What is Street Photography?
Photographers have been documenting their surroundings them since the invention of photography. They started a long tradition of street photography stretching back to the 19th century, encouraged by improvements in the portability and quality of cameras and processing. From this time, There has been predisposition among photographers to create a permanent record of urban life. Photographic documentation captures changes in the fast-paced world of life in towns and cities.
From the beginning, personal interest was the driving force behind many early street photographers. However, this did not generate a steady income so they relied on landscape and portrait photography to achieve artistic credit and prosperity.
There are several street photography misconceptions. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, photographers charging money for Polaroid photographs at tourist spots were described as street photographers. This is as misleading as the common misunderstanding that the genre is tied to pop-art street imagery or graffiti.
Street Photography History
The roots of street photography history can be traced back to the technological advances made in the late 19th century. The long exposure of early cameras meant that subjects had to remain perfectly still for a long time to appear in the image. This clearly made photographs of bustling streets impossible as moving figures would be rendered invisible and was not conducive to the level of spontaneity required.
The development of dry-plate negatives followed by silver roll film at the end of the century represented a breakthrough. This coupled with the increased portability of the newly developed 35mm camera meant that candid street scenes could be captured for the first time.
Street photography developed through the work of photographers such as Carrefour Blois and Andre Kertesz after they embraced the opportunities afforded by the new equipment. Henri Cartier-Bresson was another photographer who was important in the development of modern street photography. Mentored by Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson advocated the “decisive moment” when subject and composition align. He rejected the use of the flash and refused to crop his photographs resulting in the principles of spontaneity and candid nature of street photography.
Street photography boomed from the 1940s onwards due to such improvements in technology and the example set by the above artists. Key post-war street photographers included Helen Levitt, William Klein and Lisette Model. These photographers reflected the busy pace of city life and truly captured the essence of their surroundings.
Aspects of Street Photography
Photographs that create a record of people and locations naturally in a public situation are street photography. The emphasis should be on capturing a natural, unplanned situation. The subject and surroundings should not be posed, staged or set up artificially in any way. General shots from staged public occasions will not generate the impact of an image that records a situation that happens purely by chance. However, it is still possible for a skilled photographer to capture a candid moment at such an event. The picture can take place against any photography background, in any public space, such as a street, a public building or the countryside.
The subject and surroundings are wide-ranging and eclectic but is important that the image remains spontaneous. Good street photographers can combine an open mind and sharp instincts to create a captivating image from their surroundings. They uncover the associations between people and their environment. However, it is not necessary for people to be part of the subject of street photography.
Street Photography – A Gimmick?
At what point does it stop being street photography? Let’s be clear:
Staged street photography is not street photography.
Real street photography should be candid, spontaneous and completely unplanned. There should be very little contact between the person taking the photograph and the people or objects within the photograph. If there is a sense that the scene has been set up in any way by the photographer, then the image you are looking at is not street photography.
Street photography techniques, exhibit elements of photojournalism, urban landscapes and portrait photography. Therefore, the genre has the potential for crossover and categorisation can be a contentious issue. It is perhaps better to think of street photography as a method rather than a field of photography in itself.
There are some qualified exceptions to the rule that the subject and environment must not be staged, despite what has been stated in the previous section. If a photographer asks a subject permission to take a photograph, this can still be considered street photography if the integrity of the photo is upheld. While the photographer may have interacted with the subject, the image could still be considered a true representation of the genre if it is truthful and captures a spontaneous instant.
This can be a cause of debate as images from events can combine several photographic genres. If the event is photographed as a whole, such as when demonstrators are photographed on a protest, this is usually considered photojournalism. However, if a snapshot of a specific moment from that event is taken that tells a story about someone’s interaction with their surroundings, this could be considered street photography.
Modern Street Photographers
Take a look at these modern famous street photographers for some startling examples of what is street photography today:
Eric Kim is a California-based street photographer with a superb YouTube channel that offers a fascinating insight to his art.
Check out Eric Kim’s YouTube channel here:
Bruce Gilden is an influential street photographer from New York. His style is characterised by a striking up close and personal style.
Check out some examples of Bruce Gilden’s work here:
The complex colourful compositions of Alex Webb have had a major impact on street photography.
Sample some of Alex Webb’s photography here:
Street Photography Techniques
One the advantages of street photography is that it does not require a huge investment in the latest photographic equipment. It is possible to capture the moment with an ordinary camera. However, being in possession of a wide-angle lens would provide more opportunities for great photos.
Always try to capture the life of your city.
City life offers a plethora of opportunities from an ever-changing scene with many stories to tell. These factors offer you the chance to develop your skills in anticipating photographic opportunities.
Do street photographers ask for permission before taking a picture?
Remember to be respectful of your subjects always. Don’t put yourself in a situation where someone will react with anger to a shot taken without permission.
The focus should be on your subjects, people, gestures, the urban environment. Concentrate on capturing the moment and how people interact with their surroundings. Ask yourself if your images tell a story, raises an interesting topic or poses a question.
Street photography is a good way to sharpen your photography skills. With a few precautions, it’s easy to do although it takes years and a natural talent to match the output of the street photographers mentioned earlier in this post.
However, we must ask the question:
If you don’t shoot street photography, why not?
Please see our post on street photography techniques for actionable tips on how to shoot street photography.