Word On the Street: What Is the Appeal of Street Photography?

The photographer Nick Turpin is a leading figure within street photography and he said this in a website article titled On Defining Street Photography, “Street Photographs are difficult to make because they come from an uncontrolled environment, their power lies in the head on collision between the super real they appear to show and the mundane real where they were actually made. It is a cognitive event in which the viewer derives pleasure from the understanding that an incredible photograph evidences an actual event, the very special plucked out of the unspecial.” I think that is a pretty good description of what makes a successful ‘street’ photograph, but it could also describe many other areas of photographic practice.

Joel Meyerowitz, no stranger himself to street related images said this, “I believe that street photography is central to the issue of photography – that it is purely photographic, whereas the other genres, such as landscape and portrait photography, are a little more applied, more mixed in the with the history of painting and other art forms.” I think Meyerowitz’s comment fails where Turpin succeeds. Street photography is not separate from other areas of photography, in fact I would suggest that it is closer to the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and its associated visual representations in paint and ink, and many other moments in art history than Meyorwitz would perhaps accept. However, he also said that, “One of the things I learned on the street was to trust life and to keep hands off of it, and that feeling continues in the rest of the works that I do, the portrait, the landscapes, or any interest that I have.” So perhaps we should not put too much store in these words when searching for an answer to its appeal.

Let’s continue to reflect on these quotes by the lions of the street photography world. Garry Winogrand hated the term “street photographer” and simply saw himself as a “photographer”, despite this he is often referred as the very thing he hated. Winogrand was great at the witty one-liner and perhaps one of his best is this, “Most photographs are of life, what goes on in the world. And that’s boring, generally. Life is banal, you know. Let’s say that an artist deals with banality. I don’t care what the discipline is.” Tony Ray Jones was good at identifying banality but is his work street photography? Does that matter? I don’t think so, he said this, ““Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think it is possible to walk, like Alice, through a looking glass and find another kind of world with the camera.” Ray-Jones echoed a common feeling amongst street photographers both then and now. The search for a different or new world created from the banality of the everyday. Is this it’s appeal?

The banality of the everyday is what surrounds us, but the desire to escape from that banality is strong.

Bruce Gilden says that “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.” It’s a typical quote from Gilden that should not surprise anyone that knows his work. He often creates a world of the grotesque and dysfunctional from the everyday streets of New York that often veers towards the characters in Brugel’s most complex paintings. It often feels to me that Gilden is enacting a personal vendetta against his fellow city dwellers, by creating images that are based in his truth and not the truth of how people look, a type of deeply personal photographic revenge. Is this it’s appeal?

Turpin states that street photography is not easy, but to those uninitiated into its black arts it appears to be very easy. Matt Stuart is a well regarded street photographer who has written a book on street photography titled Think Like a Street Photographer. In the book he recognises the need to work hard for luck to happen. If you are going to learn about street photography Stuart is a good person to learn from but could you learn street photography from any photographer? Do they have to be a street photographer? Or can any photographer explain the importance of patience, resilience, composition, light, exposures, depth of field and most importantly the art of seeing? Even more relevant perhaps is whether you can learn it from a book? Many street photographers, particularly on Instagram seem to be self-taught so maybe you can. Is that it’s appeal? All you need is a camera, a street and an educated eye, but of course it is the third of those requirements that is the hardest to get.

Let’s pose a couple more questions. Is street photography just photography that happens in a street? Does it need to happen in a street?

Turpin say this, “The current social media environment is one, it seems, where no-one has any more right or authority than anyone else to try and impose a definition of Street Photography. The only thing that is clear is that there are a large number of photographers who value and want to shoot candid documentary pictures in public places and have that work recognised as such….whatever name is attached to it.” Perhaps this is why it appeals to so many, it’s sense of freedom from definition.

Or perhaps its appeal lies in the sense of community on Instagram, where likes are the potential reward for persistent documentation of the street. Where the visual joke and unexpected juxtaposition can reap likes and followers. Perhaps this is it’s appeal.

Those Instagram warriors may or may not be aware of Robert Frank’s The Americans, or William Klein’s New York 1954-55 perhaps two of the greatest bodies of published street photography. Whether they would describe it as street photography is definitely open to question but as Frank stated “I am always looking outside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.” Street photography is constantly changing, perhaps that is its appeal.

Of course every question I have posed leads to an inevitable positive response. The appeal of street photography is multi-faceted. I have welcomed some of its most successful participants to my A Photographic Life podcast to explain what photography means to them including Turpin, Nick Wynne, Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Paul Russell, Julie Hrudova, and Melissa Breyer. Their responses confirm the creative possibilities that the street environment can offer the educated eye and the committed photographer. Their work reveals their photographic prowess, sense of storytelling and understanding of what street photography can be; it is not confined by definitions of the past but it is true to the ideals of honesty and documentation, rather than manipulation.

To be able to create such work from the mundane and the everyday is appealing but their images are not simple or easy to replicate, they are visually sophisticated and hard earnt. Many miles will have been walked and many hours spent waiting for ‘luck’ to happen. It is only when these facts are realised that the appeal of street photography can quickly fade.

You can read the full article by Nick Turpin here: https://nickturpin.com/on-defining-street-photography/

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a podcaster, BBC Radio contributor, filmmaker, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

2 comments

  1. Start by identifying someone in street photography who actually is of note. Then go from there.

  2. Thank you for the informative and stimulating post, Grant.

    Does the appeal of street photography lie in the sense of community on Instagram, where likes are the potential reward for persistent documentation of the street? Well, of course, Street Photography clearly exists as a practice in the minds of people; there are over 93million #streetphotography hashtags on Instagram alone and that’s but one indicator of how the public sees it or feels about it. The opinion of the public, explicit or not, is constantly evolving with the ongoing democratisation of photography. More and more, ‘street’ or other images are being produced from all types of devices – phones, cameras, CCTVs, dashcams, etc – and this process happens as individuals interact and engage more and more with the world around them.

    I personally do not see a tug of war ongoing about whether or not street photography goes beyond the candidly made public photograph, as Turpin claims. However, I do remember the disquiet around Doisneau’s staged kiss by the town hall and also the botched manipulation that plagued Steve McCurry’s photographs a few years ago. It’s therefore clear in my mind that there’s a line beyond which “the power and pleasure evaporate when a Street Photograph is revealed to be staged or manipulated.”

    Does that mean that we need a definition to separately designate candid public photography? Not in my view; what we need is less complication and .. simply, honesty. Where this fails, it fails and people face consequences.. that’s life. For those Instagram users who feel they need it, there are 12m #candid hashtags as well as 2+m #candidphotography ones.

    Yes, I know, it’s not just a matter for Instagram 🙂

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