What is street photography?

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[S]o here I was thinking (It happens very occasionally that I think…) about Street Photography and I was wondering what was it exactly. Here's some food for thought and an answer that might surprise you.

Street Photography: A misleading label
If there is one reason I completely dislike the label “Street Photography” it's because it gives the idea that it's limited to the Streets. If there's Street Photography, is there Beach Photography, Bed Photography? Coffee Shop Photography? It's something that Winogrand put his finger on, he showed the Reductio ad Absurnum of the term “Street Photography” by questioning if he was doing “Zoo Photography” because he was shooting in a Zoo. Doing a Reductio ad Absurnum means taking things to their logical conclusions to show the absurdity of a proposition.

Street Photography is a bad term then because it's the one type of photography that is tied by definition to a particular physical place. Every other physical place is exempt from a photography label: Have ever done “Hospital” Photography because you shot something at a hospital? What if I'm on a sidewalk? If I am shooting at the Street from a building, is it Street Photography? If I am in the Streets Shooting at a building, is it Street Photography? So does photography mean actually being in the streets to shoot? Or does it mean shooting the streets?

Subway Photography, is that you?
Subway Photography, is that you?

Street Photography is first an umbrella term

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As you can see if Street Photography actually means In the Streets, it gets absurd very quickly. Plus there's questions you have to ask yourself, is a Shallow Depth of Field Portrait in the Streets a Portrait, or Street Photography? If I take a Landscape shot in the Streets, is it a Landscape or is it Street Photography? Street Photography gives the Illusion that it's a highly specific genre of Photography while it's the opposite: It's an umbrella term. It's Art, Documentay, Candid, Landscape, etc, it's where all of the other styles of photography converge.

Street Photographers cannot be specific then. For some, they have a more Documentary Aspect than an Art Aspect, while for another it's the opposite. Some photographers are after candids, catching people doing something interesting, others are after portraits of people in the Streets while others are after a pure record of the Streets. What is Street Photography then? An umbrella term. But the real, simple answer goes deeper and might help you see things in a different way.

Street Photography is….

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What is Street Photography then, is a question that begs another question: What does Street Photography mean to YOU? Eugene Atget was roaming the Streets of Paris making reference material for Painters, Garry Winogrand was trying to capture the beauty of women (Book: Women are beautiful) and he was trying to study the wacky contrasts between the Humans and Animals (Book: The Animals). We interviewed Paul McGuirk in our second issue, his thing was funny juxtapositions, one stunning image he made has a shoe-less man in front of a shoe store.

For me, Street Photography is about Life, and I document it. For Don Springer, the second Editor-in-Chief of the Magazine, he's more about Fine Art and expressing his Vision of the Afterlife. Here's an example from his “Dreamcatcher” series:

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The man above is going to the afterlife. And one more example from Don that is more about the Fine Art aspect:

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Street Photography is big enough to be whatever you want it to be, what's important is what it means to YOU. There is no correct definition of Street Photography, you can't box it by nature, so what's important is what YOU think what Street Photography is about.

What draws me in Street Photography is Life, the People, the Landscape they leave in. Funny Juxtapositions do not interest me, nor does candids that much. My definition of Street Photography would then be “Documenting Life”. But that's my definition, you have to find you own way.

How to find you own Definition
You can find you own definition by looking at what you have shot previously. What is the common pattern? More Landscapes? More Portraits? The biggest question to ask afterwards is “Why?” Answer the Why and you will know why you shoot. Knowing your definition of Street Photography not only will give you direction, it will make you more conscious of what you do and make you more alert when a picture comes up.

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Why do I shoot documentary? Because it's the closest analogy to life. Life is a sequence of Moments, Documentary is a sequence of Photos. It's my own way to acknowledge life, it makes me feel alive, connected in the world I live in, while giving me the step back I need. But that's my definition. You have to find yours, sometimes it's others who might help you discover your definition by hearing theirs. The questions asked in our Magazine interviews are geared towards awakening something in the reader.

Conclusion
Street Photography, then is not a stiff term (It's absurd as a stiff term), but just like Exposure, it's a plastic term. You do not mold to Street Photography, you mold Street Photography by making it yours. It's your definition that counts, it's what it means to you that counts. Find your definition of Street Photography, you will be more connected with what you do

 

Street photograph is radically different than documentary photography. Why? Because the intention is different, one is trying to create art, while the other is trying to report something. Documentary photography has a “news” / “report” / “witness” aspect to it, while street photography's concern is mostly art.

Street photographs can stand on their own, while documentary photographs tend not to. They feel as if they are just one part of the story, and they require more than one shot to cover everything. If you are trying to document something (and that can also be done in the streets), it's most likely documentary. If you are going for art, it's street photography.

Street photography is often confusing to beginners and outsiders. So much so that many ask: what is the difference between street photography vs snapshots? Here's an answer:

Street photography is deliberate and has thinking behind it, while snapshots do not have thinking behind them and are haphazard.

Here's a more complete list of differences:

Street Photography vs Snapshot

Street Photography

  • Has intent behind it
  • Careful thought of composition
  • Thinking of how it's shot
  • Has emotional value
  • Usually Post Processed

Snapshot

  • Has no intent behind it
  • No compositions
  • Thinking of what to shoot
  • No emotional value
  • Usually unprocessed

The best way to understand this is to take a photographer and his or her mother in law at a kid's birthday party. You give a camera to the mother in law to shoot, she will simply look at the birthday kid, make sure they are in focus, and snap. Very little thinking behind it.

Give the camera to a photographer in the other hand and they will start thinking. What angle is best? What colors are in the frame? What detracts from this or that? Where is the light? Dozens of calculations are done before they press the shutter release button.

That's why snapshots aren't well composed, there was no thinking about composition. How to shoot the subject so that it looks good.

And that is the greatest difference between them: One is deliberate, the other not. One has vision, the other does not. But why is it so hard to differentiate between the two? Simple, because…

Most street photographs are snapshots

Street photography is easy to start, and if something is easy to start, you betcha everyone will want to do it. Most people doing the absolute bare minimum with their images, so what do you have littering Facebook and Flickr? Snapshots posing as street photography.

A pretty woman doth not maketh a street photograph. Nor does someone walking down the streets. Ditto for a kid just hanging out.

Street photographs are made. Snapshots are taken

So it's understandable where the confusion comes from. Most street photographs are nothing more than snapshots nowadays. The good news is that gives you a huge opportunity to make images that stand out by simply wanting to improving your images.

And if you are reading this, I can already tell you won't be part of the average street photographer, just by the fact that you are asking for the difference means you can see and feel that there are some.

When you go to the street photography hub page, you'll see a graphic of an iceberg, and that is the visual representation of what REALLY makes street photography work. It's not just about WHAT you shoot (the domain of snapshots, anybody can shoot anything in the streets), but about HOW you shoot it (the domain of street photography, of the thinking behind the shooting).

That's really what makes the difference.

Street photography and travel photography are not the same. They are two different genres of photography that have differing styles and different concerns. Let's start with a list of the biggest differences and then dig deeper.

Street Photography vs travel photography

Street Photography

  • Usually in wide angle
  • Usually in Black and white
  • Gritty
  • Concerned with reality
  • No retouching
  • Focused on ground level life

Travel Photography

  • Not limited to focal lenght
  • Usually in color
  • Not gritty
  • Concerned with beauty
  • Retouched
  • Focused on the exotic

Visual differences

The first thing that jumps at you when comparing street vs travel is the look of the images. Street photography is usually done in gritty BW while travel is usually done in color. While it is a tell tale sign that something is a travel shot vs a street shot, these are only superficial differences.

I mean, someone can just go to an exotic location and shoot in black and white, right? So while these differences matter, the true difference is something much deeper. Let me tel you a story…

I remember posting a photo on facebook one day, and a friend congratulated me. But for some odd reason, he also knew another photographer was talking caca about my images. Not hear to defend myself but his comment was very telling. He said, “Olivier's pictures are always about ugly and poverty”.

And it was true. While I didn't particularly focus on anything like poverty or ugliness, it happened to be a subject of mine because as a street photographer I was obsessed with reality. Poverty just happened to be part of reality and shot it just as I shot wealth and happiness.

And that is the core difference between street photography vs travel photography: Realism vs Idealism

Realism vs Idealism

Street photography's concern is reality. That means you go out in the streets and you shoot what you respond to. Pretty woman coming straight at you? You shoot. Poor beggar on the streets being ignored by everyone in tuxedos? You shoot.

Reality just is. And street photography is concerned about shooting it. Travel photography is at the opposite of the spectrum, it's concerned with beauty and idealism. If you were near a beach for example, you would shoot every day until you get that perfect sunset.

And if it's not there, just add it in. Removing something that messes up your travel shot is very common, in street photography it's a sin. You can see what travel photography is really about if you jump on Instagram. You see the concern is not shooting in a real or authentic way, but shooting in the best light, on the best day with the best colors possible.

Travel street photography

I've lived or visited 8 countries in the last few years. And instead of focusing on travel photography, I've focused on doing “travel street photography” instead. And yes there is a difference. I found that travel photography is an extremely tiring endeavor, even more if you have kids around like I do.

So even if I wanted to do travel photography, I couldn't. What I focused on instead was doing travel street photography. It's street photography, done abroad, but not focused on all of the travel photography trappings, like shooting that one big tourist attraction or location (like the Eiffel tower).

Instead it's shooting like a local. Approaching the craft as if this was not “travel” but “home”, because for someone else, where you are traveling is called home.

Do I sometimes still do “pure” travel photography, where everything is pretty and all? You bet. But those are few and far in between.

Street Photography vs travel photography conlusion

There you have it, the difference between the two genres of photography, and their mix: Travel street photography. This is the best of both world where you approach the travel location with a focus on simply showing reality as-is. Beautiful locations if there is any, and ugliness if there is any.

If you are interested, check out this page on street photography.

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