What is street photography?

Street Photography?

Over the last few decades the phrase ‘street photography’ has come to mean a great deal more than simply making exposures in a public place. Photographers like Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Joel Meyerowitz have forced a redefinition of the phrase that has many new implications.

Primarily street photography is not reportage, it is not a series of images displaying, together, the different facets of a subject or issue. For the street photographer there is no specific subject matter and only the issue of ‘life’ in general, they don’t leave the house in the morning with an agenda and they don’t visualise their photographs in advance of taking them. street photography is about seeing and reacting, almost by-passing thought altogether.

For many street photographers the process does not need ‘unpacking’, It is, for them, a simple ‘Zen’ like experience, they know what it feels like to take a great shot in the same way that the archer knows they have hit the bullseye before the arrow has fully left the bow. As an archer and street photographer myself, I can testify that, in either discipline, if I think about the shot too hard, it is gone.

If I were pushed to analyse further the characteristics of contemporary Street Photography it would have to include the following: Firstly, a massive emphasis on the careful selection of those elements to include and exclude from the composition and an overwhelming obsession with the moment selected to make the exposure. These two decisions may at first seem obvious and universal to all kinds of photography, but it is with these two tools alone that the street photographer finds or creates the meaning in their images. They have no props or lighting, no time for selecting and changing lenses or filters, they have a split second to recognise and react to a happening.

Secondly, a high degree of empathy with the subject matter, street photographers often report a loss of ‘self’ when carefully watching the behavior of others, such is their emotional involvement.

Thirdly, many street photographers seem to be preoccupied with scenes that trigger an immediate emotional response, especially humour or a fascination with ambiguous or surreal happenings. A series of street photographs may show a ‘crazy’ world, perhaps ‘dreamlike’. This is, for me, the most fascinating aspect of street photography, the fact that these ‘crazy’, ‘unreal’ images were all made in the most ‘everyday’ and ‘real’ location, the street. It was this paradox that fascinated me and kept me shooting in the ‘everyday’ streets of London when many of my colleagues were traveling to the worlds famines and war zones in search of exciting subject matter. Friends that I met for lunch would, just be back from the ‘war in Bosnia’ and I would declare proudly that I was just back from the ‘sales on Oxford Street’.

Nick Turpin 2000