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Street Photography


‘In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.’ (Henri Cartier-Bresson).

 'Most of the information we now get is through television and is mutilated. Photography offers the opportunity to spend much more time on a topic. It's relatively cheaper medium, and can allow a photographer really to live in another place, show another reality, get closer to the truth.' (Sebastiao Salgado)



Willy Ronis - one of my favourite 'classic' street photographers. Below the very different street photography of Martin Parr.


Martin Parr,  White Society in Kenya 2010







Defining terms can be hazardous; oversimplification inevitable.  ‘Street Photography’ particularly so, for example,  because the tradition is a long and varied one and reflects changing technology and social and historical contexts; it overlaps with other genres (particularly documentary photography); it's practitioners vary greatly in style, context and aims and it is fashionable to adopt the 'appearance' of street images - for example in advertising perfume, clothes, watches, cars. Here is my hesitant starting point - my definitions (May 2010):

Street photography:  Spontaneous, uncontrived imagery of people in their everyday lives in public places, from the perspective of the solitary bystander, with the purpose of observing, recording and interpreting the rich experiences of social and cultural life, usually without a specific political or social cause.

Street Portraits: Portraits of individuals (strangers) who are encountered and engaged with while photographing in public places.

Documentary Photography:  The sustained and planned attempt, usually requiring negotiation and co-operation with individuals and communities, to record an event or process, an aspect of social life, or landscape, or physical environment or workplace etc, commonly with the purpose of highlighting or serving a particular public interest or political issue or cause.

While most photography enthusiasts will immediately have a recognition of the term street photography and be aware of some of it’s most famous practioneers (like Henri Cartier-Bresson), drawing up the defining characteristics of street photography has its’ difficulties.





First, the concept of ‘street photography’  certainly overlaps with other ‘genres’ of photography – documentary, reportage, travel, photo-journalism, photo-essay (street photography can be one category of each of these – so there can be travel street photography, documentary street photography etc but of course not all travel or documentary photography is street photography). It can also be said – although it sounds rather ridiculous at first – that much contemporary wedding photography is in effect a form of street photography –or at least inspired by it.

The photography of Dorothea Lange was a major inspiration when I became more interested in photography in the mid-1990s - and she still is. Her photography illustrates just how difficult - impossible - it is to draw clear definitional lines around photographs. While many of her images are clearly spontaneous observations, many too were very contrived - including the famous Dustbowl Mother below. Lange worked with a large format film camera that made covert photography impossible. She was also part of a government sponsored project in the 1930s aimed at justifying Roosevelts 'New Deal' policies of state intervention (much opposed by the American Right).

























Second, although much street photography is urban (historically, Paris was the location of much pioneering street photography) it need not be – Robert Frank’s groundbreaking early 1950s ‘The Americans’ is a classic street photography collection and contains rural as well as urban images. Much of James Ravillious’ photography of rural Devon is clearly in the street photography tradition - in that many images have the appearance of being fly-on-the-wall - in fact, James really became part of the social fabric of the community.





Third, what is to count as ‘genuine’ street photography is controversial. There is a rather extreme (but interesting) purist view of street photography which sees it as part of a specific photographic tradition - exclusively as black and white, film rather than digital and with rangefinder cameras (primarily Leica) with small (35mm or 50mm) lenses (as opposed to telephoto lenses)  in the tradition of the ‘founders of street photography – like Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau, Marc Riboud etc – who ‘got in close’. 








Fourth, and in similar vein, anything ‘set-up’ or contrived will be ruled out by the purist view – and Cartier-Bresson is not alone in being criticised for (allegedly) constructing situations and passing them off as ‘capturing the moment’.  Even making social contact with the subjects of street photographs (including asking permission and especially making eye contact portraits) is seen by some practitioners of street photography as betraying the essential stance of the street photographer – that of the bystander, the ‘fly-on-the-wall’. This is where there is a line between street photography and documentary photography.

Below: Fly-on-the-Wall or contrived? We don't know.


Images below - Don McCullin, Marc Riboud and John Minihan - all documentary rather than street photography because of the engagement with the subject.






Fifth, photographers who would be considered by most to fall within the broad definition of street photographers vary greatly in their photographic style, their subject matter and their broad ‘ideological’ position  - or at least in what they see as the purpose of their photography.

Below Paul Graham's 1985 collection of DHSS images has an entirely different feel and emotional mind-set' to Doisneau's school images.










The Essence of Street Photography 

1.The Subject : People in Public Places

To put it simplistically, the subject of street photography is people in public places – the street, the market, the park, the country fair, the village square, the harvest field, the fox-hunt, the horse-race. People at work, at play, at prayer, marching, dancing, shopping, eating, drinking, fighting.

People playing sport and watching sport. People on the beach, on the ski slopes;  people in boats, trains, cars, on bikes and motorbikes, on horses, camels and donkeys. People with pets, families. People in their finery and in their rags.

People interacting – holding hands, arguing, talking, displaying signs of rank and hierarchy. People in their built and natural environment – going up steps, exiting buildings, going through doors, climbing, running, lifting.

People displaying emotions – laughter, rage, sadness, despair. People celebrating births and weddings; people mourning the dead.


















Below: Garry Winogrand - New York Street Photographer.






2.Stories We Tell  : The Universal in the Particular
Photography is nothing - it's life that interests me.’ Henri Cartier-Bresson

‘The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.’  Robert Doisneau 

The street photographer is obsessed with everyday life because in everyday life human values and virtues, human weaknesses and corruptions, enduring strengths of societies and their inherent fragility are revealed. The street photography may be concerned with the sheer simplicity and joy of life and humanity; sometimes with aspects which are dark and desperate – crime, inequality, drug abuse etc. 

In the particular ‘social exchange’ (more often, a collection of related images)  the street photographer sees universal aspects of human societies - two old ladies talking across the garden fence or balconies; children playing hide and seek, lovers embracing, an old man holding the hand of a grandchild, bereaved relatives following a coffin  and the joyful embraces of a bride and groom; a clash of political factions, the victims of natural and man-made disasters, the identities of social groups – the gay community, punks, skinheads, Hells Angels, the Women’s Institute, hunters and protestors, – to all of this we can relate and in photographing the street, the photographer of the street is constantly learning about his/her own society – and himself/herself.

‘ …..[E]veryday life is fascinating. The routines, the surprises, the mountains of new things we all experience every day. One can walk down any given street and see thousands of individual stories being played out in real time. We see slices of life; a few sentences, or maybe a paragraph, of someone else’s life as you brush past them in a shop, or a coffee house, or anywhere. Where do those moments go once you’re finished with them? Who records them and keeps them safe? Who proves they ever existed?  I do. You do. Anyone who carries a camera with them in every day life. I will tell the story of the fish monger and the street artist. I will tell the story of the girl and her great-grandmother; the man on the street and the boy at the funeral. The woman in the window and the little girl who just needed to dance. I will even tell my own story from time to time.  It terrifies me to think that these moments could be lost forever. I don’t know why that scares me, but it does. I need to remember. We all need to remember – that’s how we learn. You can learn more about life by keeping your eyes open during one average day on the street than you can from a week of news broadcasts. News is fed to us in a straight line. Life lessons are all around. News is archived, but life rarely is.’ (Darren Abate)

Michael Craig re-iterates this point,

 ‘[The] tradition of capturing the world around us, for the sole purpose of retaining the unique situations that make life charming and exciting, is what separates street photography from the rest. [A] street photographer relies on the common, everyday exchanges between people to reflect the mood from a bustling metropolis, to a calm midwestern suburb. The light glistening off the chin from a child hastily gulping from a water fountain. The moment of relief from finally taking a seat on the Green Line train after a long day of work in the office. A conversation between a young boy and an elderly man, digress on the finer points of life.

These are the moments that are cherished by a street photographer. These exchanges between people; the small details of our daily lives that would go unnoticed- they define our humanity... and it is the role of a street photographer to isolate those moments in order to show how beautifully simple our world really is.’

Street photography is revealing.

Street photography makes for acute observation of human society, ‘The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.’ ( Dorothea Lange).  Lange also perceptively noted that, ’While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.’

As Lange indicates by this, our  world is not so ‘beautifully simple’ – it can be very cruel; vast disparities of wealth exist in and between societies, exploitation of all sorts, billions of people grind out a hand-to-mouth existence. Much street photography has a political edge – highlighting and recording these grim aspects of the world.

Sam Abell elegantly expressed a motive of many – but not all – street photographers, ‘………….. there is more to a fine photograph than information. We are also seeking to present an image that arouses the curiosity of the viewer or that, best of all, provokes the viewer to think - to ask a question or simply to gaze in thoughtful wonder. We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make.’

All photography is autobiographical but street photography is excessively so. Street photography can be clichéd and sentimental, positive, joyful, uncritical, purposely or unconsciously suppressing and repressing,commercially-orientated, artistic in style or it can be highly political, having a message and overt purpose to persuade, it can be gritty in style, purist mono. 

‘A photographers work is given shape and style by his personal vision. It is not simply technique, but the way he looks at life and the world around him.’  Pete Turner


Below Alfred Eisenstaedt. Human relationships are a regular theme for street photographers.

Don McCullin - early 1960S






3. Time : History and the Unique Moment 

Time is a crucial aspect of the street photographer’s outlook in two separate but inter-related  ways.

Much of the attraction of ‘classic’ black and white street photography of the 1920s-1960s is that it captures a bygone age and the contemporary street photographer is acutely conscious of the increased pace of social – and global change. John Rosenthal has commented:

'As a fledgling street photographer strolling up and down the streets of cities, I quickly became aware of Time and its erosive power. My early photographs focused almost exclusively on the signs of an older culture that was holding on for dear life. I'd photograph seltzer bottles in old wooden crates piled high in a truck, or the dusty windows of Jewish bread shops, or old men building February fires on the beaches of Coney Island. My interest was more than documentary, for it seemed to me that what was about to vanish was important and irreplaceable, and frankly, I wanted my photographs to offer, in some manner, the power of resuscitation. Actually, I still do, though I no longer believe that photographs can prevent the homely past from being plowed under; rather, I believe that photographs - especially good photographs that compel our interest - help us to remember; and even more importantly, they help us to decide what is worth remembering.'  

Time is important in a second sense in that the street photographer’s dream is to capture ‘the moment’. The subject of street photography is about people but is also more universally photographic – it’s about light, shapes, shadows, lines, contrasts – the endless variety of visual relationships people create with the world they live in.

Street photography produces and preserves unique moments in time, unique comings-together – of individuals, of interaction, of time and place, of lighting. Put simply, ‘in every possible photographic opportunity, there is a moment when the light, colour, or gesture is just perfect, as it realises your vision with the greatest clarity or simplicity’ (David duChemin, ‘Within the Frame’, p21-22).

One photographer has been beautifully poetic in describing what he does, ‘I am blessed with the awesome responsibility of creatively interpreting the fleeting events of our lives. For me, it is all about gently catching personal memories of a given place and time and precious moments spent with special people. It is all about handing these moments back to be gently cradled in our memories and shared with others, eventually to become our legacy’. Michael Davis

For others – perhaps most – rather than imbuing street photography  with grand ambitions – it really is much more simple – making images is just a part of living – of looking, interpreting, trying to understanding (failing to understand) their lives, the society they live in, societies they visit. Making (taking) photographs is an extension of thinking.

The man who lives in his eyes is continually confronted with scenes and spectacles that compel his attention or admiration and demand an adequate reaction. To pass on without pause is impossible and to continue after purely mental applause is unsatisfying: some real tribute must be paid. Photography, to many of its addicts, is a convenient and simple means of discharging these ever-recurring debts to the visual world.'  Olive Cook


Alfred Eisenstaedt above, Robert Doisneau below





4. The Bystander Perspective and ‘Straight’ Photography

The desired place of the street photographer is that of the solitary bystander – a fly-on-the-wall, observing, blending but not contriving with his/her subjects. Preferably not making contact, asking permission, engaging. The reason is not that great images – especially street portraits - cannot be obtained by making contact but that a different type of image is inevitably produced.

Chris Weeks puts it this way,

‘I don’t think contrived moments have anything of significance in the genre of street.

In fact, nothing about street photography should be contrived.

….[M]y favourite photographs …………. are the covert variety. Not the portraits. None with eye contact. Eye contact includes the street photographer as part of the definition of the photograph and I’m not sure I like that.

Seems to me that when there’s eye contact the photographer is making his or her own impact on the subject and it comes through.

Being the casual unobserved observer is what it is all about. A bystander with a camera.

That’s what I aim to achieve. If I become the “fly-on-the-wall,  the viewer will become that as well.’

Truth, authenticity, straight photography are the hallmarks of the street photographer, ‘I genuinely believe photography to be at it's most potent when underscored by truth. To contrive is to control, and frankly I'm more interested in observation than direction. Riding the ebb and flow of Sydney's streets, approaching the next corner afresh, never quite knowing what may present itself in the adjoining street. That's the random beauty of street photography’.   Andrew Stark  

Many of my ‘street portraits’ are among my most striking images and it’s very important to develop a respectful approach to ‘engaging’ with individuals one encounters – but I acknowledge that these images are not genuine ‘street photography’.

Below: three images from Bruce Davidson's 1980s series of images made on the New York Subway

Eisenstaedt below and Minihan above - classic bystander images.

5. The Documentary Approach

'...I work alone. Humans are incredible, because when you come alone, they will receive you, they accept you, they protect you, they give you all things that you need, and they teach you all things you must know. When you come with two persons or three persons, you have a group in front of them. They don't discuss with the new persons what is important to them...'  Sebastiao Salgado. Excerpts from an interview with Sebastiao Salgado by Ken Lassiter, Photographer's Forum

Sebastiao Salgado is the photographer I most admire and, while many of his images have the feel of bystander street-photographs and there is a big area of cross-over between documentary band street photography (see quote above),  his approach is very different. A documentary photographer has a perspective, an agenda, an ideology - he or she takes sides.

'What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. Nothing more than this. I don't want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the palate of tones. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph.' Sebastiao Salgado. Excerpts from an interview with Sebastiao Salgado by Ken Lassiter, Photographer's Forum 

Unlike the street photographer, the documentary photographer relies on a close relationship with his or her subjects,

'The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.'  Sebastiao Salgado - 'The Lyric Documentarian' published in An Uncertain Grace (Aperture), 1990.

'I very much like to work on long-term projects...There is time for the photographer and the people in front of the camera to understand each other. There is time to go to a place and understand what is happening there. ...When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.' Sebastiao Salgado. Excerpts from an interview with Sebastiao Salgado by Ken Lassiter, Photographer's Forum

Another difference is that the documentary photography aims to tell a story through a collection of images whereas the street photographer aims to 'capture the moment'.

'It is a great honor for me to be compared to Henri Cartier-Bresson...But I believe there is a very big difference in the way we put ourselves inside the stories we photograph. He always strove for the decisive moment as being the most important. I always work for a group of pictures, to tell a story. If you ask which picture in a story I like most, it is impossible for me to tell you this. I don't work for an individual picture. If I must select one individual picture for a client, it is very difficult for me.' Sebastiao Salgado.  Excerpts from an interview with Sebastiao Salgado by Ken Lassiter, Photographer's Forum


Sebastiao Salgado




















6. The Challenges and Rewards  of Street Photography

The chaos of the streets provides a great challenge. ‘A great photograph is a distillation, a reduction of the chaos of our wider experience to a visually satisfying essence where what is excluded is as important as what is included. ‘ David Ward - From the book: Landscape Within. Street photography is unplanned (unlike documentary photography), spontaneous, accidental, unpredictable. Street photography is essentially reactive.

 ‘A photographer must be prepared to catch and hold on to those elements which give distinction to the subject or lend it atmosphere. They are often momentary, chance-sent things: a gleam of light on water, a trail of smoke from a passing train, a cat crossing a threshold, the shadows cast by a setting sun. Sometimes they are a matter of luck; the photographer could not expect or hope for them. Sometimes they are a matter of patience, waiting for an effect to be repeated that he has seen and lost or for one that he anticipates. ………..[I]t is usually some incidental detail that heightens the effect of a picture – stressing a pattern, deepening the sense of atmosphere. But the photographer must be able to recognize instantly such effects.'  Bill Brandt

Street photography requires considerable skill in ‘masking’ the photographer’s presence (see later edited extracts from Michael David Murphy) and only a solitary photographer can hope to ‘merge’ (although I’ve sometimes used the presence of others to mask my own activity) and it certainly takes considerable confidence and perseverance. The use of a long-lens is also problematic – making observation almost inevitable.  There are moral issues too - as with documentary photography, the street photographer from the affluent world photographing the exotic life of poor communities needs - at least - to carefully examine his/her motives.

The idea that street photography is 'unbiased' 'straight' unvarnished truth - all difficult to sustain. Martin Parr has been brutally honest in his reaction to criticism that he exploits his subjects, 'Of course, I am biased, of course I am voyeuristic, of course I exploit, but I believe this applies to all photography and I am only unusual insofar as most photographers always deny these things...' (Martin Parr 1997 - accompanying one of his images in the National Gallery of Victoria).

The reward is that street photography images are likely to be unique – your images, the result of your observations and reactions. This cannot be said of other branches’ of photography where the task seems to be getting to the right viewpoint at the right time to achieve the same image as the thousands of photographers who have managed to do the same thing before. (OK a little harsh – but only a little).


Classic Street Photographers - Classic practitioners of street photography include Bruce Gilden, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith, William Eggleston, Brassaї, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau, Manuel Rivera-Ortiz and Garry Winogrand.

Some Contemporary Street Photographers and Collections:

Images of Street Photography:

Street Photography Archives:

Boogie :



Leveckis :

Mark Powell:,DETAIL,1806508980,f9d60aa4ae

Matt Webber:

Travis Ruse :

Urban Views:

Luminous Landscape:

In Public:

Street Photography:

Street Photography Portfolio:

‘How to’ Sites


Digital Photography School:

Beyond Photo tips:

Epic Edits:

Legal rights of Photographers UK







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