Street photography is on fire, to say the least. But, is any of it actually any good? More importantly, is any of it of any consequence to the art world? Can street photography survive as a genre in a visual age where everyone communicates, even the most benign moments, with images? How can you make engaging and unique street images when everything has been photographed? Are expensive workshops and endless rules of any value? Should you even take up street photography as a hobby, or is street photography dead?
In this article I will attempt to candidly answer these questions, as well as get you started in meaningful street photography – street photography for the 21st century. Using my own stories and experience, I will take you on a whirlwind tour of how I came to develop my own style and produce street photographs which not only break free of clichés, but consistently sell all over the world. It wasn’t easy and I certainly failed along the way.
What is street photography?
There has been a lot of discussion lately about exactly what constitutes a street photograph and what doesn’t. Is a street photograph merely a photo taken on the street, or is there more to it? Let us turn to Wikipedia, a democratic crowd-sourced resource, for guidance. “Street photography is photography that features the chance encounters and random accidents within public places. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.”
The Wikipedia definition brings us closer to an understanding of what it is we are trying to create in a street photograph. Worthy of note is the idea that a street itself is not required, nor is a person. Pushing beyond these obvious elements is what will allow your photography to stand above and beyond the plethora of street photographs out there today. Don’t just photograph someone walking down the sidewalk. The genre is saturated with these images. Look for unusual locations – alleys, country roads, empty parking lots, or the county fair or local barbershop. Even a grocery store could be interesting. Some might argue that this is not street, as I’ve said; the definition of a street photograph is tenuous, at best. Regardless, I remember seeing a series of candid images some time ago that were taken in a series of American grocery stores in the 1960s. They were spectacular, truly unique! Also, try your hand at making some images that imply a human presence, but don’t directly depict people. This is admittedly hard, but can pay off handsomely when you nail it. Master photographer William Eggleston has done so famously in his work.
Many people feel discouraged regarding street photography if they don’t live in a big city like New York or London. Don’t worry; there are plenty of great photographs just waiting to be taken in rural locations all over the globe. Legendary street photographer Mark Cohen made a whole career out of photographing the little mountain town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. And, when it comes to making street photos without people, you might want to look to another legend, Daido Moriyama, for inspiration.
Another area of contention is whether or not one can ask a person to pose for a street photograph. A lot of “self-proclaimed street photography gurus” will adamantly insist that you cannot, that a street photo must be candid. Well, if only it were that simple. What is candid? Does a tacit, unspoken agreement between photographer and subject count as candid? If not, what about Vivian Maier? Much of Maier’s work was produced in this manner – her approaching a subject and engaging them in nonverbal agreement and she’s regarded by many as one of the best street photographers of the 20th century.
Perhaps one of the most sobering questions of all is whether the street photography label is even needed? There seems to be a movement afoot whereby people who used to identify themselves as street photographers are now working to distance themselves from this title. This perhaps has more to do with distancing themselves from the overwhelming quantity of underwhelming street photography out there. But the question is a valid one. Documentary, street, and portrait photography unquestionably intermingle and even produce hybrid photographs. Some of this work can also be the most engaging. Perhaps a new category is needed, or rather simply a new way of speaking about or referring to this genre? Maybe a term like public photography would be more suitable and all-encompassing?
So what does all this mean? Well, it means that in a visual world one can still make great street photographs and that one should try to bend and even break the rules in doing so. More on rules later. For now, just take heart in knowing that wherever you are, whatever your subject, you can excel at street photography.