This article is for your spouse, friend, coworker, mother, father, or stranger you sit next to on the bus during your morning commute. This is for anyone you’ve shown your best street photograph to (or a Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson, etc. image) and they reply with “I just don’t get it”. If you have someone like this in your life, someone who hasn’t acquired a taste for street photography, you can forward this article to them and help them appreciate your passion a bit more. Or they’ll tell you they read it but really won’t and will secretly hate you for trying to change them…
I’ve often said that appreciating street photography is a lot like acquiring a taste for wine. Most people are not born with an affinity for wine but learn to like it from repeated exposure over time. The same could be said for street photography. Many people who view street photography for the first time are left wondering why in the world someone would choose to take a photograph of a stranger doing seemingly mundane things. To be honest, that was my first impression of street photography. Only after actually practicing street photography did I begin to really appreciate it or acquire a taste for it. It has been a love affair ever since.
The Good And The Bad
First, just like any photography, there is good street photography and lots of bad street photography. Unfortunately, street photography is the hardest genre of photography to master and too many photographers never move beyond the snap shot. Discerning good street photography from the bad is the first step to really enjoying this style of photography.
Good street photography generally incorporates strong compositional elements like reflections, juxtaposition, leading lines, the rule of thirds, etc.. Great street photographers will include multiple layers in their photographs… This can either mean layers of subjects (something in the fore, mid, and background) or it can mean they’ve included multiple compositional rules within their image. Bad street photography looks like someone stood back and took a snap shot of a bunch of people walking this way and that with no real emphasis on one particular subject or theme. Sadly, you’ll have to sift through a ton of this to find the good stuff.
The most important ingredient though is emotion. If the photograph doesn’t elicit some sort of emotion then it fails on an elemental level. The best street photography transcends the need to understand the genre and elicits an emotion in the viewer that is both poignant and memorable.
What’s So Great About Street Photography
Photographing a culture in the here and now often means photographing the intersection of the present with the past.
– David DuChemin
Do you like photographs in the newspaper? That’s generally street photography. The recording of the life and times is a type of street photography called photojournalism. The so-called “father of photojournalism” Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the best street photographers of all time.
Without street photography we would not know what the world looked like before we were able to form memories of it. Iconic images like the sailor kissing the woman in Times Square after (or really shortly before) the end of WWII would have never happened. Without street photographers braving the elements and risking life and limb to photograph strangers we would have very little visual documentation of the past.
Documentation aside, the raw art of street photography is really quite beautiful if you give it a chance. Often times I’ll see or take a photograph that speaks to me on a more personal level. It’s easy to relate with the human subjects within street photography, more so than landscape photography because, well, they’re human.
Street photography is art. There are entire documentaries and books devoted to the relationship, the correlation, between painters, sketchers, and street photographers. For instance, if you’re a fan of Claude Monet then you are subjecting yourself to early street photography and you didn’t even know it (image above).
No venture in life has challenged me quite like street photography has. The timing, the mood, the sheer luck of it all have to coincide with one another to create something worth keeping. I often consider myself lucky if I get one or two good shots a month or a handful of great shots in an a year.
A lot of good street photography has relationships so subtle that an untrained eye will pass right over it, never knowing its beauty. When you first start looking at street photography, I mean really looking at it, you’ll see a lot of images from famous street photographers and wonder what all the fuss is about. After spending some time reviewing them you may begin to see the small relationships, a glance in a certain direction or the way the subjects surroundings create a frame, and start to appreciate the art for what it is.
There is no rule that says street photography has to include people. Street photography records the life and times of people, similar to how the shot above speaks volumes to the life and times of the people who live in this inner city home. Is their washing machine on the fritz or have they fashioned their underwear into a makeshift flag of sorts? When looking at street photography it’s important to evaluate the historical value of the images. Does the image document a way of life for future generations to appreciate?
At the end of the day, take a moment when looking at street photography and really look for the meaning behind it. Is there a subtle relationship between the subject and it’s surroundings? What mood is captured? Was it difficult to capture the image? These are all things that, when answered, can help you appreciate the next street photograph you see.
Want more examples of street photography? You can see some great street photography in the DecisiveShot Flickr group. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.