Oct 222015

What makes a “street photograph?”

By Adam Marelli

The photo in question...what is it?  Between genres? Does it matter? What do you think?  Venice, Italy © Adam Marelli

The photo in question…what is it? Between genres? Does it matter? What do you think? Venice, Italy © 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.

Often mistaken as street photography this picture was an editorial commission and it was staged.  The man and his son on the bike is a friend of Erwitt's.  © Elliot Erwitt

Often mistaken as street photography, this picture was an editorial commission and it was staged. The man and his son on the bike is a friend of Erwitt’s. © Elliot Erwitt

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’?”


Does it still "count" if he knows the subjects?  Picnic on the Banks of the Marne, 1938 © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Does it still “count” if he knows the subjects? Picnic on the Banks of the Marne, 1938 © Henri Cartier-Bresson

One perspective

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.
Recently Rammy Narula got a similar question about whether this was street photography.  Certainly no street, but a rather interesting Surrealist Photograph.  © Rammy Narula

Recently Rammy Narula got a similar question about whether this was street photography. Certainly no street, but a rather interesting Surrealist Photograph. © Rammy Narula

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.

Memphis (Tricycle), c. 1969-1970 © William Eggleston

Memphis (Tricycle), c. 1969-1970 © William Eggleston

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.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

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.”




  19 Responses to “Is this street photography?”

  1. Adam, I have always considered street photography to be documentation of ‘life’, generally but not always, in an urban setting; whether or not a person is in the photograph. My “6th Street” project in San Francisco would be an example where my photos to depict the ‘neighborhood’, including the people, and the desperate, rough conditions that exist in the four blocks of 6th between Market Street and Folsom Street. Over time I was able to record numerous ‘scenes’, many with people, many where the human element was secondary, that collectively represent typical day to day ‘life’ on 6th. Thanks for the thought provoking post. Best, Jack Otaway

  2. I just loved this article!

    Adam, you have raised some great questions and you certainly right about how popular street photography is right now. You know when I was younger I used to be very obsessed with music. I was very particular over who I liked, and knew everything about that band or singer. Not only that I knew all about the style of music they played in, as well as all the other music styles of the time. Believe me in the late 80′s and early 90′s there were a ton of music genres. Also all my friends had to like the same music as me and of course I had to know more about the scene than them. I used to smirk how a grunge bands like Pearl Jam sold out while a real punk band like the Dead Kennedys NEVER would. Needless to say all this music snobbery never did anything but cause never ending arguments with other music lovers. More importantly you never changed anyone’s mind and you just ended up looking like a jerk. I finally learned over time you like the music you like. Who gives a flip what other people want to classify your favorite band as or even if they like it.
    The real curious thing to me is that this dogmatic theme of no posing, black and white only, standard lens, no titles to the pictures and if you do a show do not play any music (music and titles are tools to prop up weak pictures and photographers) plagues a lot of self proclaimed street photographers. The question I have for them is this; if they are not hired by a legit news agency or foundation to document current events or culture, why be so dogmatic? Will anyone really ever believe you stayed true to your dogmatic rules if you were just one individual out by yourself with no one to verify your work. Of course you could use another street photo cliche and document homeless people. Then you would never have to worry about people checking in with your subjects to verify your work.
    My point is your photograph you posted, I would say, does belong to the street photography genre. More importantly its just a very nicely executed picture that I really admire. I took me a long time to grow out of that dogmatic view I had in music and I do not want to go down that path again in photography.

    • Gary,

      Thanks for the music analogy. It makes perfect sense. Ohh man, do I remember the “sell out” conversations. Those were the days. I was more into the punk scene over the grunge bit, but it was all the same.

      One of the things I realized, only a few years ago, is that there is a very fine line between selling out and gaining cultural acceptance. When someone or a group does something that represents a belief that a group of people hold, it can be very powerful. It is one of the many ways that cultural practices make it from one generation to the next.

      There does not seem to be any clean way to insure that something survives and not lost entirely to time.

      But in the mean time, those arguments you mentioned are probably best to be avoided. In the end, they never matter right?


  3. Thanx Adam for this beautiful article.Things explained in simple way and shared photographs helps to understand your point. The plus of this article for me is understanding cliche term in street photography

  4. Beautifully written Adam..specially at a time when a lot of artists in the digital space and the FB street photography groups are almost claiming their authority on the definition of Street photography, and everyone else is just busy following that trend. It seems a lot of us have stopped looking beyond the ‘walking person’ and the ‘ amputee’ trend. Loved reading the way you have simplified the term keeping it’s deapth and authencity in place. Sharing.

    • Thank you Moushumee,

      Always great to hear from you.

      You are spot on that the digital space has opened up soooo many options that it leaves many photographers confused or overwhelmed.

      Hopefully they can start to make some sense of the matter. I might need to expand the article into more pieces.

      The confusion about the “walking man” and “amputees” seem endless. But with a little painting history it all falls into place.


  5. Winogrand loathed the term ‘street photography’. When anyone called him a street photographer, he’d growl at them that he had no idea what that meant, and tell them “I’m a photographer. Period.”

    • Dear Archie,

      Yes, most artist tend to resist labels. Curators and art historians love them because it allows the artists to be categorized. If you land totally outside of a category it makes them very upset. Plus art historians are notorious for trying to coin terms like “neo-expressionists” or “maximalists,” which are all bullsh%t categories anyway and just an effort to get into the history books.

      Winogrand was a funny guy, had some interesting ideas.


  6. Simple and crisp article. This craze of SP was demoralising me. After reading what you wrote, i feel better and encourages me to just do things which makes me happy within the realm of learning good photography. Once again thank you.

  7. I have recalled my street photos to see if I could find the definition, well I guess it is there.Street photography is the image of anything and everything, related to a paved or unpaved road or sidewalk.

    • Saad,

      It is always a good idea to reflect on our own work. The definitions might change over the years, but a constant evaluation and re-evaluation is needed if we are to understand what we are really up to.

      Thank you for starting it off.


  8. Quoting a famous line delivered by a famous actor in a long-ago famous movie, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

    Long ago I gave up trying to define what “street photography” means, both for myself and for others. If you look and listen long enough, you’ll see the term has become essentially meaningless. At this point, it means anything anyone wants it to mean. For myself a while back I started using the term “public photography” as it seem to cover the same ground. It takes the “street” out of the equation, however I can see how it can be equally meaningless.

    My interest is not what pigeon-hole a particular image gets shoved into. My interest is the point of the image. I often ask, “Why are you showing me this picture?” If you can’t answer that, I’m not taking my time to answer it for you. I believe the fundamental reason anyone shows a picture is simply, “Hey, look what I saw.” We don’t all see the same things, and we don’t all see things the same way. And none of us sees everything that is placed before us. When I take a picture, it’s my way of stopping time so I can study what has been placed before me and really see everything that is there. That’s why I have a tag line on my photo Web site, “the glaciation of time.” That’s why I spend a lot of cold, winter evenings just looking at pictures I’ve made.

    One of my favorite pictures is a moment frozen in summer time from 1912 on the beach at Atlantic City. I think most anyone would look and agree it qualifies as “street photography.” A pro photographer has set up a large view camera on the beach. He is making portraits of people astride a donkey with a sign proclaiming Atlantic City. The photographer has an assistant, and he is at the head of a line of people waiting to be photographed. He has an “order pad” and is apparently collecting contact info so the photos can be delivered. There is a large crowd of people on the boardwalk and on hotel balconies watching this photographer do his work. The crowd on the beach is dressed both in swimming suits as well as street clothes. One wonderful thing is you can see one woman who is wearing a bustle — something I thought had not carried over into the 20th Century. So you can learn by looking. And perhaps the most amazing thing about the picture to me is the knowledge that on the beach behind this photographer is another photographer who is making the picture I see — and no one is looking at him. Out of all the people looking at the portrait photographer, no one seems to see the photographer taking in the whole scene.

    That image always inspires me to value the simple pictures I make of people in public spaces. I know they will have value in the realm of human understanding — and they will please me on those cold winter evenings. And that’s all that really matters to me.

    Thanks to you, Adam, for inspiring (and teaching) how to bring some degree of artistry to my visual work. I see my world in a different way because of your knowledge of visual art, and those winter evenings are richer for it.

  9. Good words Adam! You are right in the end those types of arguments do not matter. :)

  10. Well said Bill. I would enjoy your articles if you ever write any.

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