What is Street Photography?
by Larry E. Fink
It is a branch of realistic fine-art photography that—traditionally—records un-posed scenes in public places (streets, parks, restaurants, stores, museums, libraries, airports; train, bus, and subway stations, etc.) It began in earnest in the 1920s (though there are earlier examples), when camera and film technology made spontaneous, hand-held photography possible.
The primary subject is people, at rest or in motion, alone or with others, going about the every-day activities of life (walking, sitting, standing, waiting, reading, eating, talking, listening, laughing, daydreaming, greeting, parting, working, playing, shopping, etc.). But it is not portrait photography. The identity of the people in the picture is less important than their value as composition elements or representations of archetypal figures: fathers, mothers, children, lovers, tradesmen, etc.
Not Documentary Photography
The primary emphasis is on capturing a fleeting composition, a temporary, unrepeatable arrangement of lines, forms, textures, and tones–within a rigid frame. While such photographs often document clothing styles or automobile design, these details are subordinate to the artistic elements; whereas, in strict documentary photography, content is more important than artistry.
Nor is it pure photojournalism (news photography) because there’s nothing “news-worthy” happening in these pictures, rather the endless repetition of daily activities. On the other hand, street photography at times appears in news publications for its “human interest” value.
Consistent with their overwhelming interest in composition, some street photographers–not all—shoot with a black and white final image in mind, eschewing color as a distraction. Some purists not only insist on shooting un-posed scenes, they attempt to compose entirely in-camera, without cropping. Before around 1950, the first-generation masters of the genre tended to take visually balanced pictures with a positive emotional tone, celebrating life and its fleeting nature, seizing and sharing momentary beauty and meaning with the viewer. Other shooters, since around 1950, are more likely to make color images or to shoot with wider-angle lenses from close range, forcing sometimes-disturbing images on the viewer. Balanced compositions are of less interest to some second-generation artists, gaining a certain amount of impact in the trade off. In recent years, some who call their work “street photography” pose models (actors) and direct the action, making multiple takes, much like a filmmaker.
Regardless of approach, composition and timing remain the primary challenges of street photography.
For a full treatment of this genre, see Westerbeck, Colin & Joel Meyerowitz. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
Also: Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950, by Kerry Brougher, Russell Ferguson; and Street Photography Now by Sophie Howart and Stephen McLaren.
Larry E. Fink, Hardin-Simmons University, firstname.lastname@example.org