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MEXICO. Mexico City. Prostituées. Calle Cuauhtemoctzin. 1934.

The art and essence of street photography

Column 2 with my short opinion on current (photography) affairs or just another short thought related to photography. In any case they all only express a personal opinion. Today’s column is on the essence of true street photography and why and how it differs from news or documentary photography.

A man walking down the street, a woman crossing the street, two men, three women, a child, a dog, just name who’s doing whatever on any random street. You see those photos many times on the Internet, categorized as ‘street photography’. But those are not the type of street photographs that masters like Cartier-Bresson or Brassai photographed. There was always something unusual in their photos. Something strange, something striking happening that could only happen at that moment in the photos of those masters, and in the photo only. A man or a woman walking down the street is not something unusual or strange; it happens every second of the day, even in the most isolated villages. What makes for an interesting street photograph, is not that what happens concretely on the streets – in that case, it would be news or documentary photography – but it is the way the pure street photographer makes something happen in the image, inside the frame. The true street photographer does that by framing ‘something that doesn’t happen’ and capturing it at exactly the moment that ‘relations are created between the objects in the frame’ to loosely paraphrase John Szarkowski, and are only visible in that 2-dimensional scaled down frame.

A true street photographer knows that when you frame something from 3 to 2 dimensions in a photo and scale down infinite reality to a 35mm or similar surface, it creates unexpected relationships between objects that aren’t there in real life. It is this purely incidental occurrence of 2-dimensional scaled down relationships that can make something happen in the frame where nothing seems to happen in real life. A masterful street photographer like Bresson MAKES something happen in his frame, and it only happens there in that frame at one specific moment, not in real life where all the subjects have no relation with each other.

Don’t look for something happening on the streets, look for something happening in your frame that can only happen there. Bresson’s decisive moment is the moment something can happen in the frame only and the photographer understands and sees in his mind’s eye, that meaningful relations are created in the frame at that moment.

Now we also know the essential difference between a news or documentary photograph and a ‘real’ street photograph, we see why one is fine-art and the other isn’t: in news photography, something happens in reality that is newsworthy or extraordinary. In street or candid photography, nothing extraordinary happens in real life, nothing real, but only in the frame and in the artist’s mind. That makes it art.

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9 Responses

  1. Hello Joel. Cartier Bresson , Doisneau , Dieuzaide and many others, they also knew that there’s a huge difference between taking and doing a picture. 😉

  2. Now we also know the essential difference between a news or documentary photograph and a ‘real’ street photograph, we see why one is fine-art and the other isn’t: in news photography, something happens in reality that is newsworthy or extraordinary. In street or candid photography, nothing extraordinary happens in real life, nothing real, but only in the frame and in the artist’s mind. That makes it art.

    This paragraph should be written by a golden water, one paragraph equal to 100 of articles

  3. Thanks Joel. A very clear explanation of what street photography could (and shouldn’t) be about.

    Paddy

  4. Your text should be submitted to Art Schools, Photography’s Colleges and Universities Departments. Oops … mistake from me : it could dramatically reduce the number of enrollments of pretenders.

  5. So called street photography these days seems to be more about capturing the back of people’s heads than revealing something about them.I call it sneak photography.Like you said Joel ,its what in the frame that counts

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