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Thoughts on Street Photography

With today’s technological revolution and  an ever-increasing amount of people having a smartphone or any other camera-enabled device, it is no wonder that society has grown wary of photography in public. In most major cities across the developed world (some Central European and Asian cities being the exception), what used to be a form of […]

People walking in Brussels, Belgium
People walking in Brussels, Belgium

With today’s technological revolution and  an ever-increasing amount of people having a smartphone or any other camera-enabled device, it is no wonder that society has grown wary of photography in public.

In most major cities across the developed world (some Central European and Asian cities being the exception), what used to be a form of art in the times of Henri-Cartier Bresson is now being frowned upon the few photographers still willing to document life in the streets. But even if people are less tolerant of being photographed, is street photography even about the people in the frame? What makes street photography street photography?

One good (but not universal) distinction between street and other types of photography is in its candid, unplanned, nature. That is what separates street photography from portraits, for instance.  Although distinguishing deliberate portraits from people present in a street photograph might be quite evident, there are some situations where there is a very thin line between street photography and other forms of photography.

Let’s assume that someone travels to Paris and takes many pictures there. If street photography is judged on the basis of candidness, than would it mean that a picture of the Eiffel tower with random people in the frame be considered “street” photography, although a picture taken seconds later aimed at the Eiffel tower only, with people cropped out, not be considered as such? Ambiguous cases like this one clearly show that although candidness is a recurring element in many street photographs, we cannot separate street shots from non-street shots by this factor alone. And what about the human element?

 

Montreal Metro Street Photography II
The walk down the stairs

Street photography usually involves people, but sometimes may not. A quick search on the Internet will show that approximately 90%, give or take, of all street photographs involve people, but there is still a 10% remaining that does not. And if there are people in the frame, there is obviously a candid dimension when it comes to humans. People in public will surely not expect to be photographed by some random passing stranger. But since street photography does not always involve people, then what happens to the few shots that does not involve people?

Montreal Metro Street Photography
The newspaper is interesting …

There is little to none distinction between travel documentary, architecture, and street photography. When the photograph does not involve humans getting in the frame, architecture or city details are oftentimes the subject. When I go out in the streets and shoot, some interesting details frequently get my attention, whether it is interesting building, some bikes on the streets, or a colorful window facade. And since candidness is hard to judge when it comes to non-human subjects, there is effectively almost no difference between street and architecture forms. Although you may argue that a photographer who specializes in architecture knows which buildings to photograph in advance while the street photographer just walks in the city looking for good shots, the final result for a same architectural element is exactly the same. And travel and street photography are nearly interchangeable terms. More exotic places to someone might be considered “travel” instead of “street” photography, but for all intents and purposes, both types of photography are there to document life in a certain city, to capture the vibe of the people and the architecture of it.

With such a broad definition of street photography, I think a distinction should be made based on the intention, rather than the result of a photograph. Portraits are taken because that’s what portraits are for. Buildings are taken because that’s what architecture photography is for. But when it comes to street photography, there is no clear intention from the part of the photographer. As a matter of fact, I go outside many times with absolutely no goal in mind, just a desire of capturing what happens in front of me.

All that being said, street photography is way too vague to be defined as being a single genre of photography. People, architecture, travel, etc. can all be considered street photography under certain circumstances. I would even go to say that street photography is more than a simple form of photography. It is veritable movement, a break from daily life, with thousands of motivated people engaged to document whatever happens in front of them and their cameras…


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