “street photography” be done in an office building? Or in a mall (sometimes classified as a public space, sometimes not)? Or in a stranger’s home? Or the beach? (Bruce Gilden and Martin Parr have done great work there). Or even the forest? (Contemporary street photographer dirty harrry has some fascinating candid photos of people in the forest).
As of now, my personal belief is that street photography can really be shot anywhere
as long as it is open to the public to enter and leave as they please.
I don’t think street photography can truly be done in a person’s home (you generally need permission to enter someone’s home, unless you are breaking in)
but I think it can be done in a hotel or office lobby (public people can enter the area with permission).
Does street photography need people in it?
Another misconception I feel exists in street photography is that it needs to have people in it. I disagree.
The best disconfirming evidence of the idea that street photography needs to have people in it is one of the founding fathers of street photography: Eugene Atget.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Eugene Atget, he was a photographer in Paris who documented the city with a large-format camera– mostly of the city’s architecture, statues, and details of homes/buildings.
Although some of his photos include people, the majority of them don’t. Perhaps part of this was the technical considerations of the time (Atget was shooting with an extremely slow film in the early 1900′s which perhaps prevented him to have people in the shot unless they were completely still) or that he was more interested in the architecture and buildings of the city (rather than its inhabitants).
Many street photographers argue that street photography has to have people in it. But the majority of Atget’s photographs didn’t have people in it. But if Atget was considered one of the “founding fathers” of street photography by almost all photo historians, what does it make him? Why is he considered a “street photographer” and not simply an “architecture photographer”?
Colin Westerbeck, author of “Bystander: A history of street photography” offers the following explanation: He says that because Atget focused mostly on the architecture of the city at street level (where people lived, interacted, and congregated) that it classified him as a street photographer. Rather than an architecture photographer who simply focused on the architecture. This is not always the case, however.
But still I feel that with Atget’s work– I would classify it street photography because his photos show a proof of humanity. His photos are of the city of Paris, which makes me think about the people living in the city. Sure, most of his photos don’t have people in it– but they still make me think and consider society.
So for me personally, I believe that street photography needs to show humanity or society. I prefer street photographs that have people in them (I connect to them more than urban landscapes) but I feel that street photographs don’t necessarily have to have people in them.
Therefore we see there is certainly a disconnect between what academics say what the “history” of street photography is– versus what makes intuitive sense to us “common people” on what street photography is or isn’t.
What I hate about definitions is that they are often controlled by academics, historians, and people with some sort of authority. But who gives them the power to name and classify everything as they please?
After all, many street photographers were classified as street photographers (against their own will). Atget died before his work was truly “discovered” to the rest of the world (I doubt he would have called himself a “street photographer.”
Garry Winogrand, one of the most beloved contemporary street photographers, hated the term “street photography” and just considered himself a “photographer.” Bruce Davidson also did the majority of his work in the streets
and is often called a ‘street photographer’. But Davidson as well– despised the term “street photography” and refused to call himself. Above all, Henri Cartier-Bresson (which all purists believe to be the real grandfather of street photography) never called himself a “street photographer” or the work that he did as “street photography.”
What is really important?
So I feel that in this sense, I recommend giving the middle finger to definitions– and not worrying about it. Who cares what people classify your type of photography to be? As long as you enjoy the photos you are taking– isn’t that enough?
Rather than worrying about if your photo is a bona-fide “street photograph” or not– let’s focus onmaking memorable photographs. Photographs that stir us emotionally, that make us think about humanity, society around us, the people we interact on a daily basis, the small beauties of life that we pass up for granted, others who are suffering, and the hopes and dreams of everyday individuals.
Street photography to rock music
A clumsy diagram of some different branches of the “school of street photography”
I feel as a final concluding point, I want us to have a broader view of street photography– rather than contracting what it is or isn’t. I think that one of the beauties of street photography is its democratic and open nature– that anyone can participate in it regardless of where they live, what camera they shoot with, or the subjects they decide to photograph.
I think that in this sense street photography is a lot like rock music. There are a billion types of sub-genres of “rock” music– and each of these sub-genres say that they are the “true” rock music– and that the rest of them are either phonies, fakes, or posers.
We have heavy metal rock, alternative rock, emo rock, death metal rock, alternative emo metal rock, and so forth.
I think in street photography there are now lots of sub-gernres as well. I feel that we have candid street photography (what I might classify as “classic street photography”- think Henri Cartier-Bresson), street portraits (focused mostly on portraits of people on the street, instead of the environment– either with or without permission like Diane Arbus or Bruce Gilden), urban landscapes with or without people in them (think Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Joel Sternfeld, etc), still life street photography (think Martin Parr or William Eggleston), or socio-documentary street photography (think Bruce Davidson).
Let’s all get along
So once again– let’s not worry about definitions about what street photography is or isn’t. What is important that we are all drawn to photographing humanity and society around us– rather than just pretty sunsets and flowers.
We all have different reasons why we photograph– whether it be for historical, personal, or socio-economic reasons. Some of us want our photos to affect people on an emotional level and have others reconsider their lives, some of us shoot for ourselves for the challenge and to release stress from our everyday existence, and some of us want our photos to be a record of our society to show our future grandchildren.
So rather than arguing whether my photo is “street photography,” or whether your photo is “street photography”– let’s collaborate and not argue. Let’s aim to make beautiful art and document the human condition together.
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