What is Street Photography? I believe it’s about capturing life in the street, revealing the drama in the everyday. That’s it. Like any good photograph it needs to exude an energy which resonates with the viewer. It may capture a decisive moment, highlight drama and tension or just pose a question. Daido Moriyama calls this ‘friction’.
Selfie with bottle of Courvoisier
Many of the acknowledged masters of Street Photography were actually documenting their times and it’s only later their work came to be included within the genre. Atget, considered by many sources the Father of the Street, recorded statues, churches and street scenes he knew would soon pass into history. Walker Evans chronicled the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. Lewis Hine concentrated on the Human Document, photographing immigrant communities in the early 1900’s.
And how Street sits alongside the accepted genres of photography is still an (18%) grey area. One of the classic reference works, ‘The History of Photography’ by Beaumont Newhall doesn’t even have an index entry for Street Photography. My personal point of view is that when the street becomes a road it overlaps with Travel Photography. When it involves a journalistic approach or street portraiture it starts to blend back into Documentary. And that’s fine. I’m happy with blur. Personally I don’t feel the need to box everything into some kind of giant art infographic and get precious about definitions.
Man in the machine
However there are some well known and talented photographers who see it very differently. I’ve just finished a book, published in 2014 so presumably reflecting current practice, written by one such traditionalist. He argues that Street Photography must be candid. This is non negotiable. Anything involving interaction with the subject, changes the dynamics, involves some kind of conscious or unconscious ‘posing’ and therefore isn’t true street shooting. Instead it is Street Portaiture. I understand the sentiment, although images involving eye contact are a grey area and highlight how difficult it can be when we let the urge to control and box everything take charge.
OK the first click was candid. What about the second or third? The subject knew they were being photographed. Did they subtly change their demeanour in some way? So the first is ‘proper’ Street but the second two exposures are Street Portraiture? Yes I’m being picky but if you want to set up ‘rules’ then they have to work.
This is the second exposure but it’s not a portrait.
Is it Street? Is it Travel? Does it matter?
How about Margaret Bourke White? She was the first female photo-journalist and the first female photographer to shoot for Life magazine. In 1939, in ‘Changing New York’ she wrote, ‘To make a portrait of a city is a life work and no-one portrait suffices, because the city is always changing, everything is properly part of its story….’ So in her terminology, a whole portfolio of diverse street images came together as a portrait of a city.
I’m sure we could all cope with that ambiguity but unfortunately the rules don’t stop there. The author goes on to state that shooting from the hip is also dubious, too much chance involved. (Walker Evans, please take note, you’ve been doing it all wrong). Cropping the image in post processing is wrong as it should be right first time in the camera. Using a telephoto lens is discouraged as it’s lazy. We shouldn’t even pre-visualise a theme. Instead we should walk in a trance like state responding to our surroundings. For these purists, Street is the almost spiritual hub of all photography.
Goodbye. This where I part company. It seems that rigor mortis has set in. Where do these these beliefs come from? Is it Henri Cartier-Bresson?
Certainly he developed an affinity for Zen in his later years after reading ‘Zen and the Art of Archery’ by Eugene Herrigel and spoke of the need to ‘forget you are carrying a camera’. He also famously disliked cropping. Which is fine when reputedly, only one in a hundred negatives make it to the enlarger. Then that one isn’t going to need cropping. As the contact sheets of the great man have never been published, we’ll never know.
Let’s also remember he didn’t use a light meter, distrusted colour as producing empty effects, never printed his own work and often signed into hotels as ‘Hank Carter’. Should we all do that too?
No, of course not. The fact is that he was one of (if not the) greatest photographic artists of the twentieth century and like many people of genius he had his beliefs and foibles. My feeling is that common practice from the film era, anecdotes and occasional verbatims from the great photographic masters, hearsay and wishful thinking have congealed into a ‘code of conduct’ appropriate to the 1970’s.
I take the opposite point of view. There is nothing sacred about Street Photography. Being creative in any genre is hard. Good street imagery is about mood and moment not minutiae.
Get the shot. Use the camera you love, the shooting style which suits you and if you want to, feel free manipulate and share the image with the world. This is not an excuse for sloppy discipline but I am encouraging plenty of creative play in the camera and in the computer.
This may come as heresy to some but photographers have been manipulating images forever. Early landscape photographers joined together separate exposures of the land and sky because the glass plates lacked the dynamic range to imitate painting and hold detail in both. In 1876 Doctor Barnado was sued for fraud because he made up studio sets of life on the street for promotional material. The history books are full of similar examples.
Fast forward to today. Most major camera manufacturers apply lens corrections in their software, it is commonplace to convert colour images to black and white and the widespread use of apps shows that retouching is now part of everyday image making.
Think about it. The whole notion of applying rules to an art form which is frequently about impromptu ‘decisive moments’ is bizarre.
Improvements under way…
So, hopefully liberated from half a century old ideas, safe in the knowledge that there is no absolutely right way to create a photograph let’s take that first single step out into the street and hope that ‘improvements are under way’……
In part 2 of this series I’ll be looking at what I believe makes a good street shot and beyond that at different shooting styles.
PS: Street can be a divisive and emotional subject. There are no eternal rules of right and wrong. All artists and genres of art shapeshift through time and this article simply represents my opinion at this moment. I appreciate that your views may vary and that’s fine.
Tech note: all images with Leica M series cameras.
Olaf and Eileen McCarney Muldoon are co-teaching a Street Photography workshop, “Destination Brooklyn, Unlocking Mysteries”, Sep 21 – 24th.