What is Street Photography?

Although there has been a huge surge recently in the interest of Street Photography, the majority of its self-declared practitioners appear to suffer from a severe lack of knowledge about this tradition and their work has very little to do with the genre.

Most shooters today are amateurs and have little or no respect for the genre and have even less understanding of the legacy left to us by the masters. To them, we have a message:


‘Street Photography’ is not Urban Landscape, it is not Environmental Portraiture and it is most definitely not Still Life. 

On the contrary, Street Photography is about people, it is candid and it is about life.

When we say candid, we mean the subjects are not aware of being photographed right at the instant the shutter is tripped. They may well become aware of it a split second later, for example if camera flash was used, but at the moment of capture, they were still in their natural state, unaware that they were being photographed. Street Photographs must therefore always contain people. 

But Street Photography is a lot more than just candid. Street Photography is an instinctual reactive response to the unpredictability of every day life as observed in public places. It captures human or poignant moments. It creates juxtapositions from unrelated elements or creates relationships between people who do not know each other, simply by using the camera’s framing.

As such, Street Photography is subjective, its intent is not journalistic or documentary and it does not represent the truth in any way shape or form. To the contrary, the photographer lines up the elements in the shot so as to suggest a narrative or, better yet, to create an enigmatic situation. Street Photography has more in common with painting that it does with journalism or documentary photography because the author of the image is expressing their artistic vision and is completely disinterested in the subjects. Rather, the photographer is interested in what the subject or subjects are about to do or where they stand in relation to each other and the background. Street Photographs are often described as 'quirky’.

The timing of capturing these moments is crucial and has been coined the 'decisive moment’ by one of the forefathers of Street Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

                                       From, Street Photography Manifesto:  Preserving the Tradition of Street Photography

Personally, I strive for the above classic definition of street photography in my street work. If I have a style it's taking candid close up shots, that puts the viewer in the middle of the action with a sense of intimacy.  A shot that leaves the scene undisturbed, while hopefully engendering an emotional impact and educing a narrative by the viewer.  However, while the above might be called "Classic Street Photography" or "Candid Street Photography", there are street photography sub-genres and I have many street photography friends whose street work embrace these styles.  For example:

"Street Portraits" - which focuses mostly on candid portraits of people on the streets.
"Urban Landscapes" - which may or may not have people in them BUT have "proof of humanity".
"Socio-documentary Street Photography" - think not reportage but candid shots that stand on their own, of say, the
Occupy demonstrations.

At the end of the day, I rather like street photographer Bruce Gilden's definition of Street Photography: "If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it's a street photograph”.