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Curious Frame - Issue #27 What is Street Photography?

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #27 What is Street Photography?
By Leanne Staples • Issue #27 • View online
While we are all familiar with street photography, you might ask why I’m writing about it here? In my Shoot New York City newsletter I write about the process of shooting street. In this newsletter I write about how photography influences the way we think and see the world that we live in. 
Like street art and skateboarding, street photography has become a fashion. It has become co-opted by the mainstream. It has become a cliché. Which is to say that it has become a stereotype. 
Street photography is far more than one of the biggest mainstream genres of photography. It is also very much a form of art. It is therefore difficult to draw a line between what is practiced as a fad versus what the photographer intended.
Like any art form, it always looks easier than it is. And, as the saying goes, imitation is a form of flattery. All art is a process. There are no paint by numbers recipes for achieving your own personal style and becoming a successful artist. 
But my intention here is really about finding a good definition of what street photography really is and what it means in the broader sense. It’s a topic which I believe is important rather than skimming over understanding what it really is.
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Readers comments
Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.
Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required.
One reader wrote about the previous issue:
The subject of issue #26 is something I think about a lot. Story-telling is what separates a great image from one that is merely documentation of shapes and tones. These days, the work of so many self-identified “street photographers” is all surface and no depth. I love when a photo speaks to me, when I can get lost in it.
Sometimes the reader comments predict the topic for my next issue! That’s cool. Keep your comments coming.
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What is Street Photography?
Another Rainy Day, New York City, 15 April 2021. Taken during a street photography workshop.
Another Rainy Day, New York City, 15 April 2021. Taken during a street photography workshop.
There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. Robert Frank 
Many of the first ‘street’ photographers didn’t describe themselves as street photographers. We tend to think of Henri Cartier-Bresson as an originator and the godfather of street. But there were many others before him that could also be considered street photographers. 
When we finally get around to assigning a genre to photography or art, giving it a name and then applying that name backwards we are rewriting history and attempting to create neat compartments for things. Maybe the best things don’t necessarily fit neatly into a compartment.
I posed the question to the readers of my Shoot New York City newsletter, is it important to call what you do street photography? Do you fit into the category by intention when you go out shooting? Or is it really after-the-fact that you say that?
Paul Géniaux 1910, Le Marché aux Oiseaux (the bird market.) Géniaux was contemporary with Eugène Atget. They both took photos on the streets.
Paul Géniaux 1910, Le Marché aux Oiseaux (the bird market.) Géniaux was contemporary with Eugène Atget. They both took photos on the streets.
The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street. Robert Doisneau
While I can write that street photography is above all candid photography, what I think is really far more important is that it’s about humanity. It’s about what it means to be human, the experience of living in a crazy world with an incredible diversity. In short, it’s about the human condition.
For the first time in the history of the world it became possible to capture people in their environment as they were. So it’s no mystery that the camera was turned toward people and their everyday lives.
Below the surface of the quotidian, is the desire to understand humanity and what makes us tick. We can get lost in a photo with wonder about what it would be like to be the girl in Géniaux’s photo.
We are always looking at ourselves when we look at photos by others as we are not able to stand outside ourselves and look at an image objectively. We are always attempting to discover where we fit in to the picture and find a sense of belonging in the world.
André Kertész, Broken Plate, Paris, 1929.
André Kertész, Broken Plate, Paris, 1929.
The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong. It gives me both a point of connection and a point of separation. Susan Meiselas
I never set out to shoot street photography. My subject has always been the urban environment. In the 1980s I took photos for an urban intervention group in Montréal. I was fascinated with the architecture and it’s personality.
Before Montréal, I was already taking photos of buildings in New York City but it wasn’t until I moved back to New York City that the obsession set in. Perhaps it is cliché to say that every picture tells a story. But whether we can relate to a photo or not is another example of how we make sense of the world.
Kertész’s photo above is one that I think that we can relate to. It is of course a comment on the fact that there’s something broken in the world. We can take pretty pictures, but what are they really saying?
Montmartre, 1930-31 by Brassaï [Paris de jour 472.C] © Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris
Montmartre, 1930-31 by Brassaï [Paris de jour 472.C] © Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris
For me, street photography is really about experiencing my environment through the activity of photography. When I look at early photos by Brassaï, Kertész, Géniaux and so many of the early photographers, I have a sense that they too are experiencing the world through photographing it.
With the advent of the compact camera such as the Leica, photographers were able to take to the streets to shoot without bulky equipment. Compact cameras are to photography what the readymade tube of paint was for painters. It opened the doors to countless possibilities.
Bernice Abbott, ”Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery between Grand and Hester Streets”, taken on 24 October 1935.
Bernice Abbott, ”Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery between Grand and Hester Streets”, taken on 24 October 1935.
To chart a course, one must have a direction. In reality, the eye is no better than the philosophy behind it. The photographer creates, evolves a better, a more selective, more acute seeing eye by looking ever more sharply at what is going on in the world. Bernice Abbott
Some early photographers might have called themselves flâneurs or even voyeurs. Which is to say that they wandered around with a camera observing people. That of course begins with the concept that there’s something interesting going on, something that could be interesting to capture.
At about the same time that the camera became compact and that people could afford to buy one, the world was rapidly changing. There was a shift in so many ways in life that there was always something new to see and to photograph. The urge to document what we see is no different than the urge to write in a journal.
Photography has the ability of cataloging life throughout the decades and revealing those differences. I often point out independent businesses with hand painted signs when providing street photography workshops. They have a limited lifespan now.
The above photo by Bernice Abbott is a perfect example of an image that no longer exists. I don’t imagine that she knew that would be the case. Nevertheless, it is a fine example of what life in New York City looked like almost 100 years ago.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1961.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1961.
I am a passionate lover of the snapshot because of all photographic images, it comes closest to the truth… The snapshooter’s pictures have an apparent disorder and imperfection, which is exactly their appeal and their style. Lisette Model 
Many of the photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson have a look to them that they were well thought out beforehand. I have a preference for his photos like the one above, which is clearly spontaneous.
While it is not possible for street photography to be entirely objective, I find there is more of a genuine feeling in the photos that are taken without overthinking it. That there’s a kind of truth to a snapshot, as Lisette Model said.
I quite like doing what I call lift and shoot or shooting from the hip while ignoring the preview screen on the camera. Of course, I speak of my personal preferences. When you look at a photo, what are you looking for? What appeals to you?
Rainy Day 5, New York City, 15 April 2021.
Rainy Day 5, New York City, 15 April 2021.
While the idea of calling your photography street photography can be helpful insofar as it helps others to partially visualize the arena of your work, it is of course a stereotype.
But until a new title is created, it is probably the best we can choose. So for me, street photography will always be about humanity. And rather than trying to fit into a stereotype, I attempt to approach each opportunity when shooting on the streets to remember the reason I shoot the streets.
What does street photography mean to you? Curious Frame exists for dialogue and discussing issues about how photography effects our lives.
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Curious Frame Newsletter | Exploring Photographic Possibilities
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Further reading:
  • Jeffrey, Ian. How to Read a Photograph: Lessons from Master Photographers, Abrams, 2008.
Further viewing:
Masters of Photography: Andre Kertesz
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You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Shop for Art, Zines & Publications - Leanne Staples
That Other Space Shop | Art, Etcetera
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
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Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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