What is Street Photography?
"Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." Walker Evans
Street photography is a tradition nearly as old as photography itself. As soon as cameras and processing techniques became portable and practical enough to leave the confines of the studio (around the 1870's) photographers began documenting the world around them. In particular they photographed urban areas where life moved quickly and the urge to record and document change and progress was instinctive.
The style has been made famous by some of the best known photographers of our time including Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Martin Parr although it has not always achieved the recognition it deserves.
Early photographers made street photographs for their personal interest, but it was with studio portraits or artistic landscapes that they paid the bills or acheived artistic recognition. Fifty years ago a street photographer was a street-vendor who took your picture at a tourist attraction then charged you for a print or Polaroid copy. Today, a common misconception is that street photography is somehow related to street art (graffiti etc.) or street style images.
"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 - just a split second - and then there's a crazy cockeyed picture!" Joel Meyerowitz
So what is Street Photography?
Street photography captures people and places within the public domain. More specifically street photography is defined by LFPH as “un-posed, un-staged photography which captures, explores or questions contemporary society and the relationships between individuals and their surroundings.”
Street photography does not need to include people although it usually does. Situated in public environments – which are often but not exclusively, urban – street photography is perhaps more easily defined as a method than a genre. Subjects and settings can vary greatly but the key elements of spontaneity, careful observation and an open mind ready to capture whatever appears in the viewfinder are essential.
Another key aspect of street photography is the sense that the captured scene is unplanned, with an absence of prior arrangement. Thus, generic scenes from pre-planned public events do not have the same feeling of chance encounter and spontaneity. That is not to say, however, that if a photographer knowingly attends an organised event he or she might not still be able to capture a spontaneous and unrelated street scene.
In reality there is flexibility, and when it comes to the festival we plan to encourage dialogue and experimentation within the genre.
See Wikipedia's definition of street photography.
What constitutes "the public domain"?
The public domain is any public space including streets, beaches, parks, museums and galleries, country lanes, countryside, roofs of buildings… the list goes on.
When is a photograph not a street photograph?
This is a hard question to answer and the source of intense debate among photographers. Street photography can often cross over into other genres such as urban landscape, portraiture and photojournalism. In fact, as previously mentioned, it is perhaps better categorized as a way of working than simply a genre in itself. The general consensus, however, is that images should be spontaneous with minimal interaction between subject and photographer.
What about a portrait taken on the street?
Purists believe that if you alter the subject or the environment in some way then it is no longer street photography. We take a slightly broader view in that so long as the image upholds our core definition of street photography it can still be seen as fitting the tradition. Generally speaking, if you ask someone to pose for a photo it would consequently be considered a portrait rather than a street photograph; but the two genres need not be mutually exclusive, and the issue is really open to interpretation and dependent on the individual situation. The following photo we could categorise as street photography because while it might be argued that the subject has interacted with the photographer, it is candid, unposed and captures a moment as it happens.
What about events?
Events can be complicated. If you go to a protest march and photograph demonstrators, that would generally be considered photojournalism - you are there specifically to document a particular happening. However, if you capture a unique moment that is more about society or a particular individual than the protest itself, then it could fall within street photography. But this is again open to interpretation and experts may not reach agreement.
Do I need a specific camera to take street photographs?
No. Many street photographers like to use rangefinder cameras but street photographs can be made on SLRs, four thirds systems, compact cameras and even Lomos or mobile phones! The ultimate street photography camera used by the masters is a Leica rangefinder M7 (analogue) and M9 (digital). We're big fans of the Olympus PEN too! Choose a camera that you feel comfortable using and that allows you to react quickly when a picture appears in front of you. You should also consider its weight and portability (you may be carrying it around all day) and how easily it allows you to blend into your surroundings. Many photographers find this 'invisible' approach works for them, although others such as Melanie Einzig like to get close to their subject which is also effective for the more confident photographer.
For those entering the Street Photography Awards we have developed fairly strict guidelines in order to facilitate the competition. These cover the use of black and white, Photoshop effects and suitable subject matter - please see the competition rules for more info.
These are our thoughts, if you have any on the matter that you feel we should add to this page, please contact us.
Images by Eugène Atget (copyright V&A images), Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Russell, Nils Jorgensen, Toby Smith, Brett Jefferson Stott, Alexandre Buisse, Melanie Einzig