What makes a “street photograph?”
By Adam Marelli
Any attempt to create a comprehensive definition of street photography is bound to start an argument. I have watched entire comment threads flame out and degenerate into murderous threats over the definition of “Street Photography.” As as far as I can tell, we are no closer to a definition then we were ten or twenty years ago. On the one hand it is great to see so much passion behind an art subject; on the other hand, any conversation that ends up in personal attacks is missing the original point, which is how do we define what we do and does it even matter?
Definitions are a slippery slope. Many have tried and many have failed. And actually, when we think about most great artists, usually what they are doing is expanding the definition of something. They take a commonly accepted idea and see if they can stretch it to include what they made too. Even if you read Wikipedia’s version of Street Photography , it is a little vague and lands awfully close to Documentary photography. But ultimately, what difference does that make?
Street Photography has become all the rage. Doing street photography today is like doing coke in a Miami nightclub in the 80′s. It is what all the cool kids are doing. Why? Because anyone can potentially do it. There is something very democratic about street photography. You don’t need any training, special equipment, point of view, or even skill. Go out on the street and start clicking. You are now a street photographer…maybe not a good one, but welcome to the club nonetheless.
Everyone and their mother are street photographers, which is great and awful at the same time. And the funny thing that seems to be forgotten is that all of the people who are considered the founders of the genre never thought of themselves as Street Photographers in the first place. How odd…remember, Cartier-Bresson was a self professed Surrealist Photographer and William Eggleston worked in color photography.
A member of the Art Photo Feature (APF) facebook group asked me the following question about a picture I posted which captured only one tiny person that could have been mistaken for a pole.
“Why did I consider the picture in Venice a ‘street photograph’?”
While I could not define what street photography is, I can say a bit about what it does…at least for me. A good street photograph gives me a candid feeling of being on the street. Sometimes the streets have people, but often they are empty. Does a street photograph turn into something else if there are no people? If so, why isn’t there a Street-People Photography genre? (yes I know that sounds stupid, but it’s just an example)
Maybe you enjoy walking the early morning or late night streets of a city as much as I do. Those images can provide an eerie feeling that is part street photography, cityscape, architecture, documentary, and cultural photography all at the same time. There are just not many people up and about at that time though.
Street Photography Cliches
Street photography right now has a number of prevailing trends. Very often the trends become cliches.
- There is the walking person (on occasion it’s wonderful, though frequently over used)
- The scattered groups (where we get individual views of multiple people connected only by our framing, not by their activity)
- The unified group (where a group of candidly shot people are interacting)
- and the amputee-trend, where random body parts pop in and out of the frame.
They can all be done well or done poorly, but they only express the potential characteristics of a street photograph. If there had to be a commonality it would usually be that the pictures are candid or unposed. But even the “great” street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson has pictures of his friends and acquaintances in some of his photos. Does that mean we have to take those pictures out of the “street photography” world? I don’t think so…but I will leave it up to you to decide for yourself.
And what about the weird world of William Eggleston? Not one of my favorites aesthetically, but he did a lot for both color photography and street photography’s acceptance into the art world…mostly through the Museum of Modern Art. One of his most famous “street pictures” has no people, only a tricycle.
The Artist’s Life
Part of being an artist is defining things for yourself. No matter how big, how famous, or how successful you become there are always a pile of people who think your work is junk and that you have no idea what you are talking about. Don’t worry about it too much; it happens to everyone. Each of our definitions might not match up perfectly and in some cases, they might not match up at all. And well…I guess that is just human nature.
In the mean time, Andy Warhol left us with some good advice.
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”