The Tenants of Street Photography

FRANCE. Paris. Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.

Henri Cartier Breeson – FRANCE. Paris. Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.

I’m going to say what I’ve always thought.  Why does everyone rave over street photography?  Some of it is plain aweful.  Not all of it, but a lot of it.  If you compare it to say an intelligent and stylish fashion portrait it looks naive and childish.  It doesn’t pay attention to any of the conventions and breaks all of the rules.  People are walking out of frame, they are blurred, the backgrounds are cluttered, sometimes a pole will be coming out of a subjects head, they are frowning, often unflattering pictures, certainly taken without permission.  It feels like we are praising graffiti and denigrating art.  It really does feel like the graffiti of the photography world.

Perhaps I am overstating the case.  I quite like some street photography and some of it is very clever.  You have to acknowledge that it has been influential.  Street photography has injected various elements into the photographic cannon and changed what we regard as an image.  I feel I need to understand it better to understand the form of it.  So here is the question.  What are the tenants of street photography?  What are these guys trying to do?

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Thomas Leuthard – Switzerland

It’s crazy, but the more I look into it I discover it’s extremely codified.  This stuff has rules.  It has rules because people point the finger and disallow or disqualify stuff they disapprove of.  I’ll give an example,

“World Press Photo has disqualified one of the winners of this year’s contest after concluding that the photographer digitally manipulated his work. The disqualified entry “Street fighting, Kiev, Ukraine”, shot by Stepan Rudik for the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, had won 3rd prize in Sports Features.”

Street fighting, Kiev, Ukraine” by Stepan Rudik

“This year, for the first time, photographers were required to submit RAW image files if the judges suspected that photographs were manipulated beyond what the rules allowed. The rule states:”

“The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to the currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed.”

So what are the rules?  I guess in essence these images are unstaged, unposed and unaltered.  These pictures are usually of people going about their day to day tasks and are mostly candid.  One could also add unashamed.  They show it as it is without any sanitisation of “the truth”.  These are the features you can insist upon.

The rules about post processing are identical to those for wildlife photography and photojournalism.  Cropping, contrast enhancement and sharpening are permitted.  Cloning and cut and paste are not.  Essentially you must not alter “the truth” of the image.

Linda_Wisdom_3

Linda Wisdom – London

The rule about being unposed is difficult to say the least.  Taking photographs of strangers without their permission creates fear in photographers and occasionally in subjects who may object to their photograph being taken.  How is this handled? In Australia it is legal to photograph people in public places, but not if they are compromised by the photograph.  Do you aim to be overt, “I’m a photographer, do you mind if I take your photo?”, or covert, sitting back in the shadows with a long lens.  The police have been called at times and photographers asked to move on.  It is wise not to cause public outrage.  It is wise to photograph in an unobtrusive and considerate manner.  If people object, you can show them the image and delete it if requested.

A very contemporary variation is the stranger portrait, where you walk up to a complete stranger and ask if you can take their portrait.

Vineet-Vohra-5

Vineet Vohra

Street photography is really a form of photojournalism.  There are a few notable historical street photographers like Henri Cartier Breeson and Gary Winogrand.  They tell the social story of life in our cities.   Their portfolios change the way we see ourselves. Here are some other notable street photographers that may be worth exploring;

  1. Martha Cooper
  2. William Klein
  3. Janette Beckman
  4. Daido Moriyama
  5. Eugene Atjet
  6. Henri Cartier-Bresson
  7. Garry Winogrand
  8. Helen Levitt
  9. Anna Delany
  10. iO Tillett Wright
  11. Richard Sandler
  12. Estevan Oriol
  13. Lee Jeffries
  14. Steve McCurry
  15. Eric Kim
  16. Will Steacy
  17. Brian Sparks
  18. Cheryl Dunn
  19. Matt Stuart
  20. Martin Roemers
  21. Jaime Martinez
  22. Joel Meyerowitz

There are also conventions in street photography, not necessarily rules.  For instance many of the images are monochrome, taken on film cameras like the famous Leica camera of Henri Cartier-Bresson, often with a prime lens in the mid range, and taken on an urban street.

Some people confuse rules and advice.  For instance One distillation of the rules was as follows:

  1. When in doubt, ditch.
  2. Never ever crop. Never!
  3. Post-process a photo until it looks about 80% good then stop.
  4. Photographs shot on film are more respected.
  5. Never shoot on programme or auto mode.
  6. Shooting film helps the editing process.
  7. Street photography is all about getting up close, really close.
  8. Avoid confrontation when shooting street.

Some of these are just plain dumb –  a bit like insisting on “the rule of thirds”.  These are merely conventions and not rules.  Useful tips and techniques, but not rules.

Linda_Wisdom_2

Londa Wisdom

Perhaps it is useful to ask what makes a good street photograph?  I guess it’s the same as what makes any picture good.  It finds an audience and carries a message.  People need to look at street photography  and appreciate the message of the image.   There are several aspects of street photography that make it more poignant than standard photography.  The candid nature of the image gives an element of authenticity.  Unlike many purely aesthetic images, there is a clear story in many street photographs.  A good street photographer is observant and inquisitive about his/her surroundings and their subject.  The conventions and rules create a new and different frame through which to see the world.

This is how one author summarized the 10 Principles of Good Street Photography:  Good street photography is

  1. innovative
  2. useful to society
  3. aesthetic
  4. helps us understand the world
  5. simple
  6. honest
  7. will last a long time
  8. focused on the details
  9. personal
  10. from the heart

Or another author on what makes a bad street photograph.  Here are 7 of the Most Common Habits of Boring Street Photography:

  1. Nothing of interest in the photo
  2. Too Far Away
  3. Street Performers and Homeless (easy targets)
  4. Too Much Bokeh
  5. People Doing Nothing Special
  6. No Composition
  7. Over Edited
Akash-4

GMB Akash – Bangladesh

Another way to look at this question is to ask, what are the techniques of street photographers?

The advice pages are full of tips like shoot from the hip (without putting your eye to the viewfinder) or pretend that you are taking the scene behind the person, Or shoot people unaware on the other side of a window, or just plain be bold.  Everything is possible if you are self confident and don’t doubt your legitimacy as a street photographer.  Another technique, set up a scene and wait for the subject to walk into the frame.   One classic technique is the juxtaposition.  For instance a sign and a bystander at odds with each other.  For instance someone walking the wrong way down a one way street.  Henri Cartier Breeson is known for covering his camera in black electrical tape to make it less obvious.   I guess a lot of street photography is like wildlife photography.  It’s about getting within the personal space of the subject in an intrusiveness manner.

Here is one authors list of tips on technique

  1. Wait for the moment
  2. Choose the right lens (before shooting)
  3. Shoot from the hip
  4. Ask for a portrait
  5. Keep your camera handy
  6. Explore side streets
  7. Look for the quirky and unexpected
  8. Photograph animals
  9. Befriend children
  10. Shoot through windows
  11. Experiment with shutter speeds
  12. Keep calm and know your rights

Well there you have it.  I have explored some of the nature of Street Photography.  It’s an interesting discipline and I suspect it is difficult to master.  For me this has been an interesting journey, I hope that it has been useful for you as well.

I acknowledge than many of the images I have used are from an article “10 Of The Best Street Photographers You Should Be Following In 2017”

References:

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