One genre of photography I’ve never formally pursued is Street. I love Street photographs and follow many street shooters on social media. I also read about and study work of the street greats1. For me, Street demands a certain set of skills, technical and personal, particularly a patient, observant eye along with quick reactions to act and capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called ‘the decisive moment’. Strict Street photography also demands that you capture human stories, ideally with contextual depth and layers in the shots and not just random street action snaps.
To do Street shooting requires commitment in all weather conditions and no little courage to get those iconic, insightful, timeless images. All genres of photography compel snappers to keep practising but Street most of all. You must hone and then maintain quick reactions to capture often fast unfolding situations and be able to respond intuitively. And you must be persistent but accept that luck (good and bad) will play its role. In my view, Street photography is like trying to dance on a constantly moving carpet.
But while all the compositional ‘rules’ (or guidelines if preferred) still hold in Street – rule of thirds, leading lines, frame-within-a-frame, symmetry and so on, it seems what Street shooting doesn’t demand is 100% technical precision.
According to Garry Winogrand2:
The world isn’t tidy. It’s a mess. I don’t try to make it neat.
For Winogrand, the key objective in Street is to tell human stories through images. And to capture photographs that make viewers take a moment longer to peruse them and ask questions. If this means that, with the best will in the world you don’t get a precise exposure, or you capture some (unwanted) motion blur, or a sun flare, or the framing isn’t exact, then so be it. Indeed, far from being wrong, or deemed unusable, such faults can become part of the story. After all, in the circumstances of the moment, it may be how the viewer would have witnessed the scene themselves if there in person.
With this in mind, I decided to re-visit my recent (so-called) Street photographs. I then went a step further. I curated and printed a photo book of Street images, called Street life in black & white3.
At this point I make two disclosures:
Urban photography, for me, means looking at architecture, structures and their lines, shapes, textures and unique constructions, also the relationship between urban landscape materials and their interplay with light and shadows. There may be some element of human presence, for example, vehicles parked or rubbish left uncleared but my Urban pictures don’t require physical human beings as part of their stories.
While out capturing Urban images, however, and thereby in environments also frequented by dedicated Street photographers, where I see a Street-like human story unfolding and think I can get the shot, I’ll go for it.
Prior to reading Winogrand’s words and then reading more widely on the subject, I was like most photographers that love the craft. I took (and continue to take) very seriously the business of capturing the best quality photographs I can. Most important is composition and trying to photograph what each scene shares with me. But closely following that, I strive to achieve the highest technical standard possible. As a predominantly landscape and woodland photographer, where I often have time on my side to pontificate over the technical niceties, this makes perfect sense. But Winogrand inspired me to look again at my Street pictures which I’d previously set aside as images I was uneasy about showing, as technically questionable. Forget my technical hang ups and really see the stories as captured. Believe in their value and publish them.
I don’t read Winogrand as saying I should be less committed to technical accuracy; or to employing the recognised ‘rules’ (guidelines) of photography where pictures benefit. But I do think he’s saying that whatever genre of photography I pursue, and especially Street, don’t chase technical proficiency at the expense of the story to be told.
One other important take-away? If I want to develop my Street photography and tell more human stories, perhaps in time even emulate a little of the work of the greats, don’t just bolt on Street shooting to my Urban shoots. Research, plan, go out and concentrate on being a committed Street photographer.