What is Street Photography? (A totally biased answer.)

One of the interesting things about Street Photography is that everyone has his own definition — and none of them are alike.  You’re about to get mine — but then you knew that was coming.  I’ve been stewing about this subject for years and I know I’ll be accused of ranting and raving but…well…here goes.

So, what is street photography — and what isn’t.


For starters, Street Photography has to SAY SOMETHING or, at least, suggest something!  The message isn’t always clear.  It could range from a social comment to a subtle joke.  And (assuming you accept that argument) it invokes something in the viewer — amusement, maybe, or, perhaps, just curiosity. 

Look at the example above — made in a park in Budapest:

Is the guy a loner?  Do the others not like him?  Or, is it his turn to keep an eye on the grandkid?  Maybe he’s just not interested in the subject of the conversation. Who knows?  And the truth is the reaction may be different for different people — in fact may be different for the same person at different times.  At the very least, real street photography makes the viewer think.

You have to be a photographer to get the joke.

You have to be a photographer to get the joke.

It is usually a candid capture of everyday life that exposes or comments on the human condition.  And, it is often amusing. 

This from the book, Bystander, A History of Street Photography by Westerbeck and Meyerowitz:  “Because of its surprising immediacy, its penetrating, offbeat description of a moment in time, this type of photography distinguishes itself from all other art forms.”

Here’s what street is NOT (Yes, I’m pontificating.): 

It is NOT staged.  Street photography is journalism at its most basic.  And everyone knows (or should) that to stage or modify the content is to break the cardinal rule of journalism.  Actually, a lot of the charm of good street photography is that it is real.

It is NOT just a scene made on a street.  Maybe it is the term “street photography” but something has convinced a lot of people that, if they take their camera out on the street and shoot traffic, crowds of people, or strange people, they are making street photography.

It is NOT a picture of a vagrant  or homeless person.  But, you say, “…it exposes the human condition”.  True, but (and this is just my opinion) it is intrusive and, to me, is exploitive of the other’s misfortune.  Someone else’s misery may be interesting but it is NOT something to be enjoyed.

Google+ is a marvelous site for people interested in almost every aspect of photography.  But check out the Street Photography Community on Google+.  There are over 106 thousand members of that community and they made 142 postings so far today (It’s now around noon).  Of those, only seven (7) qualified as true Street Photography — according to humble me.

So…why is there so little true street photography made?  Answer:  Because it takes practice, a keen eye, patience, some luck, and it is difficult to do!  I’ll be spending eight days in London this spring.  A major city is fertile ground for street photography but, in my experience, I’ll be lucky — and grateful — to get a handful of street images.

One more thing:  This may sound like heresy but a street photography image does not, necessarily, have to contain people.  Stay tuned.  That will be the subject of a future blog post.

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Bob Lamoon - You talk a lot of sense but seem a bit rigid on all of these nots. Being intrusive is important. I am not always interested in enjoying a photograph. Yes it must tell a story but not all stories are enjoyable.

skeeter - The rational me agrees with your feelings that photography doesn’t have to be enjoyable or tell a good/enjoyable story. The personal side, however, balks a little bit when it comes to publishing (or even making) an image of someone’s grief or misery. I realize that you are probably more correct than I but, well…, I’m saddled with that personal feeling. Thanks for your comment, Bob.

Street without people… » My Website - […] You might find interesting a blog posting I made back in January of this year entitled What is Street Photography? (A totally biased answer.). […]

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