Street Photography is not Voyeurism

I can sense the discomfort when I talk about street photography. Not my own, but of the other person on finding that it means taking pictures of people in public spaces. I’ve never received a coherent explanation for their unease, just the slightly wary, discomfited look to their eye, the muttered statement that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with it. Perhaps my too-simple description conjures the image of a photographer who concentrates his interest on a particular individual, and their particular actions, to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps there is a sense of distance, of judgment . . . of photographer as voyeur. But street photography is not voyeurism. The intent is not to pry into one’s personal life – no 1/60th of a second can reveal the totality of you. And it’s certainly not to do so from a distance, surreptitiously . . .

So let me start with examples of what is not street photography. I won’t embed samples from that site: they’re voyeuristic and they disturb me. Notice how the photos remind you of paparazzi shots: how, close-cropped, they exclude everything but their central subject; how the long lens flattens perspective and blurs surroundings, excluding context altogether; how you can feel the distance, the women as specimens. To me, this can never be street photography. And it highlights an important point: pictures of people on the street do not equal “street photography”.

But if that’s so, what is street photography? Well, that’s hard to answer, for there are as many opinions on that topic as there are practitioners and viewers. So . . . here’s my take.

First, things first: it’s not reportage, and the photographs don’t advance a certain agenda. They don’t explicitly pose any questions, and unsurprisingly, don’t explicitly answer any either. Neither do they tell a story. No, in the words of Garry Winogrand, they simply “show you what something looks like – to a camera”. But that doesn’t mean the images are shallow. On the contrary, well-executed street photography allows you to explore and enjoy a range of intellectual (the relationship between color, form, and placement) and emotional responses. Perhaps it’s best to think of them as Richard Kalvar does: as “play”. (I can feel myself tumbling down the rabbit hole already)
Untitled, Joel Meyerowitz

© Joel Meyerowitz, 198-something

I love this because of the complexity of the scene and how, in this riot of buildings, lines and signs, how the placement of color pulls everything together.

Street photography emphasizes the relationship between people and their environment – and that of the photographer with both; each photo is the manifestation of a confluence of actions by these three players. Moreover, the surroundings aren’t simply backdrop – they provide context, and are as important to the photo as the people in it. It’s this conviction that the environment has equal footing with people that explains my distaste of telephoto shots (their narrow angle of view and blurred background finger only the subjects). This balanced relationship has another effect: every one of these photos becomes a “slice of life,” selected and immortalized from the infinite visual possibilities we’re exposed to daily. Looking at these photos you can imagine yourself in the photographer’s shoes recognizing something amidst these possibilities, your brain firing and saying “This is special” and reacting too fast to know what exactly it is. In looking at the work of great street photographers there’s always one thought I’m left with: that the mundane can be beautiful, and that life is a rich, rich, giving experience.
New York, 1972, Helen Levitt

© Helen Levitt, 1972

When I first encountered Helen Levitt’s photos I was blown away. Her color work captures not just the moment, but the energy and life that’s contained within it. And what do we see here? Industriousness, exploration, shyness, courtship, humor – life as played out by children.

Taxi, New York, 1957, Saul Leiter

© Saul Leiter, 1957

I can’t articulate what attracts me to Saul Leiter’s work. In comparison to Helen Levitt’s, his photographs are very, very still. Looking at them it’s hard to imagine movement before or after the shutter was pressed – as if the world had simply stopped. I prefer his color photos to his black and whites. Well, prefer is too weak – I love his use of color, and here, the suggestion of humanity as evidenced by a single hand.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

It’s important to keep this in mind when looking at a lot of street photography. The photo isn’t necessarily about the people in the frame. Yes, they’re crucial to the composition, but it’s almost as if their presence is . . . incidental. Maybe if they weren’t there, if they were replaced by their understudy, the photo would have been taken anyways. And remember – the image doesn’t say anything definitive about them. Maybe it’s this open-endedness that’s disturbing, that’s the cause of so much sensitivity about our image, for it doesn’t allow any control over a viewer’s perceptions or the message they get. I guess the only thing I can say is this: the intent’s never to poke fun at people; perhaps to highlight the humor in a situation, but never to point and laugh. At any rate, I’d say the most riveting street photography takes place when you’re in the subjects’ space. You’re within a few feet, and at that distance you’re as engaged in the scene as they are.
Untitled, Amani Willett

© Amani Willett, 2007

“Life is surprising.” That’s what springs to mind when I browse Willett’s street photographs. Of those I’ve seen this is the most arresting. There’s something very poignant about it isn’t there? The idea of a very real person touching (caressing?) this very fake face . . . Thoughts of our relationship to the real, the imagined, and the suggested spring to mind. Remove the hand and yeah, her eyes still capture you, but the composition would be top-heavy. With the hand, with it being that color – it creates a contrast that balances everything.

Street photography doesn’t necessarily have to be on “the street” – in fact, I often think of it as public space photography.
Victor and Friend at the Ritz, Austin, Texas, 1982, Bill Daniel

© Bill Daniel, 1982

It’s interesting how Bill Daniel worked with this mess of a situation. What’s at first a jumble of arms, hands and heads quickly resolves into a coherent scene complete with its set of “Huh” moments. I really like the varied tones and how the flash (I presume it’s flash) nicely highlights the subjects; note too, how there’s no area that simply too black to see. Investigate further and you’ll notice the shocked girl at the top, the blasé one with a cigarette and beer to the right, the oblivious conversationalists behind the fight . . . Messy, compositionally coherent, and inviting exploration – what more could you ask for?

This gets me to style. There are many takes on street photography – so many, it’d be impossible to enumerate them all. Some photographers prefer crowd and complexity, others favor the sparse composition; with some you’re in the subjects’ face, with others there’s more standoff distance; some prefer the strange juxtapositions that occur with camera vision – people flattened onto each other, their gestures creating strange results, others . . . not so much. Photographs can be visual chuckles, observational or abstract, and it all depends on how the photographer sees and reacts to the world. But the key is that there’s plenty to choose from; if you don’t like one take on the world, try another.

FWIW, I’m not fond of the “visual chuckle” stuff. It’s clever, but it’s missing something.
New York, Lee Friedlander

© Lee Friedlander, 1966

I’m very fond of Friedlander’s photos but if pressed couldn’t tell you precisely why. I think they’re clever, interesting – perhaps a little ‘intellectual’ at times. I look at many of them and am surprised at what’s included in the frame and how it’s arranged. For example, how Friedlander used his shadow or reflection as a compositional element, or how he used mirrors or other verticals to subdivide and create pictures within pictures.
Couple at Zoo Looking at Each Other, Wolf in Cage, New York, Garry Winogrand

© Garry Winogrand, 1962

I have no idea how long ago I saw this – but it made an impression. It’s really better seen large, but notice how the couple, the wolf, the vertical cage wall and hatched shadow all balance out. And as for the content itself: the wolf, stark white, prowling closer . . . it feels dangerous – can the cage contain it? And the man, his face stark white in the sun – the suggestion practically shouts . . .

In some ways street photography is the most accessible of the photographic sub-genres. It may not elicit awe or an “I wish I were there” reaction, but given how much of our life is conducted in public its foundations are those we can connect and identify with. And just to reiterate, it’s not about those sneak-and-peek shots on tabloid covers at supermarket checkouts. It’s not about embarrassing moments. And it’s not about portraying people at their worst. It’s about seeing our life anew.

If you’d like to explore further, look through the work of the following photographers:

Like any other style there are people working in this vein on Flickr. But they’re tough to find, given: 1) the volume of images uploaded and photographers there, and 2) the impossibility of searching for a specific style. Moreover, not everybody has a coherent body of work behind them. That said, two photographers I thought interesting are:

I’ll add more resources and links as I get them.

NB: All images open up larger when clicked

Comments

  1. anastas - January 17, 2009 @ 19:04

    It was a great read. I agree with most of your comments.

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