Street Photography

Very few forms of photography seem to raise the passions of latter day amateur photographers more so than what is termed ‘street photography’, which I touched on in an earlier post and wanted to ponder in greater detail. The topic comes up regularly on photography forums, photography blogs etc (and now here!), but no one can really come up with a substantive explanation of what differentiates street photography from other forms of photography that ostensibly appear the same, notably documentary photography. Purists seem to associate street photography with a photograph involving a person/s, on a street, photographed discretely, capturing ‘The Decisive Moment‘, with the final image converted to B&W (for nostalgic purposes honouring the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson – who was actually a photo-journalist).

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932 - (source: After Image Gallery)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932 – (source: After Image Gallery)

I’ve never quite understood the passion behind street photography or some of the related photographs posted around the interwebs, but then some don’t comprehend a photographer’s passion for landscapes, birds or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the concept or the photographs that are often published, it’s just that they very often don’t generate the sort of feelings within me that others seem to have for the genre. The passion that its followers have seems quite unique, compared to other forms of photography. I guess part of my indifference has to do with the fact that most of the photographs simply don’t convey anything to me; a shot of a person sitting, standing or walking on a street and converted to a B&W image doesn’t always resonate; whereas, a photograph that conveys an achievement, something memorable, important, tragic, shows emotion, is something that I can relate to and thus it becomes meaningful.

Anzac Day, remembering the fallen - Werribee Victoria

Anzac Day, remembering the fallen – Werribee Victoria

And the term ‘street photography’ itself seems somewhat constraining, when you can find people in all sorts of places and situations that can be interesting, but they’re simply not on a street. Does it mean that such photographs can’t be classified as street photography? Perhaps this sort of photography should be called ‘people photography’, as then it broadens the scope of locations, activities etc, yet maintains what I gather is perhaps the fundamental driver of ‘street photography’ – people. So it shouldn’t matter whether the subjects are on a beach, a rocky outcrop or a passing bus.

Photographer photographing a photographer photographing a model on a beach - Bali Indonesia

Photographer photographing a photographer photographing a model on a beach – Bali Indonesia

Watcher on the rocks - Grampians Victoria

Watcher on the rocks – Grampians Victoria

Smiling faces on a bus - Bali Indonesia

Smiling faces on a bus – Bali Indonesia

Which brings me to another point about street photography. Why is the vast majority of such photographs converted to B&W? I can understand and appreciate the use of B&W up to a point and sometimes awkward colours don’t play nicely with the subject or composition, as in my Anzac Day photograph where some of the background colours dominated and distracted from the main subject, so the only way to overcome this and maintain the dignity of the occasion was to use B&W. But we should also celebrate colour, as we can now achieve that easily and at low cost, compared to how it was in the early part of the last century (that’s the 1900s, not the 1800s). And with today’s software, we can do many things with a colour photograph to add a different dimension to colour that was never really possible in the film days (as I did with the beach scene). Appreciate, celebrate and embrace colour.

School Kids - Bali Indonesia

School Kids – Bali Indonesia

Surfer contemplating a meal - Bali Indonesia

Surfer contemplating a meal – Bali Indonesia

Street vendors, Poppies Lane 1 - Bali Indonesia

Street vendors, Poppies Lane 1 – Bali Indonesia

And my final point is about photographing people while they are unaware of your presence. Sometimes this enables you to get candid shots and/or avoids embarrassment on the subject’s part, but it doesn’t always mean that it creates the best shots. In the earlier shot of the rock climber, he was aware of me taking photos and, without me asking, set up a pose that was perfect for the occasion, as just before that he appeared to be at a loose end as to what to do. He may simply have not wanted to be identified, but the pose he assumed was just what was needed. In some cases, the subject will go the extra yards to look good for the photographer, even without asking. And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that even the grand master wasn’t averse to letting the subject know what was happening.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rue Mouffetard, 1954 - (source: After Image Gallery)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rue Mouffetard, 1954 – (source: After Image Gallery)

Afternoon at the skate park and putting on a show - Melbourne Victoria

Afternoon at the skate park and putting on a show – Melbourne Victoria

And you never really know what you can get just by asking, when you’re out and about, as people aren’t always shy if asked to briefly pose when you explain why you’d like to take a photograph. By doing so, they will often accommodate you and allow you to get a better photograph than if you tried to be surreptitious. I would never have been able to get as many good shots in my news days if I hadn’t approached the potential subjects and asked if I could take a photograph. Of course it isn’t always opportune to ask, doing so may not be practical or timely and you will have your share of failures; however, you simply need to judge the situation and work with what you have. You will never know if you don’t try.

Boy and Dogs, Poppies Lane 1 - Bali Indonesia

Boy and Dogs, Poppies Lane 1 – Bali Indonesia

In deep conversation - Albert Park Victoria

In deep conversation – Albert Park Victoria

Sikh - Melbourne Victoria

Sikh – Melbourne Victoria

The irony is that when you look at photographs produced by some of the most famous photographers, whom many street photography followers look to for inspiration, their works just don’t seem to follow the ‘street photography’ meme. As for the photographs accompanying this post, I don’t consider them street photography, I call them documentary photography and they mainly come from larger collections that form stories on their own. I’ve just used them here as standalone examples.

2 thoughts on “Street Photography

  1. Geoffrey Heard

    Exactly, Ray. Just because we have a camera and CAN take a picture legally in the street does not mean that we SHOULD take a picture against a person’s wishes. I have very little time for the “stealth” school of “street” photography, or its close relation, the “rude” school which I see a fair bit of here in Rabaul, New Guinea Islands, with tourists poking their cameras at people and taking pix without so much as a by your leave.

    I fail to understand what your standard, amateur stealth or rude picture taker is trying to achieve. So often the pictures themselves are basically meaningless and and the sole justification seems to be that the camera operator took the picture in the circumstances.

    As you point out, the great photographers that they think they are emulating just didn’t take pictures like that most of the time. The boy with the bottles is a GREAT shot, and a great example of the interaction between a subject “in the wild” and a photographer.

    1. Ray Post author

      I actually like to engage, as much as is practical, with the people that I photograph. To me that adds another dimension to what I’m trying to achieve and often can form the basis for a story.

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