Street Photography Theory and Practice

Street photography is inherently valuable although it is also difficult to do well, and even harder to find a market for it. When you take a camera out to any busy street in any bustling city, you can get good photos easily. The world is endlessly interesting, and it is ever-changing. Therefore, whatever you capture is likely to have some appeal and may become more fascinating over time as things change. This is mainly due to the photojournalist or documentarian value of street photography.

While this aspect of street photography is compelling to look at, you must put the image in a proper context for it to make sense to other people. If it is just randomly received as something that is merely a street in time, it likely will seem somewhat meaningless. It only becomes meaningful when you provide the relevant context, such as this is the building where MLK was raised. The photojournalist version of street photography is meant to tell us something about the time and place it pictures. It refers in a meaningful way to our shared history.

That is not true with all street photography. Some photographs are so interesting or compelling that they rise to the level of visual poetry and people find meaning in them without knowing anything about when or where the photo was made. As with all photography, there are levels to street photography. When you make an image that rises to the level of the beautiful or sublime, it becomes a kind of fine art photography.

The main difference between these two aspects of street photography—even so far as to say the different forms–is found in the image’s intention and effect upon the viewer. A documentary photograph has some relation to history, while a fine art photograph made on the street aims at something else, usually the beautiful. And the effect is either to engage the intellect in making observations about the image or to engage the imagination in appreciation of its aesthetics. In some cases, an image does both.

Understanding this distinction will help both the photographer and the viewer of street photography to get more out of it. If you are trying to tell a story about a place, and that place has some important but visually uninteresting aspects, then you cannot be merely concerned with aesthetics. If you are trying to make something visually pleasing, certain aspects may be distracting and will detract from the effect of the image. This is the first question to answer: is this photography telling me a story about a place or is it presenting me an image with an aesthetic to be appreciated? Is it geared towards thought or feeling? Does it depict a specific time and place or evoke a sense of timelessness?

These two poles of visuality—document or aesthetic object—are almost never absolute but rather are combined in some proportion. Images exist within a sliding scale these poles represent. Just as most images are never purely aesthetic, they are also almost never purely documentarian. Most images have some distinct visual feel and tell a story as well. We should discern the degree to which the focus is on history or aesthetics to better make sense of the photograph. Thinking about the photographs this way will enrich our experience of them.

Let’s take a moment to think about a couple of examples of photography done in public on the street, of street photography, to consider these ideas further. Photographs of a public event have some distinct documentarian impulses. Of course, the images will also have an aesthetic quality, but one of the main purposes of the photography is to show something that happened. Those images that tell the story with the most compelling and artistic imagery will most likely have the greatest impact.

This is even true with figurative painting. Painters during the Renaissance often depicted the same scenes taken from the bible and those who made the most forceful impact often would be commissioned and collected by patrons. This introduces another element in street photography: fiction. When Raphael depicted the great philosophers of the ancient past, he obviously did not have access to them but instead used models to stand in for them. He painted fictions using models to realistically depict historical figures. The scene he creates never really happened, but he makes it seem as though it did. Jeff Wall is famous for photographing scenes that look like spontaneous moments captured on the street that are in fact elaborately orchestrated.

The fictional element of photography is more important than ever to consider as AI begins to proliferate fictional and misleading imagery, although it has always been important. Long before photoshop, photographers were using fictional techniques to change the stories depicted in their images. During Stalinist Russia, photographers had to erase figures from important historical images as they were purged by Stalin. The public record was altered to fit the political narrative. This also reveals the ideological aspect of documentary storytelling.

Another powerful example of this is found in Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, an image commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to portray the plight of the refugees from the Dust Bowl who had formed camps in California looking for work. The image of the impoverished mother attempting to care for her two children epitomized the struggle of people during that time. It was a true story, but one made more compelling by Lange’s virtuosic artistry.

Abstract or minimalist photography made on the street is typically more concerned with aesthetics than history. The image is designed to eliminate most if not all references to the time and place and instead focus on formal elements such as color, light, form, etc. The purpose of these images has more to do with the pleasure or intrigue of looking than it does with telling a story. Because of this, it doesn’t need to rely upon fictional elements to achieve its goal. It merely needs to compose an image that has some sort of compelling form and aesthetic.

Architectural photography is an interesting example that is both documentary and aesthetic. The concerns are almost equally balanced. In trying to get a beautiful image of a building in the public, you are telling a story about the history of the city and making an image that is beautiful to view. Yesterday, I spent some time on Walnut Street in Santa Cruz making images of the beautiful historic homes. I also inserted myself into some of the photographs telling a story using fictional elements. It was a true story made with fictional techniques. This is because I was photographing myself, so I was both posing to tell a story and the photographer who composed the scene. Poser and composer, lol.

This exercise helped to clarify some of these ideas. There are some images where I was simply trying to make a beautiful image of a house. Other images, I attempted to tell a story about a photographer making an image of a house. This photography about photography is called meta photography, but that might be where I lose you if you have traveled this far. Don’t worry about the word, you get the idea. One image invites you simply to look and dream, the other engages with your mind’s tendency to figure out the story being portrayed.

The day was a beautiful temperature. With hardly a breeze, the sun shone brightly on leaves barely a week old. The first rush of spring growth was in full force, and people were out enjoying the new seasonal warmth. There are a few things about photographing on the street that can seem weird at first. For one thing, it can feel invasive. I decided that I wanted to photograph some of the beautiful homes, and so I knocked on the door and rang the old timey doorbell to ask for permission. The woman who answered my first attempt was gracious and generous telling me, “Most people never ask.”

This brings up one of the most important questions in street photography: do you ask for permission? There are two things that you might want to ask permission to photograph: property and people. When you get their permission, it becomes much easier to take your time and make photographs without being sneaky. There may be good reasons to photograph without asking, too. Sometimes you don’t want to disrupt a scene. Once you ask for permission, the possibility of candid portraiture goes out the window. Still, you will avoid a lot of other problems if you ask for permission.

Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t believe in asking. He viewed photography as a mission to capture life as it really is and approached it as a hunter stalks his prey. This may work for some photographers. The element of danger is higher as you never know how people may respond to being photographed. Personally, I prefer to ask permission in most cases, although I do find ways to get shots that are candid if it seems like it’s not going to cause a fight. This is a judgment call you must make as an artist. What is it worth to you?

Asking for permission to photograph someone’s home also gives you the possibility that your common decency could lead to an invitation to photograph other parts of the home not visible from the street. It’s a judgment call you must make in the moment in many cases. I like to err on the side of respecting people over art.

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