One of the members of our photography Meetup group recently asked me about doing a workshop on street photography. Here, in part, is my response:
Hi there, and thanks for stopping by! By ‘street photography’ I’m assuming you’re referring to street photography as a genre. There are probably few areas in photography that provoke as much animosity, antipathy and a few other ‘a’ words as street photography, between those who believe that, as an art form, it must fit into certain criteria (like cubism or post-modernism in art) and those who believe that those in the first group are full of it.
Basically, as I understand it, street photography as genre is distinct from documentary photography or photojournalism in that the latter two may provoke a question but also provide their own answers, whereas street photography poses questions but leaves the viewer to answer them. There may be a sense of brutal honesty, serendipity, spontaneity or play but they’re nested within a sense of ambiguity or obscurity.
On the Luminous Landscape forums I found the following quotes:
Over the last few decades the phrase ‘Street Photography’ has come to mean a great deal more than simply making exposures in a public place. Photographers like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Joel Meyerowitz have forced a redefinition of the phrase that has many new implications.
Primarily Street Photography is not reportage, it is not a series of images displaying, together, the different facets of a subject or issue. For the Street Photographer there is no specific subject matter and only the issue of ‘life’ in general, he does not leave the house in the morning with an agenda and he doesn’t visualise his photographs in advance of taking them. Street Photography is about seeing and reacting, almost by-passing thought altogether.
For many Street Photographers the process does not need ‘unpacking’, It is, for them, a simple ‘Zen’ like experience, they know what it feels like to take a great shot in the same way that the archer knows he has hit the bullseye before the arrow has fully left the bow. As an archer and Street Photographer myself, I can testify that, in either discipline, if I think about the shot too hard, it is gone.
If I were pushed to analyse further the characteristics of contemporary Street Photography it would have to include the following: Firstly, a massive emphasis on the careful selection of those elements to include and exclude from the composition and an overwhelming obsession with the moment selected to make the exposure. These two decisions may at first seem obvious and universal to all kinds of photography, but it is with these two tools alone that the Street Photographer finds or creates the meaning in his images. He has no props or lighting, no time for selecting and changing lenses or filters, he has a split second to recognise and react to a happening.
Secondly, a high degree of empathy with the subject matter, Street Photographers often report a loss of ‘self’ when carefully watching the behavior of others, such is their emotional involvement.
Thirdly, many Street Photographers seem to be preoccupied with scenes that trigger an immediate emotional response, especially humour or a fascination with ambiguous or surreal happenings. A series of street photographs may show a ‘crazy’ world, perhaps ‘dreamlike’. This is, for me, the most fascinating aspect of Street Photography, the fact that these ‘crazy’, ‘unreal’ images were all made in the most ‘everyday’ and ‘real’ location, the street. It was this paradox that fascinated me and kept me shooting in the ‘everyday’ streets of London when many of my colleagues were traveling to the worlds famines and war zones in search of exciting subject matter. Friends that I met for lunch would just be back from the ‘war in Bosnia’ and I would declare proudly that I was just back from the ‘sales on Oxford Street’.”
That’s only the beginning of a much longer thread of responses. It’s worth reading. I would also add Vivian Maier to the list of great street photographers.
With street photography there’s a sense of being both ‘in the moment’ and yet apart from it, a fly on the wall, an observer, a voyeur in a sense. Street photography, traditionally, has (almost) always been done in B&W. Again, there’s a stripping away of the realities of life and evoking an essence of the moment.
Here are a few more links on street photography that might interest you.
NB: This last one must be read with a very heavy dose of sarcasm in mind:
The 10 Rules of Street Photography
As far as a workshop, I’m not the right person to do it because I’m not a street photographer per se. I rarely shoot people, who are (almost) always an essential element of street photography. Much of the ‘street’ work I do involves anachronisms, especially signs. Some examples are below.
Okay, that’s it. Now go out and make some photographs!