This man is a roving and impassioned daguerreotype that preserves the least traces, and on which are reproduced, with their changing reflections, the course of things, the movement of the city, the multiple physiognomy of the public spirit, the confessions, antipathies, and admirations of the crowd.
Victor Fournel, on the idea of the flâneur
Writing about street photography is difficult. It is difficult because defining what street photography is, is difficult. Ask ten different street photographers to define street photography and you will likely get ten different definitions. That difficulty to define, the individuality of approach, is part of what makes street photography so compelling; both to view and to do.
Even determining when the term ‘street photographer’, or ‘street photography’, came into use is difficult. Was it in 1877 when Adolphe Smith, with photographer John Thomson, published Street Life in London, which was a compendium of street photography chronicling life in London, England in the late 19th century? Was it in the early 20th century when Walker Evans was producing his New York subway series of photos? It may be difficult to pin down exactly when the term came into use; however, we can be certain that the practice of the craft has been going on since the dawn of photography. Its origins can certainly be traced to the 19th century French concept of the flâneur – today, of course, we must also happily include the flâneuse in recognition of the women who are engaging in street photography – and the action of flânerie, a generous definition of which would be strolling about making observations. A more precise, and less complimentary, definition of the flâneur is one who idles, or loafs about. Which may, if we are being truthful, be accurate too. Susan Sontag, in her collection of essays On Photography, also referenced the term in discussing early practitioners such as Atget.
There are those who take a very conservative approach to the craft and say that it must be candid. The subject can have no awareness of your presence or know that they are being photographed. I think that is a very rigid, constraining definition and based on the people I’ve heard and seen express it, they do so to try and make themselves seem superior and purer and to try to invalidate the work of others in an attempt to make their work more relevant or valuable. That mindset is not something that should be encouraged. There is room for much broader thinking in the tent of street photography. Some of the most well-known street photos are not candids. Vivian Maier’s work is highly regarded and little of it is candid. Perhaps the best known of William Klein’s photos is not a candid.
The gentleman in the photo below was completely aware of my presence, he just did not care. He was going about his work of fixing the bicycle and it did not matter to him in the least that I was taking his picture. It is not a candid, but it is not posed and he is doing what he would have been doing if I were not taking his picture. It’s a street photo.
Here is another example; and this one illustrates how the image not being a candid can be more compelling than if it were.
This family was out on a sunny Sunday proselytizing and trying to spread the word. I liked the line they created with their positions on the sidewalk and the sign being held by the father provided the explanation of what they were doing. Just as I was about to press the shutter release, all three of them looked at me simultaneously and had scowls on their faces. Perfect! as it turned out. The contrast of the contempt on their faces with the message of love and compassion they were trying to sell makes for a very interesting social commentary. And makes for a much better image than if they had not taken note of me at the last second and so readily made their scorn evident.
So if it does not have to be candid, does that mean that the subjects can be staged? Again, it depends on to whom the question is posed (sorry, had to do it) and what is meant by ‘staged’. Staged can mean simply asking someone if you can take their picture, placing them in a certain light, or altering their body position, or it can mean a more elaborate setup of multiple elements. Personally, I tend to put posed shots into a sub-genre that I will call street portraiture. That does not make it any less valid. Efforts like Humans of New York, started by Brandon Stanton, which has been copied in countless other cities around the world, is a perfect example of the validity of street portraiture. The difference, in many cases, is that street portraiture often is accompanied by a story or quote from the subject. The subject is telling their own story through the photographer. Whereas with street photography, the photographer is telling the story through the subject. Hey! That may not be a bad way to think about it. What do you think? Another difference is that with portraiture, the person has given permission to have their picture taken. That is a different relationship between the photographer and the subject. It is a more collaborative exchange. When it comes to the arrangement of multiple elements, almost like a movie set, the answer is no that does not qualify as street photography.
Does street photography have to include people? Do all ‘street’ settings that include people count as street photography? Does it have to be ‘on the street’? Does it have to be in an urban area?
These questions and others will be examined as we move through the series.
On a personal note, I am intrigued by street photography probably because of how difficult and challenging it is to do, never mind to define. It may well be the most frustrating genre of photography and the ‘keeper’ rate is certainly a lot lower than in other types of photography. I also enjoy watching people. Interacting with them, less. But watching, yes. Voyeuristic? Maybe. But I think we all have a bit of voyeur in us.
Here’s the definition I have decided to work with in writing this series: Street photography is ‘slice of life’ photography. What does that mean? To me it means showing the everyday goings on of people living their lives. Is every moment memorable or worthy of being photographed? No, certainly not. Most of us live pretty boring lives day to day. But every now and then, interesting things happen. Whether it’s a certain situation or event. Whether it is an unfortunate, or fortunate, happenstance. Whether it is a unique, or humourous, confluence of conditions. Interesting and photo-worthy things do happen on a fairly regular basis and the goal of street photography is to capture them in a compelling way. It does not have to be candid. It can include street portraiture.
But I do think some boundaries need to be established. Where those boundaries are set is really a personal decision. Here are mine. Street photography is not exploitative of people in disadvantaged positions. As an example, photographing homeless people just to photograph them is exploiting someone in a disadvantaged position. In my opinion. That’s not to say homeless people should not be photographed, but that doing so should be approached with empathy and respect. Later in the series we will look at this more. Children are my other point of caution. It is rare that I will photograph a child. When I do, the parent or guardian has given permission for me to do so, or there just happen to be children present in a larger group scene. And I would never submit a photo of a child for stock even if the parent or guardian were willing to sign the release.
What we are getting into here is the idea of ethics. Or maybe more accurately integrity. ‘Ethical behaviour is doing the right thing when no one is watching even when doing the wrong thing is legal.’ That statement is widely attributed to Aldo Leopold, although it cannot be specifically sourced. Despite that, it presents an interesting thought process. It implies that ethics and integrity are the same thing. Rosie DiManno, a newspaper columnist in Toronto, phrased it a different way. She wrote, “Ethics is doing the right thing when people are watching; integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.” I agree with that distinction. The concepts of ethics and integrity are ones that will come up again over the course of the following pages.
Does that mean no one can or should be photographed in an unflattering or compromising way? Not at all. If the person is the architect of their own undoing or the cause of their own embarrassing situation, then they’re fair game.
The photo below was shot in Niagara Falls. I was heading back to the car to go home after several hours of shooting and came across this Asian family with four generations in the group. Most were concentrating on the baby in the pram. Except for the grandmother. She was standing by the railing looking over the gorge. I could see she was starting to ‘mess around’ and thought to myself “she isn’t, she won’t”. Oh yes she did! Embarrassing situation? To many it would be, yes. Although there is some measure of what may be acceptable or not in different cultures. Exploitative? No because she was the architect of her own situation. Ergo, fair game.
The further question is raised about the difference between ethics, integrity and legality. Is something ethical simply because it is legal? That, once again, is a personal position that we all must take for ourselves. The idea of legality is not even something that is equal for all. Different countries will have different legal regimes and what is legal in one may not be in another. Ethical constraints will differ based on culture, as will legal and moral. What we consider ethical in the west may be different from what someone in Asia or the Middle East considers to be ethical.
Are ethics equivalent to morality? On this point, I would suggest the answer is no. Societal morals are things we can, generally, all agree on. Murder, theft, assault, the laws surrounding these are based on historical societal morals, and often on religious beliefs. The moral code of a society applies to everyone equally. Ethics are a more personal matter. Societal morals are immutable. Ethics are more malleable.
Morals can be imposed on people. Ethics cannot. Ethics must be agreed to voluntarily. Many organizations, photographic, or otherwise, have a code of conduct or a code of ethics. It is very common for a society such as Professional Photographers of Canada or Wedding and Portrait Photographers International to require members to adhere to a code of conduct. Is this not imposing an ethical standard? No. Membership in these organizations is voluntary. When one chooses to become a member s/he also chooses, or is supposed to choose, to be bound by the code of conduct that the organization sets out.
In order for an ethical code to be valid it must also be realistic and achievable. Establishing ethical guidelines that are too vague, or that are not realistically achievable, is simply a recipe for confusion, frustration and for violating that code. I know of a photographer whose first principal is: to leave the subject better off than before the picture was taken. It is an interesting goal, but it is neither realistic nor achievable. It is simply not possible to make someone, something, or the larger environment, or society, better off by the simple act of taking a picture. If the first guiding principal of an ethical code is not viable, the entire ethos falls down.
Ethics and integrity in street photography are no different. We will all have our idea of what is and is not ethical. Those personal constructs will be based on many things. Our culture, our upbringing, our own personal level of integrity. I can only address my ethical boundaries. You may, or may not, agree. Yours may be more, or less, stringent. I can say with absolute certainty that my limits are not shared by some others. I have been called sub-human for taking the picture of the Asian grandmother. When an ethical code is not realistically achievable, then there is too great an impetus for integrity to be compromised, or be entirely fugacious.
Photography is both a window and a mirror. What do you want to show? What are you prepared to see? Photography is a window through you to the outside world for your viewer. It is a window into you for your viewer. In that sense, it also acts as a mirror for how your work is perceived and what it says about you. If you do not like what you see in that reflection, then it may be an opportunity to reexamine your ethics and your integrity. If you find yourself too often cleaving too closely to your ethical line; even crossing it, it may be time to reexamine your ethics and your integrity.
Some who practice street photography and those who enjoy viewing it will often say that they are drawn to it because the documentary nature of it makes it more ‘real’. The thing is, no photography is ‘real’. All photography is a fiction created by the photographer based on the choice of framing, exposure settings and the decision on when to press the shutter release. Photography shows a moment frozen in time. Even long-exposure photography is an excerpt of time. In order for a thing to be real, it needs to have context. It needs to have a past and a future and we need to know the circumstances surrounding it. Photography does not have that. Even when the photo shows some of the context, the surrounding elements that may be contributing to the actual shot we took, the past and future are still missing. We will examine this more throughout the essay series, particularly where we talk about editing street photos and how the choices made in editing can profoundly change the perception of the image. We will also talk about ways in which photographers can address the contextual issues and how street photographers may be well-positioned to tell stories that today’s photojournalists cannot. I am not alone in this line of thought about the reality of photography. None other than acclaimed documentary photographer Dorothea Lange said, “A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se.” She is also reputed to have said, “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
The image below is an example of the concept of reality. As it is framed, it looks like a very loving, elderly couple out for a walk. It is touching, poignant. I titled it ‘Love?’. Why the question mark? What you do not see is that the husband is walking with a white cane and that he has his arm around his wife as much for support and direction as anything else. Context.
If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough
Capa was a well-known photojournalist and war photographer. The statement above has been misinterpreted by many, I daresay most, people over the years. Most people read that statement and think Capa was referring to physical proximity. He wasn’t. It was a philosophical statement. What Capa was saying is that you need to be psychologically close to your subject. You need to understand the subject matter in order to make good pictures. How do I know this? I can give you several examples of situations where the photographer is not physically close to the subject but they are able to make stunning images. Many instances of shooting sports, as an example. We have all seen photographers on the sidelines with their long lenses. They, for the most part, are not permitted to be close to their subjects but they still make compelling pictures. Why? Because they understand what it is they are shooting. They understand the flow of the sport and can anticipate the action. They can be ready when the action happens. I have also seen and read interviews with long-time Capa friend and editor John Morris where he explained the quote and he said he was referring to an understanding of the subject. I have also read Capa’s pseudo-autobiography Slightly Out of Focus where he talks about the idea as well.
How close was Adams to Half Dome when he captured those famous images? How close was he to the town of Hernandez when he shot Moonrise? Moonrise illustrates the intent of Capa’s quote very well. Adams knew his gear, his situation and lighting intimately so that even when rushed he could still capture a now classic shot.
Street photography is the same. While you will, typically, be much closer physically to your subjects, that does not guarantee a good photo. You need to understand the subject and the place. You need to be a part of what is going on, to feel the vibe of your surroundings. You need to be aware of what is happening in front and around you and be able to anticipate what may happen next. Then be ready to capture it. Another way to think about the concept is that you need to have empathy for the place and subjects.
One thing you will see as you work through these essays is that equipment is not vital from a technical or technology standpoint. You do not need the latest and greatest, honking-huge DSLR hanging around your neck. In fact, often times, the bigger the camera and lens the less likely you will get a good shot. Old film, often rangefinder, cameras are what a street photography mentor of mine uses. The small, inconspicuous mirrorless cameras that have become popular generally are especially popular with street photographers. The cameras in many smartphones have advanced to the point where very good image quality is possible and with so many people pointing phones at this, that and every other thing, people have become inured to the presence of cell phone cameras, which can be very beneficial to street photographers. I have an old Fuji medium format rangefinder that I will use sometimes in my street photography. While it is a larger camera, because it is old and does not look as imposing as a fancy DSLR, because it has a fairly small, integrated lens, people do not recoil from it as they can do with a big DSLR. As we will look at in the next essay, what gear is used is really not of significance.
The eye and experience, more than equipment, guides you to successful street photography. A practised eye and good timing will win out over equipment any day. A picture-taker knows how; a photographer knows how and why. The picture-taker is more concerned with gear and tech; the photographer is more concerned with the art and the weaving of a compelling visual narrative. We are, and strive to be, photographers.
You are likely to find a fairly sizable group of people who do not like street photography. Who say they don’t ‘get’ street photography. ‘What is so interesting about a person standing on a corner?’, they may ask. Perhaps commensurate with the renewed interest in street photography over the past several years, there is a lot of bad street photography available to be seen. Just as there is a lot of bad examples of other forms of photography. Good street photography is what I like to call slow photography. It requires the viewer to pay attention, to really look carefully and see what is in the picture. It takes time. It is not obvious. It is not easy. It takes thought. It is not ‘Oooohhhh, pretty flower’ type of photography. It can be uncomfortable. It can hit a little too close to home. Some people are just looking for the quick and easy. Those people are never likely to really get street photography. That is OK though. That is what is so great about art and the subjectivity of it. There is something for everyone. Each of us simply needs to find our niche and our audience.
With that, let us now move on to the more detailed discussion of street photography. As you have probably gleaned from reading this introduction, much of the conversation will be around the more philosophical side of street photography. And I do want it to be a conversation. Your feedback and thoughts are most welcomed.
P.S. Before moving on, I want to put into your minds three over-arching thoughts to consider and that will act as the ‘mantra’, if you will, for the approach outlined in the rest of the series. See, don’t just look. Listen, don’t just hear. Think, don’t just do. These ideas will be expanded upon as we move forward.
Bob Patterson, from Cleveland, OH is the publisher of Street Photography Magazine, a web developer, martial artist and really curious guy. When he’s not doing any of those things, you’ll usually find him traveling, capturing life on the streets of Cleveland, and trying to stay out of trouble.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photographs have been used with permission. Click on the images to access larger versions.
What attracts you to street photography?
I guess it takes me back to when I was a kid and looking at Life Magazine. I’d see all these famous photographers and the images that really resonated with me were the ones that were happening in the moment; like the famous one of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square. I’ve always been attracted to that style of photography. As soon as I got a rangefinder-style camera in my hand, I felt at home. Which is funny because we never had one in my home growing up. Part of it is nostalgia. I was trained as a journalist, so I’m pretty much of a storyteller, so I’ve always been attracted to a more journalistic style of photography. I just like being out an about, experiencing the city, traveling and seeing new things. I just enjoy capturing those things as I see them.
What prompted you to start the magazine?
A couple of things, really. I’ve always loved street photography. A few years ago, Apple introduced The Newsstand. A guy named Marco Arment launched The Magazine. I was really taken with the idea that a regular guy could create a magazine and have worldwide distribution without having to go through a big publisher. You could publish whatever you wanted. As a part of my web development business, I acquired a license to a product called MagCast. I figured I’d give it a try and see how it worked. Next I had to pick a topic and one of them was street photography. I had another topic but figured I’d go with my passion. I continually questioned myself because I’m not that good a photographer (Ed: Bob is a much better photographer than he thinks he is), and I figured ‘who the heck am I’ but I figured people could come along with me on my journey and learn with me as I talked to all these different photographers.
The magazine is in the third year now?
Yeah, we just published out third anniversary issue. The first issue came out in April 2013, so we’ve been at it three years now.
What are your thoughts on ethics in street photography?
I think it boils down to being respectful with your subjects. If you approach them with an idea of respect, I think that covers a lot of ground. Personally I will rarely photograph the homeless. They’re, for lack of a better term, easy targets. Unless there’s some compelling image. But just a guy sleeping on a bench, no. And you’ll rarely see one of those photos in our magazine. A lot of it has to do with where you come from. In the U.S., you don’t really have a right of privacy in public. We’re probably a lot more liberal than other countries in that regard. If someone asks me to delete an image, I’m going to delete it because they didn’t want me to take it. It goes back to that idea of being respectful. Another is photographing children. That’s pretty touchy down here. I will do it, but I’m not going to follow a kid around to take a picture. One thing I won’t do is stick a flash in somebody’s face and encroach on their personal space. I try to be unobtrusive. I’m not the story.
What do you see as the one or two common threads among the many photographers you’ve featured from different countries and cultures?
I would say every one of them has a passion for it. You have to. There’s no money in it so you have to. I’d also say probably a good healthy curiosity. They all like people. You have to be genuinely interested in people to do this on a regular basis.
What are the few common differences you see across the spectrum?
The styles or approaches are probably the biggest. Some people are like ‘hunters’. They’re on the move all the time. They don’t stay in one place very long. The other group are the ‘gatherers’. They find a place with a nice background and they’ll stay in that place and just photograph people who come into that space. We can get into things like focal length; those who shoot really wide and then those who shoot a little longer.
Do you see a difference in the aesthetic of the female as compared to male street photographer?
Yes. My very favourite is a woman. Her name is Margarita Mavromichalis. Women feel more. Much more empathetic. More sensitive to what’s going on around them. Some of them seem to remain more physically distant from their subjects. I wish there were more women doing this.
What one thing would you like to see change in street photography?
I think I’d have to say that I’d like to see people be more mindful and to think more about what’s in the frame. To be less ‘spray ‘n pray’.
What do you think are some of the reasons for the growth in popularity of street photography over the last 3, 4, 5 years?
To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. I think digital photography, because it’s so much easier, is one factor. Here in the U.S., there’s a general movement of people back into the cities, areas are starting to become more gentrified, so people are out and about more, there are a lot of things going on, they’re around people more and I think that has spurred it somewhat. I think some of it is a fad. It may be like the golf of photography. Golf had a big upsurge a few years ago and now it’s on the downswing. (Ed: We agreed that as Lorne Rubenstein described golf as a good walk spoiled, street photography can be a good walk spoiled too.)
The Internet, definitely has impacted. I think the new retro-styled cameras has an impact. If you were a street photographer 15 years ago, no one saw your stuff unless you were published in print. Now everyone can publish instantly. The proliferation of cell phones has contributed a lot too. Everyone has a camera now.
 Meltzer, Milton, Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1978