Street Photography Doesn’t Need to be ‘On the Street’

It can be very easy to arbitrarily limit oneself by genre; I think the effect this has on the mindset of a photographer can potentially really damage the quality of the work they look to produce.

I think that street photography is one of the broadest and most inclusive genres, and it’s interesting to see the ways that some photographers are distancing themselves from the name: some have started to call it “everyday photography/documentary” or “life photography” among other terms. “Street” is a very loaded directive, which really implies that the photography must take place on a street — or even that the subject of the image is the street.

In my own understanding of street photography, I incorporate the idea that “street” is more of a mentality, similar to the idea of a street artist, street musician, or street dancer, who can ply their art/technique pretty much anywhere, rather than being anything to do with a physical location. It connotes improvisation and spontaneity.

For me, the location doesn’t matter as much as the actual content of the image, which has most recently been a balance between action and interaction. Whether it’s an action of a subject, or interaction between subject/s and environment that’s what tends to catch my eye and keep my interest.

I think that photographers who take “street photography” too literally end up with fairly basic images of what tends to happen on a street – people walking from one place to another, people standing around, people crossing roads. This doesn’t really offer anything distinct to an audience and is unlikely to provide anything of substance on repeat viewings.

Of course, things like interesting characters, interesting compositions, or use of the light can elevate these, but without that core action/interactivity I find the majority lacking. It didn’t take long for “straight” streets to lose my interest and focus – I think even street corners provide more room for interesting interaction than something as basic as a straight path.

There are so many other options for places to exercise a street eye. London has many incredible squares, both iconic and residential. Iconic squares provide massive foot traffic, and many opportunities to capture street portraits, candid scenes, and interesting details. The cozier residential squares offer intimacy and often isolation, with calmer conditions. People tend to let their guard down, and a camera can go unnoticed in a crowd, or otherwise photogenic location.

For me, a street itself is more a conduit between these places of interest. Aside from when something exceptional or out of the ordinary is happening, which provides perhaps a crowd, or unique conditions, I don’t see many opportunities for photographs on the street itself.

I think Londoners are used to maintaining a respectful distance, which makes the 28-35mm techniques of layering, stacking, and close up flash a little trickier – these styles I associate with New York and Japan, and are not something I’ve seen executed well in London.

Other spaces I feel are prime for street photography include bus stops/garages, on public transport itself, stations, squares, parks, beaches, galleries, and museums. All of these are places where people really exercise behavior other than simply wandering around, and offer a far more diverse range of environments to work with.

In the past when I’ve produced this kind of write up I’ve wondered whether it’s actually worthwhile or necessary, and I’ve seen this sentiment in the comments as well. Why spend time defining things when you could simply act, and shoot, and not worry about it? This is a valid argument. After all, the “greats” didn’t have access to this kind of blog to get lots of different opinions about their field, they simply produced work. There are fantastic examples of street photography taken all over the world, even in rural areas, where there isn’t even a street nearby!

My answer is that the connected nature of art and photography means it’s unavoidable to have this kind of discussion around a genre. Language greatly informs the way we frame ideas and conceptualize our actions – whether conscious or unconscious. Photographers I know personally have become frustrated with shooting street photography as they are limited by the definition, the issue I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Their street results have not yielded the results they wanted or expected, but their work shines in other areas.

It would be so simple for them to excel if they only shifted their understanding of what they were out to create and the tools and boundaries they were able to use to do so.

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.

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