On the nature of street photography

(This piece has its origins in a blog post by Steve Coleman of streetframe.co.uk  – about the ‘rules’ of street photography – and developed through discussions with Steve and the other members of the ‘coffee shop collective’, namely, Matt Hart (http://www.matthewhartphotography.com), Jack Mayall (http://www.jackmayall.com/), and Stephen Hart (@HartMediastuff7).

The views below are my own and no blame should be attached to the above named.

After a period of relative neglect in the 1980s and 1990s, ‘street photography’ is enjoying a resurgence in the early twenty-first century.  A confluence of technological developments is driving this renaissance. For example, smaller cameras (e.g. m43 and Fuji X) have reengaged dormant photographers, digital distribution through social media has created lively global communities (Flickr, 500px, etc.), and the widespread ownership of mobile devices has broadened participation by young and old alike.

Accompanying the resurgence in the practice of street photography is a vibrant debate about its nature.  This debate often revolves around an attempt – explicitly or implicitly – to answer the question: ‘What is street photography?  Intelligent examples (online) include those by Eric Kim (here) and Nick Turpin (here). I will discuss other printed examples below.

What is striking about attempts to define ‘street photography’ is the striking lack of consensus.

As co-author of the seminal book Bystander: a history of street photography, Colin Westerbeck is perhaps a fair guide on this topic. In the introduction to Bystander he suggests three defining characteristics of ‘street’ photography. These are: (1) The images are candid insofar as the subject is unaware of the photographer; (2) ‘Instantaneity’ in that the process of capture is fast and fluid; (3) ‘Multiplicity’ referring to street photography’s ability to capture sequences to suggest a narrative/story about an event(s).

Westerbeck sees street photography as a set of practices (or, more accurately, praxis) and the photographer as flâneur. His defining characteristics are all about process not content. Aware of the promiscuous nature of most photographers in relation to subject matter he, sensibly, avoids imposing constraints on photographers by specifying subject matter for street photography.

In an idiosyncratic and inconsistent introduction to his book The Street Photographer’s Manual, David Gibson takes a narrower view in relation to subject matter.

On the one hand he displays an apparent liberalism by suggesting “…there is a place away from the centre of street photography that does need mapping. Not everyone will go there, but it is important to acknowledge that other places, with possibly different cultures, exist.” (p.14).

However, he then goes on to argue: “A genre of photography that should arguably be consigned to the margins of street photography is street portraits – where the subject consents to be photographed…This is not street photography; it’s taking a staged portrait.” p.17

In denying street portraits as within the realm of street photography, Gibson is arguing for a very strict (dogmatic?) requirement for candidness in ‘street’ photography.  It is an approach that renders much of the work of seminal ‘street’ photographers such as Diane Arbus, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Daido Moriyama, Bruce Gilden, and even Henri Cartier Bresson, as outside of the canon.

In his defence, Gibson is at least consistent with Westerbeck on the subject of candidness.

As Gibson himself comments in relation to what he sees as Cartier Bresson’s dogmatic views on street photography: “That was his view, but he is not necessarily right.” (p.6)

Surely, an approach to defining street photography that denies the work of so many influential ‘street’ photographers has to be challenged?


_8850234-Edit   Not street?


One such challenge comes from another practitioner and influential blogger. Eric Kim disagrees about candidness.  In a blog post from 2013 he stated:

“I personally don’t think that street photography has to be candid. I think that the best street photographs are the candid ones– but I don’t think that it needs to be a necessary element.”

He supports his position with examples of street portraits from William Klein and Diane Arbus that many would consider iconic street photographs.

Nonetheless, Gibson is adamant: “Street photography’s core value is that it is never set up; this aspect is ‘non-negotiable’ because the guiding spirit of street photography is that it is real.” p.9.

Freddy Langer takes a much more liberal view. In his essay introducing the book Road Atlas (from 2011), Langer argues ‘street photography’ is a broad genre encompassing many elements associated with other specialist genres such as portraiture, architecture, etc. In fact, the only parameters Langer puts on street photography is that the imagery involves urban areas and human activity.

He has therefore raised two other tricky questions for street photography.

First up, the question: What is ‘the street’?

Eric Kim, in the blog post mentioned above, argues that ‘the street’ doesn’t have to be an urban thoroughfare. In his view it can be “anywhere as long as it is open to the public to enter and leave as they please”. Thus he is comfortable with subways, beaches, forests, etc. as acceptable locations. Following this logic, railway stations, public buildings, and canal towpaths would all be legitimate.

David Gibson seems comfortable with this given his suggestion that agricultural shows are a legitimate site for street photography.  But does this mean James Ravilious, the great documenter of the rural life of north Devon, is now a street photographer?

The second question implied by Langer is: Do street photographs have to feature people?

On this point, Eric Kim and David Gibson agree again. Gibson sates: “Crucially, street photography does not necessarily require people – evidence of people is just as valid.” p.9.  Kim agrees, using Eugene Atget as an example (for many Atget is the ‘father’ of street photography), he offers the qualified view that people aren’t essential so long as there is evidence of human activity. Hence, Kim argues that Atget’s photographs of old Paris streets are ‘street photography’ because they focus on the street in which people live not simply the architecture of individual buildings.

(Kim is reflecting mainstream views about Atget’s legacy. It is common to cite Eugene Atget’s Paris photos from the 1890s onwards as the first ‘street’ images (Atget died in 1927 aged seventy). This claim rests on Atget’s dedicated work photographing the parks, buildings, shop windows (an inspiration for Man Ray and other surrealists) and streets of Paris with and without the presence of his fellow Parisians. For this reason, Atget is often cited as the ‘father’ of street photography.)

Confusingly, in seeking to answer the first question, Colin Westerbeck defines ‘the street’ as “any public place where a photographer could take pictures of subjects who were unknown to him and, whenever possible, unconscious of his presence.” Bystander p.35 He here seems to contradict Gibson and Kim by implying the pictures of streets are only ‘street photography’ so long as there are people in them.


Pause for thought, Liverpool UK

Not street?

               Las Vegas, USA 2007

You get my point; there is no consensus on the nature of ‘street photography’. Any attempt to define it immediately hits the rocks because the resulting ‘definition’ can only be maintained by consigning important bodies of work – usually seen as seminal to the genre – as out of bounds. Who would seriously argue that major works by Arbus, Klein, Cartier Bresson, etc. are not rightly considered street photography? It’s an eccentric position to take.

If you want to view street photography as candid/not candid, urban/extra-urban, peopled/people-free; well that’s your prerogative. But that is more about you and your own version (and vision) of ‘street photography’. Likewise we each have our own – no doubt equally personal – version.

It would probably be better for all concerned if we refrained from airing our personal versions by blogging them all over the place.  But then; what’s the point of having a blog in the first place?

Personally, I agree with Howarth and McClaren who, in their book Street Photography Now, view “the street as a theatre of endless possibilities” p.9.  I have no desire to limit those creative possibilities with a dogmatic definition of street photography.


3 thoughts on “On the nature of street photography

  1. And so it came to pass…. Really good read John. I do impose rules for street photography, but only on myself. It’s essential for my creative process to have these rules and boundaries, it gives me a greater sense of clarity of what I want to shoot.
    For me the notion of ‘not limiting creative possibilities’ is as restrictive as the rules I choose to impose on myself. I do not find my definition of street photography limiting, quite the opposite, I find it gives me focus, I know what I want and I’m striving to get it. I may or may not achieve the elusive picture I crave, but I’m happy to stick to my principles in the mean time.
    Of course I would never impose these so called rules on another, in fact it’s a mute point, I can appreciate a good picture regardless of its origin, and if I don’t like it, it’s process is wholly unimportant. But who am I? I’m just a bloke with a camera, who knows what he likes and how he goes about things, and aren’t we all?

    • Hi Steve, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I honestly don’t have fixed views about working methods and get the idea that self imposed discipline/boundaries can force you to be more creative (working with a single prime for example). Because a lot of my photography involves travel, I have learned that flexibility (2 bodies and 2 zooms) helps as I am often photographing in crowded places where speed is key and moving to frame shots is difficult. This is what I had in mind with not limiting creative possibilities. In what sense do you find ‘not limiting creative possibilities’ restrictive? I don’t understand.
      Cheers, John

  2. Pingback: Perspectives on Street Photography | The Daily Post

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