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What Is Street Photography?

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This post is part of a series called Street Photography.
Choosing a Camera for the Street: 7 Tips to Help You Find the Equipment You Need

Editor's Note: This is the first article in a series of tutorials and articles exploring street photography and picture-making in the world.

Like all art making, street photography is an extremely personal pursuit. If you use reality as your canvas, you will be exposed to many different people and scenarios. Though this series contains thoughts we’ve had and strategies we’ve used, they’re by no means the rules. The purpose of this series is to help you decide who you are, what you want, and how you plan to get it. How you handle yourself on the street, your methodologies for taking photographs, and your motives for being there are unique. We encourage you to experiment with a variety of approaches, equipment, and settings until you find what works best for you.

Reality As Your Canvas

What is street photography? Let's start with a definition: street photographers use the general public and public spaces as their subject matter.

Street photography is closely tied to the spontaneous and unpredictable. It requires more improvisation and intuition to execute than many other types of photography. My guess is these uncontrollable, elusive qualities are what draw many photographers to it—it’s challenging to say the least—but the returns are deep and extremely meaningful, especially personally. 

To photograph on the street is to receive a lesson in living.

Reality is a continually unfolding chain of reactions and chaos, and the street photographer has the impulse to make sense of it or, at the very least, to take note of it. As a result, any and all “work” street photographers do fuels their personal understanding of life, making their lives richer, more engaged, and more fulfilling in the end. Street photographers are deeply fascinated by reality, and they are committed to wrestling with what is, even if they don’t like what they see.

Family on the street in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn 2014
Photograph by Amy Touchette, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 2014

Photography as a Condition

One of my favorite quotes by street photographer Diane Arbus is “The condition of photographing is maybe the condition of being on the brink of conversion to anything.” It’s a powerful quote because Arbus describes photography as a condition, a way of being or a state of mind—not as an action you take or do. When you pick up your camera, your mindset has to become one that’s open to possibilities due to the nature of what a camera does, which is record split moments that are just about to happen.

Because we don’t see into the future or in split moments, because life never stops unravelling in order for us to have that capability, every time you press the shutter you have to take a leap of faith. You have to trust your senses so that you stay open to any kind of “conversion,” as Arbus put it. You have to be able to embrace what’s next, even though it’s impossible to know what’s next—just like in life, ideally, when we try to “go with the flow.” To photograph on the street is to receive a lesson in living, and that’s why it’s never a waste of time, even if none of the resulting pictures are so-called successful. The mere attempt allows you to reap the benefits.

Sitting in the Vulnerability of the Unknown

Street photographers enjoy sitting in the vulnerability of the unknown, despite the fact it can sometimes be uncomfortable or even result in an unpleasant exchange with another person. One reason is because, more often than not, humanity delights in surprising ways if you are open to that possibility. Another reason is because it is honest; it means paying attention to life at large, not turning away. Seasoned street photographers are used to confronting reality and are therefore accustomed to overcoming feelings that plague all of us on some level: fear and insecurity. But because no two situations are alike in real life, even long-time street photographers brush up against the prickly surface of trepidation and doubt and have to find ways of handling it. Honing this skill—getting used to confronting challenges—is maybe the top reason street photography is such a beautiful and useful experience to have. It can make you better at being alive because you’re accustomed to engaging with the world, even if indirectly or temporarily.

Photographing an uncontrolled environment like the street also demands patience, because it’s never certain where the pictures lie. Those who are drawn to street photography are curious wanderers, much like hikers in the wild, who are willing to meander for miles in search of their idea of truth or beauty. They look everywhere: in cafés, on the beach, at the park, on a crowded avenue, at the movie theater, on a bus, down a deserted alleyway, in a suburban town, on a dirt road that leads to a farm. Street photographers are comfortable being alone—whether among a crowd of strangers or literally isolated from others—and they are used to being in unfamiliar situations and settings. Some street photographers were born with many of these characteristics and skills; others, like myself, initially engaged in street photography to obtain them or strengthen them.

Observing the Human Condition

The majority of the canon of street photography depicts candid pictures of everyday life: people who are going about their business, unaware of the photographer’s presence. But the genre also includes plenty of deviations from this style. The images of Garry Winogrand, for example, are candid depictions that sometimes include eye contact, portraying the moment his subjects realize they are being photographed. Another example is Diane Arbus, who asked subjects she saw on the street for impromptu portraits. And then there is Eugène Atget, whose photographs largely contain no people at all, just the hint or suggestion of people.

People have been fascinated with making pictures on the street ever since the 1840s, when William Henry Fox Talbot invented the calotype. The French painter Charles Nègre, who took up photography in 1844 to collect visuals for his paintings, was one of the first well-known photographers of the street. Other master practitioners of street photography followed, including those I mentioned above plus Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, André Kertész, Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, Weegee, Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, William Klein, Robert Frank, Louis Faurer, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, Martin Parr, William Eggleston, Bruce Davidson, Tom Arndt, Joel Sternfeld, Mary Ellen Mark, Alex Webb, Paul Graham, Jeff Mermelstein, Thomas Roma, and Mitch Epstein, to name just a few. And, of course, the bulk of these street photographers have photographed much more than just the street throughout their careers: as observers of the human condition, they’ve been compelled to tackle a variety of other subject matter as well.

Portrait of Dottie Reid New York NY between 1946 and 1948
Portrait of Dottie Reid, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948.Gottlieb, William P., photographer. Library of Congress number LC-GLB04- 1498

Place and Time as Medium

The art of capturing real life is largely misunderstood, partly because using portions of reality and time as a medium is mystifying, even to those who are knowledgeable about visual art. It’s difficult to talk about “straight” photography (as opposed to “conceptual” photography) like we do other artistic disciplines. The painter uses a brush to apply paint on a surface, just like the street photographer uses a camera to apply a sliver of reality to a negative or a digital file, but it is much easier to discuss the process involved in painting.

Paint is tangible and tactile; we understand how it moves across a surface, how it can be manipulated to achieve certain colors and textures, and how difficult it can be to make a successful painting. We oftentimes see the painter’s brush marks, proving the painter’s toil and revealing the tracks of at least some of his or her process.

Straight photographs, on the other hand, don’t unveil the photographer’s effort, technique, or talent so directly or readily. In fact, these photographs can come across to some viewers as devoid of talent: lucky breaks, moments wherein the photographer just happened to be at the right place at the right time and, with a simple click of a button, was able to render the scene. 

That certain photographers are consistently in “the right place at the right time” is a faculty so different than other disciplines, so incomprehensible as a medium, it often gets left behind in the fine arts. But it is a skill, one that you can develop and hone.

Wading Into the Waves

The best description of the experience of photographing on the street that I’ve come across is from photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who said in his book Bystander: A History of Street Photography that it’s

“like going into the sea and letting the waves break over you. You feel the power of the sea. On the street each successive wave brings a whole new cast of characters. You take wave after wave, you bathe in it. There is something exciting about being in the crowd, in all that chance and change—it’s tough out there—but if you can keep paying attention something will reveal itself.”

Knowing that “something” is out there is what keeps street photographers going. 

Next time we'll wade a little deeper into the waves. Getting into street photography means understanding your motivations, setting your intentions, getting focused, and being aware of who you are and where you are, so that's where we'll start.

Related Reading

Until then, Smartphone as Camera: Embracing Photography's New Visual Vocabulary by Dawn Oosterhoff is a good introduction to the photographic contours of many peoples' chosen street camera: the smartphone.

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