Perth Work Ahead (Perth, Australia): OMD5 45mm shot at 45mm, f/8, 1/250sec & ISO 200.
Street photography is one of my favorite genres to enjoy and by “enjoying” I mean look at. Shooting street photography is one of the most challenging genres to master. I wanted to understand a little more about why it is so frustratingly hard so I spent a little time looking at my street photography attempts, those of the experts and some people’s thoughts on the subject. So here is what I learned…
Street Photography Types
There are two types of street photographers out there and both are legitimate. The first group is the one that uses people as the main protagonist of their photo. I searched through hundreds of photos of great photographers that are masters at doing this. The more recent discovery of thousands of images from photographer Vivian Maier has shown us some of the best examples of this style of photography.
Photo by Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier’s images are amazing. Much of what draws my eye is the time in which the images were taken. An everyday street scene in 1950 is a work of art in 2014. But after skipping through those images I found touching moments of people captured perfectly. The simple image conveys an emotion across 64 years of time and hits you like a brick. How did she and other street photography greats manage that?
I tried to understand what makes a simple portrait a masterful photograph and I found this explanation from Mimo Khair on Flickr Moment (you can see it HERE).
Photo take by Mimo Khair
In the video Mrs. Khair explains that she is looking for “moments of connection” or “when someone is inside a moment”. That explanation really nails the hundreds of excellent street photography images that I have seen. Mrs. Khair really has a knack for capturing these moments as can be seen in the image above. The street provides the backdrop, the leading lines and the compositional tools. But the image is not about the street but rather the two people clearly in love sitting on the floor.
This style of street photography is the one that pulls me the most. It uses the “street” to give a background to the real story of peoples lives. When done well and people are captured “inside a moment” the results are mesmerizing. I can look at some of these images for hours.
The second group of street photographers tell a story about the street, buildings and events and leave people to play a supporting role. These images may not even have a person in them. They tell a story of a place that we may very well recognize but have never really taken he time to look.
Photo by Jay Maisel
Jay Maisel is said to be one of the greatest street photographers and he is indeed an inspiration to me. Looking through his pictures I have discovered that this is the type of photography he really excels at. People are protagonists in many of his images but they play a supporting role to tell the story about the place. More recently the main protagonist of his images has been color and Jay Maisel uses it better than anyone else to tell a story.
That is not to say that photographers can’t do both. Below are a couple of images where Vivian Maier uses people as a supporting role and Jay Maisel allows people to be the lead protagonist.
Photo by Vivian Maier
I can see that above Vivian uses the lady walking to provide scale, depth and symmetry (using the reflection). But the photo is not about the lady but about the place.
Photo by Jay Maisel
In the image above Jay Maisel captures the man in a moment. The expression and eyes convey boredom at first glance but then we see something else…resignation. He appears to convey a message of having to go someplace that he does not wish to but must go. The fact that he is framed in the window of a bus helps convey the message of travel…
Street Photography Under Threat
The other thing that I have noticed is that while street photography is very popular to look at it is suffering a bit in this day and age. I am beginning to see more people take images of the street instead of images of people on the street.
I occasionally like to stop by and see a few minutes of the discussions on “The Grid”. Much of the content is a bit forced but there are some good discussions if you can work your way through some of the fluff. In Episode 151 (41 minutes in) Scott Kelby shares a story of walk around Paris with Jay Maisel when they were confronted by a lady who did not appreciate her photo being taken. From Mr. Kelby’s description it seems that it was a very traumatic experience for him and has driven him away from street photography.
This is a fear that we all share. No one wants to cause someone pain or anger with our hobby. But should we allow street photography to die? In an age of cell phone images being taken all over the world should we stop and suddenly put our cameras away for fear of invading someone’s privacy? If someone does not want the image taken can they not just ask us not to? Is it reasonable for them to become irate without having tried a discussion?
Tailor at Work (Singapore): D800 24-70mm shot at 70mm, f/8, 1/90sec & ISO 400.
Before starting this post I always thought that my street photographs lacked something because they did not capture people in a moment. Now I understand that there are times when the story is about the street and through careful composition, the right timing and a little luck these images can be mesmerizing in their own right.
I have also realized that while the fear of rejection can push people away from street photography I do not believe that to be right. I believe that if I am respectful in my image taking and will immediately delete any image of someone who asks me to I will not allow a few rude people to drive me from a genre that I love.