street photograph of two haitian men standing

What is Street Photography? A simple and surprising answer to a complex question

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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

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17 thoughts on “What is Street Photography? A simple and surprising answer to a complex question”

  1. I love these articles they ‘re great, people love to label you. I just like photography and my style varies based on what inspires me at that time. I’m an artist trying out new formulas to see what work for the situation.

  2. Street photography is the term we have, and it’s not going to change at this late date. It has the benefit of conveying what we do and our relationship to a tradition.

    No one’s work is limited by the term. We are free to shoot what we want.

  3. http://petapixel.com/2013/08/14/19th-century-london-street-photography-by-john-thomson/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Thomson_(photographer)

    Many years ago I had the opportunity to read some of the real notes of John Thomson at the museum. There were a few but not many prints also. When he was asked why he made the photos of people on the streets, he quickly and most elegantly replied…”Because that’s where life is”. So we can adopt that into the definition of where Street Photography Is. If in fact that Life and or Death is the main subject matter of street work, well….the rest is easy for you to figure out.

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  6. Street Photography has a long and well respected tradition spanning well over a century of examples to draw on, so there really is no need for a formal definition. The genre speaks for itself. You know it when you see it. It involves candid shots of life. The emphasis here is on “Candid.”

  7. Could I answer by “opposite”? Street Photography is the opposite of “sofa photography” (where there is abundance of lazyness, beer and tv stupidity). But I think the concept exposed in the article suites the general idea quite well!

  8. Great article and thought provoking , in my own opinion street photography is really about all of us, our lives and the things we see and experience when we are out and about not just in urban settings if like me you live in a rural environment !
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

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  12. Excellent discussion and what a well-written piece! Thank you for doing your part in keeping this precious genre alive. I believe in what you have outlined here; If you find a way to “observe” a candid moment, it’s street – it’s what you make of it. I prefer the actual documentary street, but I also agree that there are many aspects of the umbrella living in experiences around our daily lives.

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