What is Street Photography

I belong to several photography forums on social media and recently I have been perplexed by how easily people take a picture and call it "street photography."

There are many genres of photography: wedding photography, sports photography, fine art photography, landscape photography, etc.  While there is no governing body that states, "And yea, ye shall call this wedding photography when ye have the following elements and only said following elements, nay less and nay more . . ," there are characteristics that, if not define, at least identify each genre.  A photographer looking to shoot in a particular genre needs to understand that and needs to also identify, develop, and practice what they need to do the genre justice.  

Someone skilled in shooting landscapes just can't cover an NFL game.

With that in mind, someone asked, "What makes it 'street?'"  I thought about it for a bit and replied:

I think "street" is harder than other genres for this reason: images should be made with a purpose and what I see happen is people all too frequently "just take a picture" of a street scene and call it "street." No offense, but someone randomly crossing a street in Manhattan that could be one of thousands of other people is . . . just a snapshot. 

So street photography for me is to capture that unscripted moment that has a reason to be singled out from the millions of other unscripted moments being played out. Why is it singled out? Ah, well, it could be for a gesture, or something unusual, or something that is not so unusual but epitomizes wonderfully an emotion, a concept, an ideal. And that is why street photography is so hard - it won't come with a warning and the photographer has to have his/her eye at the ready.

With that in mind, I get confused by some of what people post and call "street."  Basically, it seems they point their camera at a person walking along the street, or sitting there, and . . . just snap the shutter.  

Why?  If it were to test the workings of the camera, fine, but even in a more documentary style of photography, such as photojournalism, images are made mindfully.  There is a reason why the picture was taken.  

I won't use anyone else's images, so let me illustrate with my own.  Here is an image I made in New York City.

And . . . it's a guy waiting to cross the street.  He does not have any sort of remarkable look on his face, he is not doing anything unusual, he is just waiting for the light to change or a break in traffic to cross.  The scene around him is nothing extraordinary - it is a busy street in a large urban area.  I don't see any special patterns, or color combinations, to catch my eye.  I suppose I could wonder who he is, where he is going, what he has in the bag but honestly, there is nothing there to inspire me to do so.

In my opinion, the picture is not street photography.  It is just a snapshot of a man waiting to cross the street.  Something you would glance at if you were there and simply keep walking or looking about.

Now, what about this image?

Ah, now I think I have something more.  The image was shot low to the ground and the perspective and background gives you the impression of a small child in a big field.  The low-to-high angle helps to emphasize his "tough guy" look, as if he is trying to live up to the t-shirt that reads, "Daddy's #1 Draft Pick."  A bit of clouds in the sky and the black and white treatment help to make him appear informidable . . . but he's just a little boy, so there is some contrast and tension.

With both pictures, there is the possibility that in the next second the moment is gone.  Maybe the gentleman in New York suddenly pounds on the hood of a taxi, maybe the little boy runs to his mother and buries his face in her side.  Maybe.  But that is the magic of street photography - it is an extraordinary moment caught in ordinary life.  And the photographer happens to be there.

I am curating street photography I have done for a photo book at the urging of my husband.  I needed to write this blog post to help me to choose images, to stay true to what is street photography.

"Street."  It is happening all around you.