On Defining Street Photography
Is a Definition needed ?
Before trying to define Street Photography it’s worth considering if the effort would be worthwhile, do we need a definition at all?
In Street Photography some argue against definitions, but in general life it is clear that definitions, divisions and descriptions are useful? It is useful to differentiate Photography from the other arts, painting, sculpture for example. Music can be divided into classical, rock, opera, hiphop etc. So why a resistance to defining Street Photography? I think it is because Street Photography is currently cool and everyone wants their work to be considered Street Photography and don’t like to be excluded by a definition.
There are two camps when it comes to defining Street Photography, those who think a definition restricts creativity, experimentation and see a definition as imposing ‘rules’ on picture making. And in the other camp, those that realise, of course, that if everything is Street Photography then essentially, nothing is. So if we accept that Street Photography exists then we must accept a description of it.
The significance of a Photograph and especially a Street Photograph has a direct relationship with the way in which it was made and so it’s method of making must be inherent in any description of it.
The Problem of Defining Street Photography
‘If Everything is Street Photography then essentially, Nothing is’
The definition of Street Photography is a moving object, it’s not possible to pin it down with one definitive statement. There are traits associated historically and traditionally with Street Photography but even those have been challenged in recent years. The problem is that Street Photographers have defined it with their work and Street Photographers are still defining it and redefining it with their work today. And only time will tell if these re definitions stick. Some of the unbreachable boundaries of the past such as staging Street Photographs….have been crossed by contemporary Street Photographers which has left the current scene divided on a definition. There are a large number of Street Photographers who still consider it an observational documentary practice for whom staging and digitally manipulating images is pointless. There is also a considerable number of Street Photographers who reject any definitions or restrictions and include a number of different practices such as street portraits, manipulated and artificially lit pictures within the term Street Photography. This division was highlighted in 2018 when the members of the Street Photography collective in-public, which had been set up originally to promote Street Photography in 2000, became divided along these lines, posting a digitally manipulated image and a staged image as Street Photography.
In 2017 Nick Turpin, frustrated by the inadequacy of the phrase Street Photography to actually describe what Street Photographers do, suggested Candid Public Photography as a more descriptive name. This simple and broad definition captures those qualities historically associated with Street Photography and describes how, where and with what process Street Photographs are created. But again, this is one photographers suggestion and only time will tell if it sticks.
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.
So Street Photography clearly exists as a practice but a tug of war is ongoing about wether or not it goes beyond the candidly made public photograph.
On The Contemporary Resurgence of Street Photography
The beginnings of Street Photography in Paris at the start of the 19th century are well documented as are it’s later rich period centred around New York in the 60’s and 70’s. What is less documented is the history of the huge contemporary resurgence of interest in Street Photography that was driven by the arrival of cheap high quality digital cameras and image sharing on the internet that started in the mid to late 90’s. A whole new generation of young photographers, particularly in Europe and London were inspired by the work they saw from photographers of the previous generation like Elliot Erwitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Tony Ray Jones, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander. It was the wit and humour in particular that drew them to this work and that continues to be a feature of this 90’s resurgence. In London in 1999 Nick Turpin was introduced to the Street Photographer and author David Gibson and they became the first members of the new in-public group that promoted street photography as a distinct way of working with a website of street photography galleries launched in January 2000. The internet only started in 1996 so in-public were some of the very first to show street photography to a world wide audience, it would be another four years before flickr would launch in 2004 and another ten years before the era of Instagram would start. Within a few months of launching over 40 thousand people were visiting the in-public site to view street photography every month. By the end of the first year Ludovic Fremeaux, Richard Bram, Matt Stuart, Trent Parke, Narelle Autio and And Morley-Hall had swelled the numbers. There were of course many other individual photographers shooting street photographs scattered around the globe, notably Martin Kollar, Christobal Hara, Abe Jun and Matt Weber.
Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Joel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck is published
John Brownlow starts Street Photographers Forum ( Runs until 2011 ).
in-public Street Photographers group launches
New York Capital of Photography by Max Kozloff with Exhibition at The Jewish Museum NYC. ( Focused on the huge contribution of the Jewish community to Street Photography ).
Hardcore Street Photography group launches on Flickr
The first London Street Photography Festival.
Format Photography Festival, Derby is themed around Street Photography.
Burn My Eye Group launches.
Museum of London show London Street Photography ( Telegraph article ).
Eric Kim starts to popularise Street Photography through blogging, social media and workshops.
in-sight film about the in-public photographers released.
Un-Posed Polish Street Photography Collective launched.
Full Frontal Flash Collective of Flash using Street Photographers
Siam Street Nerds group is launched.
Berlin1020 Street Photographers Group, Germany.
Women in Street Network launched
Double X Street Female Street Photography Flickr group launched
Ken Walton launches StreetFoto San Francisco
Jason Reed launches The London Street Photography Symposium
Bystander: A History of Street Photography is republished featuring contemporary street photographers.
APF Magazine launches run from India by Vineet and Rohit Vohra.
In-Street Indian Street Photography Collective launches.
Candid Public Photography initiative by Nick Turpin launches.
Hoxton Mini Press create STREET LONDON from The London Street Photography Symposium.
Street.Life.Photography Exhibition at Deichtor Hallen, Hamburg, Germany. (Significant for showing seven decades of Street Photography including the contemporary generation).
in-public group splits over the inclusion of computational Street Photography and staged Street Photography.
Julie Hrudova starts Street Repeat on Instagram exploring Street Photography themes and cliches.
This timeline was created in conjunction with the street photography community in January 2019, please feel free to email suggestions and additions.
On the Impact of Technology on Street Photography
Street Photography has never been about equipment, it has traditionally relied upon the unique vision of the photographer to recognise and show us something special. This is evidenced in the way that Street Photographers shooting on the same streets with pretty much the same equipment make completely different images. They are drawn to different aspects of the public experience and they frame and juggle the elements in different ways. Street Photography is an intellectual activity, it happens in the brain, the observation, the connections made, the story suggested, the elements curated, the humour implied, the ambiguity spotted , the surrealism seen, the beauty enjoyed. It’s technically simple but intellectually hard, that has been it’s attraction for many.