What Is Street Photography?
Photograph (Verb) From the Greek, phõtos, light, and graphein, to draw, together meaning ‘drawing with light’.
Candid (Adjective) From the Latin, candidus, pure, impromptu, unposed, unrehearsed.
Public (Adjective) From the Latin, publicus, from populus, the people. Able to be seen or known by everyone, open to general view.
At its most basic, street photography is candid photography made in public situations. In photographic terms “street” is not limited to roadways as the word might suggest. It is a stand in for any public setting. Photographers like Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Tony-Ray Jones, Raghubir Singh, Daido Moriyama and Joel Meyerowitz have pioneered a variety of street based approaches, and over the last few decades the phrase has come to mean a great deal more. Recent outlets like Street Photography Now, HCSP, Instagram, and the online street community have expanded the territory in ways still being understood, and the sense of community engendered by the Internet generation has sent street photography soaring to new heights of popularity. Opinions and approaches vary, but fundamentally street photography is a depiction of real life infused with an awareness of visual aesthetics.
Many street photographers look for scenes which trigger an immediate emotional or visual response, especially through humor or a fascination with ambiguous, odd, or surreal happenings. A series of street photographs may show a crazy world. Perhaps it’s a dreamlike world. Or edgy, or dark, or elegant, or mysterious. The paradox that these traits might apply to scenes found in the most everyday and real location —the “street”— is endlessly fascinating.
Street photography is not reportage. For the street photographer there is no duty to document specific subject matter. The chief concern is life in general, and its reduction into frames that stand alone and visually work. This requires a careful selection of visual elements to include and exclude from the final composition, and great attention on the moment selected for exposure. These two factors may at first seem universal to all kinds of photography, but in street photography they are vital, for it is with these tools alone that the street photographer expresses meaning. There are no props or lighting, little preparation time, and ideally no preconceptions. The process is based on seeing and reacting, almost by-passing thought altogether. For many street photographers it is a ‘Zen’ like experience, and some report a loss of ‘self’ when carefully watching the behavior of others, such is their emotional involvement.
When practiced well, the result, as Colin Westerbeck writes in Bystander, “is a kind of photography that tells us something crucial and the nature of the medium as a whole, about what is unique to the imagery that it produces. The combination of this instrument, a camera, and this subject matter, the street, yields a type of picture that is idiosyncratic to photography in a way that formal portraits, pictorial landscapes, and other kinds of genre scenes are not.” – Blake Andrews, David Gibson, Nick Turpin, 2016