As we all become more aware of the surreality of daily life, isolated images taken out of that context lose their impact.
— A.D. Coleman, New York Times, 22 November 1970
In many respects, spontaneously photographing strangers on the street is the simplest and most accessible way of putting a camera to use. There is no need to wrangle and cajole a subject, no need to learn about artificial lighting; no need to travel much further than a few metres from your front door. It can be done anywhere, day or night, with any equipment. Conversely, mastery of the approach is extremely difficult, given how little control the photographer has over the environment. Easy to pick up, difficult to master — street photography is an activity one can remain indefinitely interested in. Furthermore, the dynamic skills it teaches are widely applicable to other types of photography, as well as to daily life, by transforming how the photographer sees the world.
However, as the practice of street photography has expanded and modernised, it has drifted from its 20th century roots. It has become a genre rather than a description of a practice; an outcome rather than a process; a search for the shallow. By looking at how it began and seeing beyond what it has become, we rediscover how meaningful and valuable street photography can be.
One Small Snap For Man
The microbiologist uses a microscope to make small entities larger. The astronomer uses a telescope to bring distant objects closer. The photographer of people uses a camera to magnify humanity.
To such a photographer, portraiture is equivalent to the microbiologist’s petri dish: contained, specific, exclusive, finite. In turn, the spontaneous and unrehearsed photography of oblivious strangers (commonly, if inadequately, known as “street photography” — more about this definition later) equates to how an astronomer sees the night sky: vast, under-explored, overwhelming, uncertain. While portraiture is a means of interrogating the experience of a specific individual through isolated examination in a controlled environment, photographing people on the street is a means of researching people in orbit; an attempt to map the abundant, turbulent galaxy of humanity more generally. In doing so, the photographer must be simultaneously astronomer and astrologer; cartographer of the constellations, and apostle of the mythology behind them.
This complimentary combination of observation and interpretation; objectivity and subjectivity; uncovering what is there and defining what it means, exists in some part across all forms of photography. But in the streets, there lives such a wealth of unpredictable eventuality, a photographer can cavort within the elastic space between what is seen and what is to be believed, testing his own ideas and imagination against uncooperative physical surroundings. In this grand expanse, photography becomes part of the perpetual human project of uncovering and understanding life. It contributes answers to the question, What do we do?, which may help answer, Why are we here?
The need to define certain photographers’ practices as “street” photography originated as a response to Robert Frank’s difficult-to-categorise work, The Americans (pub. 1958). It took over a decade from that point for the term to crystallise, eventually exercised in the early 1970s, as commentators and curators sought to describe what contemporary photographers were up to on public pavements. Not quite photojournalism, not quite documentation, not quite portraiture, not quite abstract, not quite realist — the method didn’t quite fit into any existing genre of photography, art or academia.
Many “street” photographers of the time disliked the term as an over-simplification of their endeavours. It spread a wide net, encompassing many photographic styles, united only by the location of the person holding the camera. Furthermore, considering “street” is rarely used as a complimentary adjective (as -walkers, -food, -dogs, -performers and -sellers can attest) the term has an inherent derisiveness to it, implying that the work is of low-quality, grubby and perhaps a little perverse. A.D Coleman deduced just that in his 1970 New York Times article, offering one of the earliest mentions of the term in print:
The pervasive phenomenon which is coming to be known as “street photography” — a somewhat random, 35mm, snapshooting approach to documentary photography which is an offshoot from (and, in part, a misinterpretation of) the methods of Cartier‐Bresson and Robert Frank — is a problematic one because while street photographers are generally more deeply into the medium than tourists, their results are frequently the same. Qualitatively better, perhaps, and usually more interesting visually; but, as we all become more aware of the surreality of daily life, isolated images taken out of that context lose their impact.
Renowned (street) photographer, Garry Winogrand, spoke specifically of his distaste for the nascent denomination stating: I think that those kind of distinctions and lists of titles like “street photographer” are so stupid. I’m a photographer, a still photographer. That’s it. Lee Friedlander’s feelings were similar — his response to anyone trying to narrowly categorise his photographs inclined towards: Just look at it. In a less absolutist vein, their contemporary Joel Meyerowitz (photographer and co-author of Bystander, the definitive history of street photography) had this to say in 2018 about categorising photographers beyond their use of a camera:
I don’t think that it is necessary in understanding photography to define one from the other [landscape, portraits, street and still lives]. I think photography is an arc that suggests you’re an artist who works with a camera and you make images about whatever interests you. So the generic term ‘photographer’ covers all. However, some people do specialize. They dig in to something, let’s say street photography, and they try to find what is it that’s so essential about photographing quotidian life on the streets of the world, what is it revealing, and what is it doing to the artist who chooses to work that way.
Born without a clear identity and facing apathy from many of its alleged parents , “street photography” was left wide open to subsequent interpretation, adaptation and appropriation. Enter the 21st century, which came along and snatched it from its cradle.
Street Photography, Capitalised
With the advent of digital technology, taking and publishing images became extremely easy. In parallel with these changes, “street” photography morphed from a small-s, small-p, deficient description of certain 20th century artists’ endeavours, to a “capitalised”, proper-noun-pseudo-genre of “Street Photography”. This contortion from description to genre is (unintentionally) well-exemplified by co-author of Bystander, Colin Westerbeck, who explains that Street Photography does not even necessitate the presence of a street:
The street as it is defined here might be a crowded boulevard or a country lane, a park in the city or a boardwalk at the beach, a lively café or a deserted hallway in a tenement, or even a subway car or the lobby of a theater. It is any public place where a photographer could take pictures of subjects who were unknown to him and, whenever possible, unconscious of his presence.
With no “street” required in Street Photography, the term begins to seem absurd. While the creative licence given to the conception of a new definition permits such vagueness, in a modern context, the street-less-ness of Street Photography has stretched that licence to the edge of expiry. Indeed, modern Street Photography can include photographs taken in any “public” place (which in turn merits further definition), with or without people, who can be known or unknown to the photographer, in staged or un-staged circumstances, with or without the participation of the subject. All that remains, as an uncompromised aspect of the root definition, is the appearance of spontaneity within the final photograph. With this precipitous reduction in clarity of meaning, the definition is now a bucket of last resort into which virtually any casual photographic act can be tossed. In its current state, A.D. Coleman’s damning assumption that it was doomed to be facile has come to fruition — a style of photography best characterised by volume, accessibility, amateurism and lack of forethought.
Now that every phone is effectively a point-and-shoot camera, everyone — to one extent or another — is a photographer. The incidental possession of an easy-to-use camera, rather than the urge to take photos, has become the starting point for most people’s entry into photography. Consequently, for the majority, this means the outcome of taking a photograph — how they want it to look in the end — forms the basis of most peoples’ photographic understanding.
Street Photography has followed suit: aesthetics have overtaken ideas; the superficial has superseded the profound; planting the flag has replaced exploration. None of these things could be said about the handful of photographers operating between 1950 and 1990 (such as Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Mary Ellen Mark) all of whom unknowingly gave rise to the definition of “Street Photography”, but paradoxically, remain poorly represented by it in return.
The Coincidence Obsession
As a result, in the digital age, Street Photography has been overrun by images of inane coincidences or people behaving oddly — “caught” on camera as they go about their lives. Popular images, with their surprise-value or high-contrast aesthetic, tend to elicit little more than a cursory reaction: a short-lived “wow”, an amused “ha”, or a “huh, would you look at that?”. After the initial smirk or frown, they typically demonstrate little else than “coincidences happen” or that people look unusual when they don’t know they’re being photographed.
Audiences at large enjoy coincidences and odd-looking people, but such things are readily visible on a day-to-day basis and are now exhaustively familiar in photographs. Again, this was pre-empted by A.D. Coleman: as we all become more aware of the surreality of daily life, isolated images taken out of that context lose their impact. Wait for long enough in a coincidence-likely spot — under a billboard or on a busy street corner — and a coincidence will occur. Wait a bit longer, and an almost identical or similarly enticing “coincidence” will occur again. Over and over, so-called coincidences will happen — each slightly different, but similar enough to make them almost all trivial. Recording these coincidences and sharing them with others does little to diminish their triviality or offer insight into the human condition — street photography’s original strength.
This proclivity for the prosaic partly stems from a misapprehension of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment — the first phrase which came to concisely conceptualise “street” photography and the English title of his seminal, 1952 photobook.
In its original French version, the book was titled Images à la Sauvette, which translates as “Images On the Run” (or more accurately for Bresson’s purposes, “On the Fly” or “On the Sly”). For the English version, the American publishers were keen to position the book as a technical guide to photography rather than an art book, so plucked “The Decisive Moment” from the interior text and plopped it on the cover. In a 1973 interview with Sheila Turner-Seed Bresson himself confirmed: I had nothing to do with it.
Taken out of context, this phrase inadvertently altered the orientation of Bresson’s philosophy, famously expressed in his own words at the introduction to The Decisive Moment:
To me photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.
Instead of prioritising the photographer’s irrepressible, instinctive reaction to something he sees (the simultaneous recognition…of the significance of an event), “The Decisive Moment” implies that the event itself (the precise organisation of forms) is the essential element of the image. With that, the photographer becomes more coincidental observer than active participant. The balance of the idea shifts heavily from the photographer’s internal voice finding resonance in the outer world, to recording an external, visually pleasing event. As a concept, “The Decisive Moment” has consequently become viewed as catching a coincidence with good composition — the “right place, right time” -ification of street photography. It is best exemplified by Bresson’s photograph below, of a man jumping over a puddle.
Printed in The Decisive Moment, it is perhaps Bresson’s most renowned, most celebrated image; said to epitomise the title. Yet when he took it, his view was obscured by wooden planks. He couldn’t see through his camera’s viewfinder and was oblivious to the man’s leap. The captured moment may have been a decisive one of sorts, but Bresson did not make the decision to record that moment. The image resulted by chance. While this does not necessarily diminish the charm of the photo itself, using it as an architype of Bresson’s philosophy misses the point.
In a letter to Life magazine editor, Wilson Hicks, just prior to publication of The Decisive Moment, Bresson clarified his position on the photographer’s interaction with world he sees (emphasis added):
I did not actually mean that one should exchange his ‘own’ world for the ‘greater world outside’. I believe that through living, one discovers oneself simultaneously with one’s discovery of the world outside; a proper relation has to be established, there is a reciprocal reaction between both these worlds which in the long run form only one. It would be a most dangerous over-simplification to stress the importance of one at the cost of the other in this constant dialogue.
Modern Street Photography has fallen into this trap, presenting an over-simplified view of the world outside at the cost of the photographer’s own world. This absolves the photographer from finding meaning within the moment, beyond its sheer existence. It misses the need for the event to be eloquent, as well as for the photographer to feel something substantial in response to it. It is that feeling — the photographer’s deep, personal sense of stimulation from what is happening before him — which gives a street photograph its value. The thing happening is not, in itself, significant. Without the photographer’s feeling, the moment, in itself, is indecisive.
The website and Instagram feed Street Repeat usefully proves the point. Arising from a fascination about how different Street Photographers take similar photographs, the project creates trios of thematically similar contemporary images:
While not the intention of Street Repeat, the images it presents reinforce how trite modern Street Photography can be. Contrast this with the work originally described as street photography. It was full of intrigue, because the ideology and individuality of the photographer — the “feeling” behind the images — was self-evident. Whereas modern Street Photography is primarily defined by singular, out-of-context photographs that capture a split-second coincidence with some modest aesthetic value, original street photography had philosophies behind it; deeper expressions of life that gave the complex images (and their creators) enduring relevance.
Before it was so-called, street photography was primarily the task of revealing what a photographer thought, not what he saw. Each photograph was a reaction, not simply a record. Amassed over time, single images were built into descriptive collections, effervescing with authorship. To paraphrase Meyerowitz, having a camera and using it to take pictures was incidental to the artistic intentions of its holder. The camera only happened to be the person’s chosen method of revealing what he already thought — a technical means of achieving a well-considered end. In contrast, modern Street Photography is the end in itself. It is the acquisition of a “type” of photograph — the source of the idea as well as the outcome, objectively showing little more than what happened front of a camera at a certain time and place.
Such is its ubiquity, we are probably stuck with the modern usage of “Street Photography”, but those who take “meaningful photographs of unrehearsed events, compelled by spontaneous emotional responses” deserve to have their work more loosely defined. Such photographers may perform with a “street” mentality — raw, imprecise, and makeshift — but the results can be deeply revealing. At their best, such people are not merely “photographers”, as Winogrand hoped, but in fact philosophers, poets, ethnologists, sociologists, anthropologists, authors and historians; defined not by a genre, but by the insightful ideas their photographs intimate. Beyond coincidence, and even beyond photography — that is where the greatest value lies in photographs from the street.
To see more of my work, including plenty from streets across the world that hopefully extend beyond coincidence and occasionally beyond photography visit nealgruerphotography.com.