Oct 3, 2022

What Is Street Photography? A Definition & History

Everything You Need To Know About Street Photography, Simply Put.

Hunter Scott
Hunter Scott
What Is Street Photography? A Definition & History

Street Photography is a catch-all term for photography of subjects that exist in the public realm, from candid photos of strangers, to documenting events and demonstrations.

As street photography has evolved, so has the definition, and what artists and photographers have accepted as “real” street photography. From Henri Cartier-Bresson, to Martin Parr, to Dougie Wallace - styles and techniques have changed and grown, as well as the subject matter and intention of street photographers. In this guide, I’ll run you through all the basics, and give you all the knowledge you need to get started in this incredibly challenging, and rewarding art form. Let’s get started with a quick history lesson.

When Did Street Photography Start?

Street Photography was born in Paris, as early as the 1820s! The idea of capturing still images of daily life was one of the earliest uses for photography. The street photo, as it is known today, can be traced all the way back - but was popularized, and cemented into popular culture in the 1950s, by Henri Cartier-Bresson (the GOAT) and a heap of other incredible artists in Europe, especially in France and the Netherlands. Cartier-Bresson’s iconic demonstration of “the decisive moment”, shown below, is often used as an example of exactly what a street photo should be. 

The Decisive Moment - What is street photography?
Henri Cartier-Bresson's iconic Street Photo

The magic behind this photo is the genius of Cartier-Bresson. To see an ordinary, everyday thing (in this case, a man jumping over a puddle) and turn it into such a compelling piece of art, is street photography distilled to its purest form. Because of the exact, perfect timing of the shot, the man appears to almost dance - and mirrors the pose in the advert seen behind him. 

Street Photography’s Golden Age

In the late 60’s and into the 70’s, street photography broke mainstream in the Americas, and the world at large. Photographers like Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, and Diane Arbus were on the scene, and received huge success for their creative depictions of everyday life. Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, street photographers in this era documented the things happening around them, in city streets and in suburbia alike. This is where a lot of contemporary street photography pulls its influence. 

What is street photography? Joel Meyerowitz
Joel Meyerowitz

Photographers started using colour film to shoot serious work - prior to this, only black and white photography was taken seriously in the art world. Shooters like Saul Leiter and William Eggleston were hugely influential in this regard. The idea of taking photos on the street in public took on its own aesthetic, with the idea of photographing strangers in the most creative ways possible, and pushing the boundaries of the medium taking off. Bruce Gilden, William Klein, and Mark Cohen got up close and personal, popularizing the wide-angle look.

Contemporary Street Photography

Now, in the 2020s, street photography has taken on a whole new lexicon, and is becoming more and more popular after a slump in the 90s and early 2000s. Film is back, and it’s here to stay, and digital cameras are so affordable they’re attached to every phone you see. With access to photography almost universal, it has become so much easier for people to discover the art of street photography, and start shooting in the streets themselves. 

What Is Street Photography - Joshua K Jackson London Street Photo
Joshua K Jackson

Today, because of the ease of distributing media - you no longer need a gallery to exhibit your photos, you can make a website, or use Instagram - street photography’s definition has broadened. There are so many options for what style you’d like to shoot that there’s something for everyone. Want to shoot black and white film with a wide angle lens and stick to the classic look? Go ahead! Want to use a telephoto lens and shoot with bold, vibrant colours, often in an abstract way? Also great. 

What Are The Characteristics Of Street Photography?

Street Photography is a term that can be applied to many different styles of photography, but there are some common threads we can pull on. 

Humour: Many street photographers like to highlight the funnier side of life, choosing to shoot coincidental juxtapositions, scenes of absurdity, and chaos in the city.

Seriousness: On the flipside, many photographers choose to highlight the issues that the society they’re photographing is dealing with - from fringe culture and protests, to poverty and war.

Shape and Colour: Now that digital photography is everywhere, many photographers like to take full advantage of technology, and shoot scenes that would be impossible on film - playing with light, shadow, and colour to create abstract images of everyday people. 

The Decisive Moment: As influential as ever, since Henri Cartier-Bresson was walking the streets of Paris. Finding that perfect moment where everything aligns to produce a compelling image is a key skill in street photography, and is always something to keep in mind.

Does Street Photography Have To Be Candid?

Absolutely not! Many photographers prefer to shoot street portraits - where they’ll go up to a stranger, and ask to take their photo. This can seem just as intimidating as shooting candids, but you’ll very quickly realise that almost everybody is excited and flattered to have their photo taken, and it’s a great way to build your portraiture skills. You can also take street photos with nobody in them at all - you can take great pictures of empty streets, sidewalks, and interior spaces if you know what you’re doing.

Where To Get Started In Street Photography

All of this is well and good, but it’s hard to understand the visual language of street photography without actually looking at a whole lot of it. There’s a million and one photo books I could recommend, but I’d encourage you to do your own digging - find a local photo book store and rummage through the shelves until you find something that clicks with you and your aesthetic sensibilities. If you’re in London, I can recommend The Photographer’s Gallery (a great resource) and Setanta Books. 

Trying to write a novel without having read all of the classics would be foolish - it’s the same with photography. Absorb as much art as you possibly can, find street photographers in your city on Instagram and see what they’re shooting, and whether you can learn from them. Then, get out of the house with your camera, or your phone camera, and go see what draws your eye. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t take any good photos on day one! This is a long learning process, and it takes years to fully understand exactly what you want to shoot, let alone how

Where To Learn More About Street Photography

Well - this is a good place to start! This website is a dedicated resource to learning about street photography, but there are other places you can look too. YouTube is a great resource - there are many street photographers showing their work and technique on there, and you can learn so much about all aspects of photography. Another great resource - the photographers out there on the streets! I’ve learned so much, and made incredible friends just by going up to other street photographers and introducing myself. Street Photographers are friendly, and have plenty of experience talking to strangers on the street, so don’t be afraid to say hi! We’re all into the same thing, and shooting with other photographers who are better than me is an absolutely essential part of my street photography toolkit.

If you’re intrigued, and want to go deeper, pop your email in the wee box below! I’ll send you one email a month with some awesome tips, tricks, insights, and happenings all about street photography.

What Is Street Photography? Street photography is whatever you want it to be. Go create!

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