Is Street Photography A Ridiculous Term?

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I read a comment not long ago which I cannot quote directly, but the gist of it was this: The author said that the term, “street photography” is a ridiculous one. When I read it, my hackles went up immediately! I wanted to gather the masses of street shooting purists and create protest.

However, as with all circumstance in life, I prefer to thoughtfully respond rather than knee-jerk react, so I let it simmer.

Of course, I still totally and completely disagree with the statement. I think the term street photography deserves to remain the term that it is and it deserves a pool of collective stories that preserve its beauty.

To me, street photography deserves its own definitions. It’s is a divine brand of storytelling with fairly clear distinctions that in general, is known as candid, everyday types of moments that occur in everyday places where people interact. I think the community of photographers who have dedicated themselves to street photography agree mostly with that definition. I also believe that it has its rightful place and I personally will always continue to help preserve it in my own way.

If The Shoe Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Wear It

I also recognize, as I always have, that there are places and situations in which the term “street photography” doesn’t quite fit – and yet, there is a story to tell and it may take place on the street or may not. We still use the qualities and photographic tactics that we do in classic street photography though, to capture the moment. It can be confusing. But I prefer that if it doesn’t fit street, I won’t call it such.

When we find a candid moment out there that doesn’t quite fit  the term, street photography, what do we call it? Beach photography? Travel photography? Circus photography? Someone will keep using the label, “street photography”. Some will label it “documentary” or “lifestyle”. Yet there’s something about the photos that hold that same candid quality that we see in classic street.

And so then, this “looseness” creates chaos to those who rely on the order of definition – because we as humans long for order! That’s when die hard street photographers start moaning and protesting because someone trampled on their definition. They dislike that photographers who use street photo techniques to define their work as street, whether they know or not that it’s teetering on the boundaries of the definition. And those who don’t like limitations, boundaries or definitions bristle at the purists and rebel against the definition of street photography.

This Vivian Maier photograph boasts a vintage street photography quality about it and this is what we are used to calling “street”. (courtesy http://www.vivianmaier.com)

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

A photo may have elements of  storytelling with “candid everyday type of moments” but the world continues to turn and modern times dictate new flavors of the month, new departures of artistic expression and we have to continue to expand. Definitions and distinctions create reverence and that’s a good thing.

Yet our modern, everyday moments now contain elements that look quite different than my hero, Vivian Maier’s photo above shot in nearly 60 years ago. To those who regularly shoot street and have an interest in preserving the genre, these elements matter completely.  To those who do not regularly shoot street or who do not have interest in preserving the genre, the elements that make this a street photo don’t seem to matter. (Just Google “street photography woman in white dress” and see what comes up. Then compare those characteristics to the ones of these photographs and you’ll see how so many photographs are loosely defined as street).

To most die hard street shooters, Eric Kim’s street shot here contains just the right balance of composition, repeating lines, patterns, lighting and timing (mostly candid) to fit more neatly into the understood, mostly accepted definition of street photography. (photo courtesy: http://erickimphotography.com)

Allow Preservation. Also Allow Change.

Sometimes I use my street photography tactics to paint a picture of what’s going on around me and hope to capture something that affects the viewer. I cannot call everything I shoot “street”. Yet, when I do shoot street, I define it very clearly because I care about preserving the genre. If you don’t care, it’s fine but don’t diss the term. That’s just not respectful to the hardworking photographers who built the genre.

I believe that I do the genre a favor when I call anything other than street by another name such as portraiture or whatever. I put it in a class where others have created those boundaries or definitions. Or don’t call it anything at all if I’m not sure!

For example, I’m working this year on a collection of beach-inspired, images which I hope to put into one collection that makes sense and tells good stories. Will I call it street photography? No. But street photography-tactics are used.

Stories cannot be limited to definitions, even for street photography. You have to tell the story as it unfolds in the way it wants to be told. But if it fits that general consensus’ definition of street, please call it so.

Click through to launch the gallery of what I call, “Observing the joy of solitude in paradise.”

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