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What Defines Street Photography and Why it Matters

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 
woman sitting in a cafe window

What counts as street photography?

Unlike staged photography, street photography relies on the natural flow of urban environments, capturing life as it happens without disruption.

Often, street photographers aim to create a visual narrative that reflects society, culture, and the human condition by finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, leading to serendipitous instances that can unfold on any city street or public place.

The genre thrives on spontaneity and the photographer’s ability to observe and seize fleeting moments, often without the knowledge of the subjects. Street photography is different from photojournalism in that regard. This unobtrusive method allows the images to remain authentic and true to the reality being observed.

echnique and composition are crucial to conveying the message and emotion of the scene, with the photographer making quick decisions on framing, timing, and perspective to capture the decisive moment.

Key Takeaways

Origins and Evolution

In my exploration of street photography, I’ve learned that its roots lie in the curiosity to capture the candid essence of public life. This genre has evolved through the lens of numerous influential figures who have shaped its narrative across the decades.

Historical Context

Street photography’s history is fascinating, tracing back to advancements in portable camera technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which made spontaneous photography possible in urban settings. The practice began as an opportunity to document the burgeoning scenes of city life, often with a raw and honest portrayal. Charles Nègre is remembered for being one of the early pioneers, utilizing photography to capture daily life in the streets of Paris in the 1850s. Over time, the genre expanded, providing not only a visual account of society’s evolution but also serving as a reflective canvas to observe the human condition within the urban environment.

Eugène Atget, a Parisian photographer, meticulously documented the city in the early 1900s, often considered one of the forefathers of the genre. As the 20th century progressed, photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Berenice Abbott contributed to the rich tapestry of street photography, marrying technique with storytelling. The migration from metal and glass plates to film encouraged this shift towards a more spontaneous and less contrived form of photography.

Influential Figures

Each influential street photographer brought a distinct eye to the genre. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer, personified the concept of the “decisive moment,” capturing scenes that felt both fleeting and eternal. Walker Evans demonstrated a keen interest in American life during the Great Depression, blending documentary needs with a profound artistic sensibility. This leads naturally to the question who is the subject of street photography?

Moving through the 20th century, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus emerged as defining figures with their unique perspectives on American streets and societies. In the 1970s, William Eggleston revolutionized the genre by introducing bold color photography, challenging the then-dominant black and white aesthetic. Photographers like Vivian Maier, Martin Parr, Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter, Bruce Gilden, Daido Moriyama, André Kertész, and Brassaï also significantly impacted street photography, each with a different angle and approach.

  • Martin Parr brought a satirical and anthropological eye to the British class system,
  • Helen Levitt captured the theater of New York’s streets with a delicate concern for its inhabitants,
  • Daido Moriyama showcased the contrast and grit of post-war Japan,
  • Saul Leiter explored abstraction and color in urban landscapes, and
  • Bruce Gilden distinguished himself with his confrontational close-ups of unsuspecting passersby.

Each of these photographers influenced how we interpret the fleeting moments of street life, broadening the definition and scope of what street photography could encapsulate.

Technique and Composition

In street photography, the convergence of technique and composition determines the impact of an image. I’ll discuss camera settings and equipment choices crucial for capturing vivid, candid moments, then delve into the interplay of light and shadow, as well as the critical aspects of framing and determining the perfect timing.

Essential Camera Settings

My approach typically involves setting my camera to aperture priority mode to control depth of field while allowing the camera to adjust the shutter speed for proper exposure. For candid shots, I maintain a high ISO to enable faster shutter speeds, which helps freeze motion and reduce blur in dynamic environments.

  • Aperture: f/8 to f/16 for a deeper depth of field
  • ISO: 400-3200, depending on lighting conditions
  • Shutter Speed: At least 1/250th to freeze motion

The Role of Lenses

I prefer using prime lenses with fixed focal lengths for their sharpness and wider apertures. A 35mm or 50mm lens on my Leica mirrorless camera is ideal for street photography. These focal lengths offer a field of view that closely resembles natural human vision, which helps in composing scenes that feel intimate yet not intrusive.

  • Prime Lenses: 35mm (wide), 50mm (standard)
  • Zoom Lenses: Rarely used, lack the speed and inconspicuousness of primes

Understanding Light and Shadow

Mastering light and shadow is crucial for me. I watch for how light interacts with the environment, casting shadows and highlights that can add depth and mood to the photographs. The golden hours provide soft, directional light, which can be used to sculpt subjects and scenes with a high dynamic range.

  • Directional Light: For creating contrast and depth
  • Overcast Conditions: For diffused, even lighting

Framing and Timing

Framing is integral to my process, often employing the rule of thirds to create balanced compositions. I stay vigilant for ‘the decisive moment’ — a concept made famous by Henri Cartier-Bresson — to capture a convergence of elements that tell a story or convey an emotion. Anticipation and readiness are vital, as I often pre-focus manually to anticipate action within a certain zone.

  • Framing Techniques: Rule of Thirds, Lead Room
  • Focus Techniques: Zone Focusing or Manual Focus for anticipating action

Legal and Ethical Considerations

In the realm of street photography, I always ensure that legal frameworks and ethical standards are carefully considered before capturing images. This attention to detail helps maintain a balance between artistic expression and individual privacy rights.

Respecting Privacy

While I can generally photograph people in public spaces without explicit permission, I recognize the importance of privacy. I consider the following before taking a photograph:

  • Is the subject in a compromising or private moment? If so, I refrain from taking the picture.
  • Would I need consent for commercial use? For images that might be used in advertisements or sold, I obtain the necessary permissions.

I follow a code of conduct to avoid intrusive behavior, ensuring my subjects feel secure and unviolated by my presence.

Navigating Public Spaces

When I am in a public place, I remain aware of my legal rights and those of the subjects. My approach involves:

  • Understanding local laws: Laws vary by country, and I familiarize myself with the specific regulations governing public photography in the area I am shooting.
  • Ethical decision-making: I strive to photograph with confidence and a clear conscience, balancing my rights against potential ethical issues.

Themes and Subjects

In discussing the themes and subjects of street photography, I must emphasize the focus on urban settings and the human condition. City life provides a backdrop for this genre, featuring a cast of strangers and the candid moments that define their everyday experiences.

Depicting Urban Life

Urban environments like New York and Paris are quintessential stages for street photography—cities teeming with stories at every corner. Capturing the ambiance of a city involves more than just its inhabitants; it includes the architecture, the winding streets, and even the unexpected charm of a suburb or an unassuming parking lot. The visual narrative of street photography often records the contrast between the individual and the urban sprawl, accentuating how people navigate through their cityscapes.

Capturing Emotion and Gesture

The essence of candid street photography lies in its ability to seize fleeting emotions and gestures. It’s about spotting that brief look of contemplation on a commuter’s face or the unrestrained joy in a group of children playing. Emotions, whether subtle or overt, are central—as is humor, which can add another layer to the photographic story. I focus on these spontaneous reactions, the unguarded moments that are often missed in the bustle of city life, to encapsulate a genuine human experience within my frame.

Further Reading