Photographers on What “Street Photography” Means to Them
July 4, 2018
“New York City, 1965” by Joel Meyerowitz. Meyerowitz says a street photographer “learns their own identity from the way the street produces moments that each photographer responds to in their own way.”
An Image from Martha Cooper’s ten-year personal project comparing the township Soweto in South Africa to the neighborhood named SoWeBo (Southwest Baltimore).
There are nearly as many definitions of the term “street photography” as there are photographers who make street photographs. Is the genre defined by the photographer’s process, or by the subject matter? What distinguishes it from documentary photography? Does a “street” photo have to be a candid shot, and does it even need to show people? We put these and other questions to several veteran photographers whose work has often been characterized as “street.” Here are excerpts of their answers, which they gave us in email and phone interviews, edited for space and clarity.
I see that the hashtag #streetphotography has been used over 40 million times on Instagram, however in my 2,483 posts on @marthacoopergram, I have never used that hashtag. In general I don’t use the term for myself.
For me the term implies shooting subjects that I happen to see rather than setting up shots. I think the term implies that a fleeting moment has been captured that can’t be repeated, and usually that’s because of the people.
I describe myself as a documentary photographer, not a street photographer, because most of the time I am trying to preserve something specific that I want anyone who looks at the photograph in the future to be able to see. I’m more interested in recording details than I am in interesting light or unusual framing. I aim for clarity over esthetics or drama.
I’m more about historic preservation than making art.
I need a framework if I’m shooting a project, but I will certainly shoot anything that draws my attention for whatever reason while walking around. I recently finished a ten-year personal street photography project where I compared a neighborhood in Baltimore called SoWeBo (Southwest Baltimore) to its namesake Soweto in South Africa. I marked off the streets I wanted to shoot on and I had a pretty good idea of the kinds of things I was looking for. For me, this kind of project becomes a photographic treasure hunt.
My dad and uncle were amateur photographers and owned a family camera store in Baltimore: Cooper’s Camera Mart. My dad gave me my first camera, a Baby Brownie, when I was in nursery school and he used to take me on weekend outings that he called “camera runs.” The idea was to go somewhere and look for pictures….So my earliest idea of photography was that it was about the hunt, with the photo being the prize. Early Kodak ad slogans even advertised the joys of hunting with a Kodak. That’s what got me started and that’s what still keeps me going 70-plus years later. Wherever I go, I’m always on the hunt for good photos.
When I reluctantly use the term “street photography,” I’m using it in the most fluid and expansive way. For me, it suggests an emphasis on exploration and discovery with the camera, with little preconception. A street photographer wanders and responds spontaneously to what he or she finds, rather than consciously searching for specific things, letting the world—and one’s unconscious—lead one where it will. This initial approach or attitude makes street photography different from more directed photojournalism, in which there is a conscious effort to find a “story”—and also makes street photography different from more conceptual photography, in which there is often a preconceived agenda.
Some consider street photography a subset of documentary photography; others consider it a subset of art photography. For me, my work seems to have a foot in both worlds, so perhaps street photography is a kind of borderland between the two.
Some photographers try to work fairly invisibly; others, often those with big personalities, may confront their subjects, so that the very act of confrontation becomes a vital element in the photograph; and others fall in between the two. I was once told that William Klein, while working on his New York book, would yell on the street, “Daily News! Daily News!” And people would look up startled at his camera. Ultimately, a photographer’s personality and sensibility—as well as how he or she interacts with others—all play a role in defining a photographer’s unique vision.
I’m not sure how useful [categories such as “street photography”] are in elucidating photographers’ practices. Is it, for example, helpful to brand [Lee] Friedlander’s work from the streets of New York as street photography, and his photographs of the desert as something else? What about his New Mexico photographs or his car photographs or his landscapes? All these bodies of work share Friedlander’s unique way of seeing, which is as layered and complicated and confounding and, at times, contradictory as the world he is looking at through the lens of his camera.
I think one of the big differences between street photography and documentary photography is that a documentary photographer has a reason for being. There’s a story that’s being done, or a body of work that’s been decided on beforehand….[A] street photographer, speaking for myself, has no fucking idea what’s going to happen on any given day. We go out on the boulevards of the world, just to be out, and just to be watching the way the world keeps presenting itself with ideas and incidents and moments of consciousness. I think this is one of the tenets of street photography: That the street photographer learns their own identity from the way the street produces moments that each photographer responds to in their own way. The internal measure of a street photographer comes from the way these conscious moments keep on adding over time to a point of view about who that person is….
I can’t speak for other street photographers, but I can tell you from personal experience. In the early ’60s when I began, my first street partner was Tony Ray-Jones, the English photographer. And then within a year, in 1962 I met Garry [Winogrand], and Garry and I became a duo….[T]he way we defined it for ourselves was: Unexpected moments happened right in front of us and you try to make the most of that moment of recognition.
You see tons of [imagery] on the internet labeled street photography, but when I look at it, it looks mostly like portraits of people on the street, usually in the center of the frame, and a lot of that work doesn’t seem to have much invention or intelligence or spirit or spontaneity. It just seems like, oh, I’m out on the street so the picture’s what I find out there.
I think what we were trying to do was to celebrate the values of perception in the moment…I think what we were doing then was using 1/1000 of a second and high speed Tri-X…to measure the hidden meaning in gestures and moments that we recognized on the street. And in that way, we celebrated perception.