Street photography is a branch of photography that has similar roots to documentary photography, photojournalism and even travel photography. But whereas photojournalism seeks to capture photos with news value, documentary records history, and travel photography transports the viewer to other places, the aim of street photography is to capture the mundane and elevate it to the level of art. The lines can be a bit blurred at times, and often the greatest practitioners can easily go from one genre to the next.
In general, street photographs are unplanned and unposed and are a sophisticated form of people watching. Often one can “see” a composition and then wait for the right moment for someone to walk into it to complete it. Many are “spur of the moment” and “shot from the hip” type pictures. It’s an art in itself to be able to be ready to capture a scene at a moment’s notice.
The patron saint of street shooters is famed photographer the late Henri Cartier-Bresson. His philosophy of “the decisive moment” is a mantra for generations of street and documentary photographers and photojournalists everywhere. He captured the spontaneous nature of everyday life with impeccable timing, grace and composition.
Many street photographers eschew the use of telephoto lenses and prefer using a wide angle lens and get in relatively close their subjects (I think because that’s how Cartier-Bresson did it). It gives a feeling of intimacy to the photos, but the challenge, when getting so close, is to also to maintain the feeling of candidness and spontaneity at the same time. A technique that some photographers use is to pre-focus the lens at a certain point, estimate where the subject is and fire the camera without looking through it. You’re not always guaranteed a perfect shot, but it can also add to the serendipitous nature of the genre.
While that’s true, I think that one shouldn’t count out the use of a long lens. It can be a useful item in one’s photographic toolbox. It would be like a carpenter being allowed to use only a hammer to build a house. It can be done. Perhaps. but not as easily or as well.
With its hustle and bustle of people and activity, New York City is a mecca of street photography and recently my soon-to-be-high-school graduate-daughter and I had an opportunity to visit the city on a tour of New York University.
Although we were there for two days and three nights, a large part of one of those days was taken up by activities for the admitted students to NYU, so our time was very limited.
On one of the mornings, we walked from our hotel in Manhattan’s financial district to the 9/11 Memorial site not far away. On the way, we passed the Chase Bank building. Its black stone walls were polished to a mirror-like sheen. I got down low next to the wall and set my camera with a wide-angle lens down low on the sidewalk and used the reflective properties of the wall as compositional element to capture people walking past on their way to work.
The first few shots were fine with the people and buildings mirrored in the wall. Then a man wearing a chef’s smock strode by. He was closer and more prominent in the scene than the other people, which made for a stronger photo. I could have ended it there, but I decided to wait just a little more.
Then a young woman walked by and as she about reached my position she turned her head to check her hair in the wall’s reflection, and I captured a decisive moment of my own.
It was our first trip to New York, and we decided that an open-air bus tour of the city would get us to most of the landmarks we wanted to see in the shortest amount of time. This meant forgoing the traditional notion of street photography. I put a telephoto lens on my camera and waited to see what I could get.
The double-decker bus wound its way through the city, and the first several opportunities got away from me. I was no longer on my own timetable, and the bus drove past potential pictures before I was ready to shoot. I began to scan ahead to look for the photo possibilities before we got to them.
The bus became sort of the perfect camouflage. A busload of tourists with cameras is a common site in New York, so the people on the street tended to ignore us, and I was able to shoot them being themselves. True, they lacked the closeness and intimacy of photos taken with a wide-angle lens, but they made up for it in candidness.
In the end, what kind of equipment you use doesn’t really matter that much. In street photography what’s important is capturing the serendipitous and spontaneous nature of everyday life.