What Makes A Street Photograph Timeless?

What is timeless street photography?  How do you create dynamic images that stand out to viewers from all generations, for all generations?  I’d argue that it’s not enough to create engaging photographs, at least not ones that are only engaging today.  Street photography, like any of the other genres, has trends that come and go over time.


Not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion.

Timeless street photography is just that, timeless.  The images remain popular and engaging as the years go on.  Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, Robert Frank, and more recently discovered Vivian Maier created images that withstood the test of time…  That’s why we know who they are and their images remain a relevant part of street photography conversations today.

Below I’m going to take a look at some of the characteristics that make an image timeless.  It would be impossible for someone to profess that this will or will not make your images timeless with any sort of certainty but the characteristics below are consistent among the timeless images of the Cartier-Bresson’s, Klein’s, and Frank’s of this world.

Subject Matter

I don’t know how to tell you this so I’ll just come right out with it…  Your pretty cat images probably won’t stand the test of time.  Sure, they will still be here in 50 or so years when your great-grandchildren are sifting through your dusty Flickr account on the antique internet but they will be about as interesting as your “When I was your age” stories (your future great-grandchildren hate those stories by the way…  They told me).

0615_untitled_005-2The subject matter in your images make all the difference when aspiring to create timeless images.  Some of the most recognizable street photography from the past, images that are still as interesting today as they were 50 years ago, were taken by photographers who were also photojournalists or adopted a documentary style.*

Timeless photographs are those that document what life was/is like, images where people can draw correlation to their own life or experiences.  It’s important for a timeless image to be able to tell a story, there needs to be context.  A close up of someones hands clutching their purse, though interesting, falls short of being timeless.

* There’s an exception to every rule, isn’t there?  There are plenty of photographers who have created timeless images (millions in fact) even though they aren’t photojournalists.  However, their timeless images retain similar characteristics to the documentary style of photography.

Develop Your Own Unique Style

Sometimes the images that are the most popular today end up being the least popular 20 years down the road, lost in a sea of familiarity.  There is nothing wrong with letting others art influence your own creative process but try to avoid replicating something for the sole purpose of garnering more likes on Flickr.

0615_untitled_012-2Developing your style isn’t confined to how you edit your images, it’s just as important to develop your style in regards to composition and content.  If you looked through my Flickr Photostream you’d notice a style develop over the years (images similar to the ones in this article).  I’ve found that, in street photography, I often gravitate to this style of black and white as well as this type of content.

I’ll put it to you this way, lighting a Brillo pad on fire and taking a long exposure shot of someone swirling it around themselves is lots of fun but not a recipe for timeless images…  It’s certainly popular today though and if you replicate it you’ll likely get lots of likes on Flickr or whatever social photo network you enjoy (because hey, it’s still freaking cool).  Instead of jumping on the already full bandwagon, take the road less traveled and develop your own personal style.

Document The Life And Times

No matter what camp you belong to in regards to the definition of Street Photography we can all agree that street photography ultimately documents the life and times of the subjects we choose.  Remind yourself that you are documenting the times that you live in for future generations to see, you’ll likely capture timeless images with more context rather than bland images that look as if you’ve cast a net and pulled back random subjects doing random things in your frame.


B+W Versus Color?

I compare this argument to the classical versus rock and roll music (in regards to timelessness)…  It depends on who you ask.  I think both mediums have the potential to be timeless but I do believe that it’s more difficult with color images.  Often, you can approximate the date of a color image as soon as you look at it…  Even ones with filters.  Black and white images like the ones above would be almost impossible to date (though you could safely assume it was taken after the camera was invented).

JMB_9020Color images, when done well, can be just as timeless as black and white images.  In fact, if you look at popular photo filter programs you’ll notice that vintage color filters outnumber the black and white filters 5 to 1…  Scientific?  Hardly.  But now it’s on the internet so it’s true.

Tell A Story

I saved the best for last!  Everyone likes a great story, right?  I’m right.  Photographs that tell a story, ones with depth and context will stand the test of time far better than a solitary snap shot.  The photograph at the top of this page, the one with the two girls and the umbrella, tells many different stories.  We each have our own personal world views, our own histories, and we use these to write the stories to the images we see.  Your job as a photographer is to set the stage for such a story, capture the characters and place the props.

JMB_0525Are you creating timeless street photography?  If you aren’t sure you can submit a photograph to the free Photo Feedback for an honest critique.  Otherwise, check out the street photography workshops that are available and sign up to take your photography to the next level.  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.