What Is Street Photography?

I have to begin by asking: what is a “street”?

Clearly, the sidewalks of New York, Chicago, Paris and Beijing are places where you can practice what everyone would agree is “street photography.”

If you visit London and walk down a covered street such as Burlington Arcade that, too, would be a place where classic street photography is possible.

If a covered street is OK, then how about a mall? And if a mall, then what about inside a shop or an underground train station?

How about on board an ocean-going cruise ship? Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas has shops, cafés and bars, not to mention a “Coney Island-style boardwalk” and an area called Central Park with 12,000 real shrubs.

You see, the terms and definitions of street photography are not as obvious as they first appear, even when they relate only to the possible locations where this kind of photography can be conducted. When we start to consider the style and content of the resulting photographs, the definitions become even more blurred.

The Impromptu Portrait
Let’s say you’re walking down the street, camera in hand, when you spot someone sitting against a wall. The light is great, the colours perfect — say, multiple shades of brown — and you take a shot.

The trouble is: the guy is looking down and you can’t see his face. What do you do? You can walk past and find another shot. Alternatively, you can speak to the subject (as I did, for the photo below) and say: “Hi, the light is so good here I just have to take a picture.” He beams at you and you get a beautiful street portrait that’s perfectly composed because you had time to do it.

But is the posed street portrait really an example of genuine street photography?

What about all those shots that people take during “Fashion Week” in London, New York or Paris. Amateur and professional photographers alike find rich pickings when they take pictures of stylish visitors going to and from these events. Extrovert fashionistas are willing participants and the photographs in which they appear look all the more cool for showing them out on the street rather than at some indoor event where outrageous dressing is commonplace.

You can take a narrow view of street photography by insisting that it has to be done outside on the street, with people who are unaware of your presence and therefore unable to adjust their appearance to suit the camera. Or you can take a broad view and allow everything: including interior locations and posed shots.

A Personal View
I like to photograph in malls, shops, stations, or any place where people go about their business, but in my serious work (not impromptu portraits like I’ve just discussed) I’m strictly kosher when it comes to candid versus posed.

I share the aesthetic of art critic Michael Fried who emphasises the tradition in Western art of depicting people who are absorbed in what they’re doing. As soon as the presence of the photographer disengages the subject from his or her ongoing activity the result is a fake, theatrical image. It’s an image in which the subject plays to the camera, destroying that instrument’s unique capacity for objectivity.

A Broader View
Do I enjoy looking at other people’s impromptu street portraits? Yes, I do. I wouldn’t necessarily exclude them from an exhibition of street photography. The genre needs to be as broad as possible, but not so broad as to be meaningless.

For example, take the work of Anders Petersen, a photographer who talks and interacts with his subjects to achieve work that has a remarkable intimacy and impact. His approach has to be valid in a broad context, but it’s not one I personally wish to pursue. It invites the viewer to collaborate in the invasion of the subject’s privacy. I think it lies on one of the extreme boundaries of street photography: the one where content dominates form, perhaps to the detriment of both.

With or Without People?
Can we say that a photograph of a deserted street really belongs to the genre of street photography? Surely not. It’s just a street. If it has a distant figure or two…well, maybe.

In its most concentrated form — in what I might call “hardcore street photography” — our art form is all about getting pictures of people as they walk, run, chat, scream, snarl, fight, linger or hurry along the city streets.

Without people you’re left with nothing but their ghostly traces: posters, cigarette ends, discarded packaging, street furniture and the built environment.

Arriving at a Definition
Are we there yet? No, I don’t think anyone will ever define street photography with perfect precision, certainly not without taking a narrow view of it.

Here’s the closest I can get. It’s photographing strangers in a public environment in order to create meaningful or aesthetically pleasing images.

Even this broadly inclusive definition has its faults. What about images taken from the street that peep into people’s private homes (Arne Svenson)? What about your own reflection (Vivian Maier)? Or your own shadow (Lee Friedlander)? What about taking people in their cars (Óscar Monzón)? What about photographing strangers at a pre-appointed time (Shizuka Yokomizo)?

Here’s another definition. It’s just candid photography! That’s not too scary, is it?

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