Franco Fontana's photograph, which shows crossing lines and the shadows of several subjects

What Is Street Photography?

I would like to pause the series: ‘Learn from the Masters’ for a second. I have received many comments on my previous posts and in my mailbox, asking for a clearer explanation of street photography.

This genre is quite difficult to interpret and even more to define. Many times, its boundaries are blurred and overlap with the ones of other genres, such as photojournalism, photo-documentary and photo reportage.

In a talk I attended earlier today, the speaker truthfully said that street photography can be categorised as a branch of reportage photography. So, we should first understand what this genre is in order to find a definition for street photography.

Reportage photography, or what’s also known as documentary photography, is a photographic style that captures a moment or event in a narrative fashion, i.e., images that tell a story.

Reportage, for example, depicts a story or event in a report-like fashion. Unlike traditional styles of photography, reportage photographs are often less formal and portray their characters in a pose-free way that occurs naturally, not staged.

Street photography has obviously some overlaps with the above cited genre. Then, how can we define street photography? I found the best definition of this genre to be offered by UP and it is reported below:

Street photography uses the techniques of straight photography in that it shows a pure vision of something, like holding a mirror to society. Street photography often tends to be ironic and can be distanced from its subject matter, and often concentrates of a single human moment, caught at a decisive or poignant moment. On the other hand, much street photography takes the opposite approach  and provides a very literal and extremely personal rendering of the subject matter, giving the audience a more visceral experience of walks of life they might only be passingly familiar with.

The two genres share some blatant similarities. They both picture reality and the society before our lens. However, there is a strong difference between the two, which is described in the two aforementioned definitions.

Indeed, while photo-documentary captures a moment in a narrative fashion, street photography style is much more subjective and dependant on the perspective of the photographer. Moreover, photo-documentary tends to create a story over a series of images. On the other hand, a street photograph is self explanatory and fulfilling as it captures a single decisive moment.

I believe that there are three myths about street photography to be dismantled.

 

1. Street Photographs Must Be Made in Public Spaces

Martin Parr's photograph taken in a resort in New Brighton

Martin Parr, 1985, Magnum Photos

This first idea is quite ridiculous. If you read the article on Bruce Davidson, you might have noticed that this artist is well-regarded as one of the maximum exponents of modern street photography. One of his works focused on taking photographs in the New York subway. On the other hand, another great street photographer, who is also member of the Magnum Photography Agency, Martin Parr worked extensively  in a run-down sea-side resort in New Brighton to complete his body of work: The Last Resort.

Can we say that Bruce Davidson is a real street photographer as he was photographing in a public space, while Parr is not, as he focused on a private space, such as a resort? Obviously, we cannot! Both of them are extremely good and productive street photographers, who did not limit their art and interpretation of the genre by the mere distinction between a public and private area.

Surely, street photography which is made in a public space, is much easier to publish and sell nowadays. On the other hand, to earn from photographs taken in a private space, we might require a formal approval from the subjects being photographed. However, if we do not take these regulative aspects into account, street photography is as genuine in a public space as it is in a private area.

 

2. Street Photography Must Be Candid

Eric Kim's photography showing a young woman, who projects her shadow to the wall behind creating interesting shapes

Eric Kim, City of Angels

Most street photographs are candid. Indeed, by not asking for permission, we might avoid breaking a specific mood, feeling or expression. Indeed, it might be much easier to capture a specific emotion and reach the desired objective without interfering with he subject.

However, there is nothing immoral or unethical about asking for permission to take a photograph. Indeed, this might be crucial to make a photograph in a private or restricted area without creating too much trouble.

3. Street Photograph Must Incorporate a Human Presence

Franco Fontana's photograph, which shows crossing lines and the shadows of several subjects

Franco Fontana, 2008, Magnum Photos

Street photographs have the mission to report the reality before our lens, after being filtered by our creative instinct. Often, the reality represented requires the human presence to be included. However, this is not fundamental. Indeed, the human presence might be implicit or assumed.

The latter type of street photography is much tougher to make, as it requires much more consciousness of the environment and a higer degree of creativity. However, it is not impossibleto achieve. A great example is offered by the Italian photographer Franco Fontana. The famous landscape master, put himself to the test by approaching street photography.

The resulting body of work: Presenze Assenze is a true master piece, which demonstrates that street photography does not require the human presence to be showed, it can be implicitly whispered to the viewer adn still be as powerful adneffective.

 

Conclusion

Street photography is a very difficult genre to defined. Historically,  it has evolved from photo documentary. Indeed, it share  several factors with the latter. The key difference between the two is that a street photograph is self-explanatory, while a documentary one requires an entire series to be understood correctly.

Street photography has been categorised too strictly too often. We should bust some myths.

Firstly, street photographs can be made in public and private spaces as well.

Secondly, street photography is not about candid images necessarily. Sometimes, it might be wiser to ask for permission instead.

Finally, the human presence might be implicitly represnted in the image. Therefore, there is not any obligation of showing a human figure within the frame to categorise the image as a street photograph.

 

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12 thoughts on “What Is Street Photography?”

  1. This is where arguments ensue. Some believe it’s street photography if there aren’t any humans in the photo such as a photo of an interesting restaurant, etc. And I for one believe it doesn’t have to be candid to qualify. I’ve done and seen candid photos that were very good of people as well as where the “subject” either glared back, just faced the camera or hammed it up.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is a debatable argument, I know. Maybe this is why we love this genre so much. What I hope for this article is that it will allow you to ask yourself questions and not to give you answers

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope that you will keep researching and being inquisitive on this vast genre. Hopefully my previous articles and series will help you understanding more how the great masters approached street photography

      Like

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