What is Street Photography?
In September 2014, I joined one of the rare Street Photography Workshops of Thomas Leuthard in Cologne. In preparation for this, Thomas asked each of us to send in an own street photograph for the personal introduction.
One participant of the workshop submitted a colour photograph of an empty and traffic-calmed residential street. There was absolutely nothing interesting shown, not even the perspective or the composition was especial. It was only a boring picture of a boring small town street. But it was in accordance with the photographer’s mind, who never before had heard of Street Photography.
Fortunately, his idea of Street Photography doesn’t correspond with the usual definition. If I am asked to define ‘Street’, I would explain it like this:
Street Photography is the candid documentation of the life and daily routine of not known people on the streets or rather the public space. Intention is catching a best special moment. Different to the documentary photography, the pictorial design and the capture of the atmosphere have priority.
Another description that I find very well was given from Rolf Nobel, professor of photojournalism and documentary photography:
“It is a very unvarnished, authentic photography. You have to react on moments that fly by. It is impossible to stop the time elapsed as in many other fields of photography, where things repeat. But constellations exist at the street photography only once. You have to act very fast and spontaneously. There’s also the fact, that it isn’t sufficient to recognize this one magical moment only. The photographer has to arrange all the elements that move within the viewfinder frame in a split second, with the result that a well arranged picture is created. It is an incredible demanding photography.”
Because of the absence of an exact and common definition there often are debates, what Street Photography is and what not. But I would think that the following points are commonly accepted:
Street Photography is candid and authentic
Street Photography is authentic and not posed. The photographer reacts on a situation that appears before his eyes and presses the release button at the right moment. This doesn’t mean, that the photographer captures these fleeting moments only by chance. With attention and practice, it’s very often possible to predict these situations and with some (and sometimes a little more) patience it’s also possible to catch them.
Street Photography is proximity
Street Photography is proximity. You can’t shoot a touching photograph, if you don’t went close enough. These quotations put it in a nutshell: „If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.“ (Robert Capa) and „Goodstreet photograph is 80% balls and 20% skills.“ (Eric Kim). Thus one normally uses lenses with a short focal distance on street, even if it costs quite some effort to leave the comfort zone.
Street Photography is composition
As with almost all other photographic genres, the pictorial design plays a key role. This point, many Street Photographers forget. The challenge is to find the best possible frame and to arrange all the objects that determine the effect of the scene in very short time. Street Photography is not snapshot photography, even if it sometimes looks like this for outsiders or beginners because of the speediness.
Street Photography is black & white
Not always, but quite often Street Photography is made in black and white and with strong contrasts. On the one hand, this depends on the fact that all of the early masters of Street Photography (e.g. Henri Cartier-Bresson or Vivian Meyer) only shot in monochrome. On the other hand, forms, structures and sometimes also the story of a scene have a better effect if there is no colour that distracts the observer. But in the end, it’s a question of the individual taste.
Street Photography has respect for the person
Usually, Street Photography is made without knowing and consent of the photographed person. The reason for this? “If you ask before, they look different into your camera. If you ask afterwards, you have to delete a good photo” (Thomas Leuthard). Therefore it should be a matter of course not to take photographs of people in degrading or embarrassing situations.
Street Photography is fun
Street Photography is fun. It starts with looking for the decisive moment at the street and the pleasure of catching it with the camera. Often street photographs also includes amusing elements, caused by the human and interpersonal characteristics and make the observer smile.