Exploring the Question: What is Street Photography? Part 01 – History of Street Photography
The issue with Street Photography is that it is many things to many people. It has varying degrees of uncertainty in its definitions based on the over abundance of bad definitions you can garner off the web. Part of this confusion comes from the ‘history’ of Street Photography. When was the genre started? Is any image that includes a street, ‘Street Photography?’ Or, does it need to have people? Or, is there more to it than that?
Making matters worse is that many people look at Street Photography, not as a ‘genre’, but rather as a ‘way’, a ‘mindset’ as it were. When you approach Street Photography as a mindset, things change drastically. A part of this mindset group is pushing away from Street Photography as a ‘genre.’ This causes further confusion. So, where do we start?
It would seem logical to start with the history of Street Photography except for the fact that historically, no one knows when Street Photography started? As some would suggest it started with the very first photo ever taken, “View from Window at LeGras” (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833); others would suggest it started with the very first capture of a person on the Streets with the famous “Boulevard du Temple” (1839) by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre (1787 – 1851).
Both, depending on your definition, are incorrect examples. Interestingly, many of those that attribute Street Photography as a ‘mindset’ also attribute either (or both) of these images as the first Street Photography images ever taken. And, again, this is plainly wrong.
In looking at either of these images we need to look at ‘intent’. The intent of both of these images, and expected results, were not Street Photography, and neither were they photographed with the mindset of Street Photography. In Niépce’s image he had never accomplished getting a successful image. He was not a photographer doing photography, he was a scientist experimenting with capturing anything. He succeeded and created the now oldest image ever made “View from Window at LeGras.” His intent, was to capture something, anything, in the emulsion on his pewter plate. As his large camera was in his research lab, or studio as it was called, he aimed it out the window where the sun was bright. He knew he needed a lot of light. He knew and understood that the image would require an extremely long exposure. No notes have been found on the exact length of time, but it is proposed to be around eight hours. Note also that as a ‘subject’, he photographed rooftops which could be considered Urban Landscapes, but if you consider Street Photography to be a mindset, Niepce’s mindset was not set on Urban Landscape or Street Photography but rather on the Scientific Research and capturing something, ANYTHING.
If it is the Street Photographers purpose to capture ANYTHING, then yes, I suppose we are ALL Street Photographers.
In Daguerre’s example, he also, was experimenting with his new image capturing process, the Daguerrotype. He also knew that he required long exposures and he assumed he would not capture any people, horses, or carts. And, much like Niepce’s image, it was convenient for him to just point it out the window. He did manage to capture ‘the Street’ but again, his intention was to capture something well. He knew he was going to capture something as he had already done experimental images and he was refining his process. With the second image he took on this particular day he lucked out. A pedestrian gentleman had stopped to get a shoe shine from a street vendor. Because his legs and shoes were stationary for an extended period, his legs were captured, and because of lack of movement they were reasonably sharp and the rest of his body was blurred as the gentleman had moved his upper torso around for the exposure. Again, all for scientific purposes. He had not yet set his mind to ‘art’ or even to Street Photography at this time. Not with exposures of 20 to 30 minutes that it took to properly expose Daguerreotypes in those days.
Anyone that argues that this is Street Photography, including all those that propose it is a mindset, are reducing Street Photography to the simple notion that Street Photography must include a person, on the street. That is all that was accomplished here. Its an ultra long exposure of many people on a street but again the intent, was to capture a scene, so that it could be analyzed afterwards to see how successful the final image was in the way of chemicals used, tonal range, exposure, sharpness and so on. A success no doubt, but NOT street photography by any definition.
So, if these are NOT street photography? Then what images are? What are the first ever ‘intended’ street photographs ever taken? There are several thoughts on this. In Part 02, we’ll examine the works of Charles Nègre and a few others before we move on to other definitions.
See you on the defining streets!
Class Notes for Part-01 – Required Reading 4
Nick Turpin’s statement
“Now I understand that ‘Street Photography’ is just ‘Photography’ in its simplest form…..”
Is probably the least accurate statement I have ever heard when it comes to describing ANY form of photography, let alone, Street Photography. There is nothing about ‘Street Photography’ that is simple or simplistic, or basic in its values, processes, composition, nuances or artistic elements.
His notion that a child spontaneously pushing a button on a camera, perhaps photographing their sibling, or their favorite toy, or unknowingly, whatever is just in front of the camera, is “Street Photography”, is way off mark to the point of being silly.
That would be like suggesting that any beginner using a paintbrush for the very first time is the purest form of painting, even if it’s a purple shade of Benjamin Moore for a small bathroom. Or, that any mindless pen or pencil doodle on a napkin is the purest form of unhindered carnal art.
The base of “Street Photography” is Photography. The camera, is the medium, the tool, much like a painter uses Paint and Brush. To suggest that a child’s first view through a viewfinder is at its base Street Photography is much like suggesting that a child’s first painted “stick person” is the base of “Fine Art Abstract Nudes”. There is NO correlation, one does not lead to the other.
Keep in mind that Street Photography is an art. As such, when looking through the viewfinder the street photographer composes. Even when blindly shooting from the hip, the street photographer looks at backgrounds and makes decisions. This is after looking at the main subject and making decisions on when to shoot the decisive moment. These are NOT mindless, thoughtless snapshots. And, at all times, the Street Photographer thinks about art, creating amazing images. Never an easy task in such a fluid environment.
Another problem with the statement is that the same can be said of almost any art or any photographic genre. The principles of Sports Photography are as pure as are the skills required. Timing is everything. Sports photographers capture “decisive moments” even more so than most street photographers. When working with models in Fashion Photography, or Portraiture, or Wildlife, it’s the same “raw reaction” and “primitive urge to react” to the scene in front of the photographer that is at the heart of what they are doing. So, ALL forms of Photography are Fashion Photography, or is that, Wildlife Photography??
I understand the need, or the want, to think of your art form as being the purest art form, but one should toss any of those thoughts aside. Nick’s example of the very first photo ever taken, “View from Window at Le Gras”
Is another example that he has not thought through. He gets it wrong right from the get go. The image maker, Nicephore Niepce, was a scientist. His simplest purest thoughts were to achieve making an image, ANY image, and, as his equipment was in his Laboratory, and large, he pointed it out the window. He did this NOT because the view of rooftops was better, but because there was more sunlight out the window than there was in his Laboratory or Workshop. As a scientist he knew and understood that the extra light was required for what he new, or guessed, would be a rather long exposure. His exposure was in the neighborhood of eight hours. You can’t capture life with 8 hour exposures, but you could capture a picture of a street.
One of his readers rightly states that by defining Street Photography as he does merely simplifies Street Photography down to “nothing”. If Street Photography ‘is’ Photography, every form of, genre of, artistic abstract of photography, then any image taken by a monkey, or chicken, is Street Photography. I think not. Street Photography is so much more than merely pointing a camera with no purpose and pushing a button.
He further tries to correct his statement by defending himself when he accuses a reader of “misreading him.” The readers have not misread him, they have read him very well. It is Nick that has not described his intents very well.
In reading this, and other similarly bad examples given by different Street Photographers, I have pondered why they make these statements? What drives them. I think there are several things to look at that may lead to answers. Another reader of Nicks suggested the “elitism” is partly to blame. This is very true of Street Photography. How can an average Street Photographer, or even a top notch Street Photographer, distinguish themselves from the rest of the world doing Street Photography? In this day and age, it is no easy task.
So, they start off by laying claim to their art as being the purest form of Photography, even to the point of saying;
“Street Photography is the Prime Mover, the evolutionary inheritance of all Photography.”
This partly comes from other things artists do when trying to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack, they push boundaries. I think that many photographers have lost sight of the boundaries. Pushing boundaries means amongst other things;
“To take undue risks, esp. through overconfidence, thus risking failure.”
It is the pushing of artistic boundaries within the context, NOT changing the context, to suit your artistic needs. It’s the “Fake News” of photography. Deciding that photos of dogs posed on a chair in a studio is Street Photography, does not make it ‘avant-garde’ Street Photography, no matter how many times you say it, who you can convince to say it for you, or how famous you are. Now, its possible that your very naïve clients may agree with you and buy your dog images as Street Photography, but its still not Street Photography.
Many Street Photographers have tried pushing the boundaries of the definition of what Street Photography is versus pushing themselves to push the boundaries of their own Street Photography Art. In the way of pushing the definition, they have failed miserably. Many that have taken this route have NOT pushed the boundaries of their art at all but rather have lazily attempted to change definitions to suit themselves. Pushing a boundary in a BLUE school is NOT going RED. Those are the Boundaries Broken, much like shooting Fine Art Nudes on a couch in a Studio is NOT Street Photography, it is a change in context. If you believe that Street Photography can be posed, not candid, doing nude fine art on the streets could perhaps be considered Street Photography.
If you believe, like I do, that Street Photography should be ‘candid’ and should capture and be about life on the ‘streets’, then pushing boundaries should stay within this context. A great example of a photographer pushing boundaries is Alexey Titarenko. His long exposures the blur the life component of Street Photography still capture the sense of ‘life’. It could easily be argued that his images ‘enhance’ life as the amalgamated blurs of lives in his images show the bland everyday mundane repetitive nature of everyday life.
If, on the other hand you are ok with ‘directing’ or ‘interacting’ with subjects, you could argue that bumping into them to capture their expressions and interactions with the rude person that just bumped into them, is pushing the boundaries. Is it everyday life? Did you capture a real moment? If you captured their reaction ‘before’ they realised they were being photographed, it would still be ‘candid’, perhaps ‘rude’, and if done on purpose could potentially be considered assault, but it would be ‘candid’ Street Photography. This would also be pushing the boundaries.
The point is that it becomes very important to define “What Street Photography is to you?.” What’s your definition? When you start pushing your own boundaries, are your images still in keeping with your definition? If you believe that ‘posed’ images of people on the streets is Street Photography as it captures ‘a person’ on the streets, does photographing them in a pool still count as Street Photography? What about photographing them in a studio? Where do you draw the line?
The important point is that ‘you’ should define Street Photography for yourself. But don’t be that lazy photographer. Put some thought into it, research it, think about it again, then decide. Oh, and if along the way you need to tweak your definition, make sure it’s a refinement and not just an easy way to get a photo of your dog on the couch, shown as Street Photography.
See you on the confused streets!
Class Notes for Part-01 – Required Reading 3
• Part-1.3 – Nick Turpin: Street Photography Pie
You can tell by his writing and well thought out points that Nick Turpin believes in his definition of what Street Photography is. His point and arguments are concise as are his replies to comments on his page.
He starts off correctly with his statement of
“redefined the phrase Street Photography to what we recognize today…a documentary form that celebrated the candid public moment. And now whether you like the phrase or not there is unarguably a large and growing international community of photographers for whom it is very important that their approach to making pictures is purely observed, whose intention is to record public life as it is found.”
With the points of “candid public moments” and “to making pictures is purely observed” and “is to record public life as it is found” being key points in explaining what Street Photography is all about. This definition is the root, of what Street Photography is, what its about, and leads us to the Truth and the importance of Truth in Street Photography.
This definition excludes posed portraits, subjects directed by shouted comments or directed by photographic confrontation techniques.
The statement also brings up another very good point; “international community of photographers for whom it is very important that their approach to making pictures is purely observed.” If the root of Street Photography is about Truth and real life, its important that Street Photography hangs on to that. No matter what other genres are trying to claim or what Artists that are trying to push boundaries state, Street Photography is about ‘real life’.
His example of Jeff Walls Mimic 1982 is a great example. If the consumers of the image believe that street photography is real, it should be real. If they think and posed images or directed emotions are acceptable, then Street Photography will become nothing more than ‘fake news.’
Again, his comments are backed up with this comment
“The reason I get up again and again to defend candid Street Photography is because I believe IT REALLY MATTERS HOW PHOTOGRAPHS ARE MADE, it matters because it changes their meaning and historical value.”
If ‘all’ your images are faked or posed, what value to they have? Then you need to think about the integrity of your work, if some of your images are directed, how can viewers NOT question the truth or validity of the remaining images? A reader to his post commented on whether Street Photographers should take an oath like Journalists do and the reader suggests that we shouldn’t need to. I honestly believe that most good Street Photographers have taken an oath to themselves. And, this is why Nick’s statement below is so important and so valid
“it’s why we need the Street Photographers candid approach to be understood and respected.”
If Street Photography turns into nothing more than “Fake Images”, the art of Street Photography will be forever lost.
On this site I post some posed images that are “obviously” posed in that I like to share moments and some of the people I encounter on the streets. But, none of my other images are directed or posed. I do show a few images where I have been caught in the act of taking an image. This is so that I can; further setup the article that I am writing about what Street Photography is and; share with those learning Street Photography that these moments do happen; use then as examples of what maybe or may not be Street Photography (as in the bird down below).
Nick Turpin’s Street Photography Pie is a little over simplistic and doesn’t guide the reader that well. The three questions would fit into a flow chart much better. His explanation however is better
“It’s Photography yes, it’s Documentary Photography yes and it’s Candid Photography…yes.”
It’s Photography? Well we use cameras, so it is obviously photography.
Its Documentary? For this let’s take a closer look at what “documentary” means. Definitions for Documentary mostly go along this line; “Presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter.”
We then need to further break this down and look at “objectively” meaning; “Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices,” and “editorializing” to mean; “to insert one’s personal opinions into an otherwise objective account.”
So, shouting out ‘Hey, look angry’ would lead to a photo that is NOT OBJECTIVE and one that IS EDITORIALIZED.
And lastly, we need to look up “candid”; meaning several things including “Characterized by openness and sincerity of expression” and meaning “Not posed or rehearsed.”
I think this says it all. This is what I believe street photography to be and I have taken that personal oath to making “candid” image. It’s what I aim for every time I am out shooting.
One last comment about what Street Photography is or isn’t based on Nick Turpin’s article. In the comments below his article he responds to someone and leaves good links to photographer’s sites (and a book) that are clearly NOT Street Photography (or at the very least not great Street Photography).
One reader comments on ‘Boogie’s work’ As being “fairly vacuous and fabricated.” It’s clear going to this link http://boogiephoto.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/nyc that he is correct. He is also correct in pointing out that Boogie’s previous work that put him in the Street Photography Spotlight, is rather good. “Belgrade Belongs to Me” is great work. Some images are obviously staged while others are clearly candid. But take a close look, you’ll find some in between images where we do not know?? Are the images all “truthful?” I think not. And, just because a known Street Photographer takes a photo of a dead bird, it doesn’t mean its Street Photography.
What’s your belief? Should Street Photography be Candid? Is it important? Is it important to you? And, more importantly, is it important to the survival of Street Photography? More to follow in my Street Photography Definition article.
See you on the truthful streets!
Class Notes for Part-01 – Required Reading 2
The article brings up a lot of points for discussion. Many of these points are what I would consider the subject of the Philosophy of Street Photography, or even just the Philosophy of Photography. These are my Class Notes on:
• Part-1.2 – Eric Kim: What is Street Photography?
I have been researching this topic and will write a lengthy explanation on not only my thoughts of what “Street Photography” is, but also on why there is confusion and disagreement on the subject. I think that when you look at the reading material given to us by Eric Kim and specifically some of his points in his article “What is Street Photography?” you can see that his statements just don’t add up. For now, I will not get into too many details, but I will point out what I think are errors or misreading on Eric Kim’s part.
I think his comment about what Street Photography isn’t is off the mark:
“I believe that often the best way to define something is by defining what something isn’t.”
And based on his two examples of it’s not Landscape Photography and it’s not Studio Photography?? He concludes with the statement:
“Therefore, I feel that street photography needs an element of spontaneity and uncertainty rather than the predictable/manipulative nature of studio photography.”
I couldn’t agree more with this statement. How he concludes this based on Landscape and Studio not being Street Photography is beyond me. But yes, Street Photography needs to be spontaneous and uncertain.
Then he goes on to say:
“I personally don’t think that street photography has to be candid.”
Candid photography is spontaneous and uncertain. Photography with permission, or directed, or posed is “predictable” and “manipulative.” I have countless examples, and we all know and have our own examples, that once a subject makes eye contact with a camera, that the expression changes. What you capture in front of the camera is almost never the subject’s true self once they have seen the camera or worse, have interacted with the photographer.
In his example of William Klein’s ‘Kid with Gun’ he states correctly that Klein himself stated the image was ‘directed.’ The kid was asked to ‘look tough.’ Klein’s paraphrased response of:
“although it was he who provoked his subjects to play up a certain reaction or expression– it was his subjects who ultimately reacted the way they did.”
That’s the point isn’t it? It was the subjects who ultimately reacted the way they did to his interactions, to his direction, to his involvement. Without his provocation, the kid would NOT have reacted. What if you faked a robbery and ‘captured’ images of scared bank customers? Is that life as it really is? What if you just followed a woman along closely and scared the bejesus out of her? Is that real life on the street?
Another thing we must look at is the context of the image. There are several points to be made here. Klein was a Vogue Fashion Photographer. He had been commissioned to photograph New York, specifically to document New York post war. NOT commissioned to Photograph as a Street Photographer but to capture the essence of New York. His documentation included still life and buildings. His still life images and urban landscapes are not street photography in this case. They are a part of the documentation of the city, two very different things.
He later moved to Paris partly because of his dislike of New York and went on to say that those New York images showed everything he hated about New York. He went in with a specific ‘mindset’ and photographed to make a point. This is also NOT street photography. Street Photography is supposed to be politically neutral in motive. The reason for the image should be the artistic value of the image. If it happens to capture a ‘political statement’ that is an aside. Shooting to capture a ‘political statement’ is by definition, Documentary Photography.
As a Street Photographer you are there to observe and capture what you see. It’s why Paul Martin, who is considered a pioneer of Street Photography, making candid un-posed photographs of people in London and at the seaside in the late 19th and early 20th century to record life AS-IT-WAS. Martin is the first recorded photographer to do so in London with a disguised camera because he saw the need for, and the importance of the images to be candid. He noticed that people changed, their expressions changed, and that they behaved differently when confronted by a camera. To that point Paul Martin was a Street Photographer. William Klein was NOT a Street Photographer. Although he is highly regarded as such because of the abundance of excellent images that do qualify as Street Photography, however, he was not a Street Photographer. Can a Fashion Photographer on the streets capture candid Street Photography images, of course he can? Does that mean ALL his images are Street Photography? No. Should we not consider ALL his images to be “Fashion Photography?” Of course not.
And more importantly, do you trust his images to be real? How many are posed, or guided? Do his images give you a real view of the hardships, the emotions, the faces? Or, are they fake? Where is the integrity? What of the truth in Street Photography?
Eric Kim goes on to say:
“I care less if a photograph is staged or not– but whether it elicits some sort of reaction in my gut and heart. Who cares if a street photograph is posed or candid– if it doesn’t stir something in my soul?”
Wait what, staged images are OK? So, I could hire a couple as models and have them kiss with fake glycerin tears in their eyes and as long as I shoot on the streets, it’s Street Photography?
I think that capturing images that stir emotions is a great goal, and one that we should all aspire to in Street Photography. But, it should not be at the cost of the Truth.
Eric talks about another Klein image and then a Diane Arbus image. When you look at these images and know the stories behind them you clearly see that they are staged or at the very least guided and that the subjects are willing participants. Again, it is not recording life as it is and would quickly fit into the category of Street Portraiture. And again, by definition, they are not even Street Portraiture when you consider what a ‘portrait’ is.
In both Klein’s and Arbus’ images and attached contact sheets you can clearly see they shot multiple images and poses until they had something they wanted. Life doesn’t work that way.
We can save the indoors/outdoors argument for another time but my general comment here is that in Street Photography images, the street should be implied. It does not need to feature in the image, but it needs to be implied. When Eric claims that his
“belief is that street photography can really be shot anywhere as long as it is open to the public to enter and leave as they please.”
I think he is missing the “street” component of Street Photography. There are countless silly examples of what would clearly NOT be street photography that would fit this description. Is a photo of two climbers atop the Half Dome Summit, Street Photography? Or you walk off the street into a NY Islanders hockey game and shoot the hockey players on the ice. Is that Street Photography? Or would it be called Sports Photography? Enough said.
Lastly, Eric uses Eugene Atget’s image of a building with no people in it to suggest that it’s a street photograph because Atget is a Street Photographer. Again, by trade Atget photographed storefronts for the local papers for advertisements, that was his job. Atget was a commercial photographer. Because of his work on the streets over many years he photographed many candid’s, people in posed portraits, some urban photography and even some still life street photography. He shot it all. But, it’s not all Street Photography. He even photographed some street prostitutes he was intimate with. Are those images “Street Photography?”
The lesson to take from this, as with most photography related materials found on the net, is to not just take everything in as gospel. I have the greatest respect for Eric Kim, his work, and what he has done to further Street Photography. But, read it all, take it all in, analyze it as best you can with your current knowledge, scrutinize what you read or ideas that are passed on to you. Do some historical research. And after giving it some thought, what makes sense to you? Does it fit your definitions, your ideas, your purpose?
And, don’t be stubborn, have an open mind. As you do more street photography, as you grow and develop as a photographer, as you learn the language of Street Photography, know that you can change your definition and, at the very least, don’t just take my word for it.
As I mentioned above, I will write more on this very shortly (After I finish Part-1 of the Free On-Line Street Photography Class). After all, what is a Street Photography website/blog, if it doesn’t define what Street Photography is?