Street photography…start by putting your camera away

© David Stephens 2009

Bear with me; this is about photography after all. I felt an urge to write this post after visiting Steve McCurry’s exhibition in Birmingham. The text introducing the exhibition described McCurry’s images as ‘street photographs’, which I would dispute. To make matters worse, I learned about the Street Photography Now Project, a ‘street photography’ exercise which invites contributions from photographers all around the world. What really struck me about it was its format. Participating photographers will receive weekly instructions by email with detailed guidelines on what they should be photographing. As if photographers’ own curiosity and initiative weren’t enough to drive a healthy photographic practice. The idea of waiting to receive some sort of divine photographic commandment before getting out there with my camera makes me shiver. It resonates with the Mass Observation project, a valuable document but also a highly controversial one.

So what is street photography? What is the trademark style of street photography? How should street photographers approach their subject?  I won’t be so foolish as to try and define the genre. I’m not so much interested in pinning labels and categorising experiences as in processes, in doing, in being in the world. Contemporary street photography encompasses an eclectic range of styles, from the gritty back & white images in the Japanese tradition epitomised by Daido Moriyama to the surreal colour photography by Cristobal Hara. Paradoxically, I would argue that if you want to become a good street photographer perhaps you need to begin by putting your camera aside, at least for a day.

Street photography has its roots in a literary and philosophical tradition invented by the French. The key concept here is that of the flâneur, that 19th-Century figure deambulating on the streets of Paris, with no fixed destination or aim, but always observant and perceptive of the world around them. All the street photographers of interwar Paris, that iconic surrealist generation, were indeed flâneurs. And so are a bunch of ‘psychogeographers’ who continue with the tradition in the UK. Will Self and Iain Sinclair are the most prominent UK psychogeographers. Sinclair’s London Orbital and Self’s Psychogeography are classic examples of the genre. Do you want to know what ‘psychogeography’ is? Read their books; the connection with street photography will become evident.

Putting your camera aside for a while will allow a process of reflection on the most controversial issue in street photography: ethics. There is something crystal clear to me; there is a difference between being stealth when taking a photograph and doing it surreptitiously.  Subterfuge has always been a useful tool in street photography. Walker Evans hid a camera in his coat and snapped people on the New York subway. Even photographers whose street photography work I much admire resorted to deceit at times. Helen Levitt openly admitted to using a 90-degree viewfinder contraption so that people wouldn’t realise they were being photographed – listen to this radio interview with Helen Levitt, recorded in 2002.

At the core of the street photography controversy is a question of intent. And when I see recent examples of street photography – e.g. www.seconds2.real, I realise that while there is a surplus of voyeurs out there, there are hardly any participants. And that’s something that street photographers such as Helen Levitt achieved: to make the photographer an implicit participant in the scene. So what will you be, voyeur or participant?

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19 comments for “Street photography…start by putting your camera away

  1. CliveW
    8 October 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Yes, for me, flâneurship is the key; going out into the world and finding what’s there, stilling the internal conversation and reacting emotionally, gathering evidence of what you want to photograph and discovering why.

    One could almost characterise it as ‘stalking one’s self’; chancing across partially glimpsed self reflections that are as elusive as Harry Lime.

    In 35 years of doing it my interim conclusion is that what fascinates, and resonates with me, is the ineffable emotional significance that is created by framing.

    Thereby conjoining disparate, discrete elements together; fixing them in a coordinated spatial relationship that becomes a lasting metaphor for the emotional recognition that evoked in me.

    It’s good to see ‘street’ photography back on the street as it were, but it’s a label that I think is as problematic as ‘art’ photography,

    My MA convenor at Goldsmiths had what appeals to me as a good answer to that, ‘we’re making culture not art’, but equally there seemed to be the feeling that ‘street’ photography was over and done with, along with modernism.

    On the question of stealth and subterfuge the only misdirection I apply is to shoot with wide angle lenses.

    When you point a camera passers by have a general sense of what is in your frame and what isn’t. You can judge it by when they choose to deviate to skirt around you, if they’ve noticed you; with a 20mm they under estimate the coverage.

    I pre-visualise my composition while directing the camera just to the side of it, so that my intent is even less signalled, then do a slight swing just before shooting.

    I have no qualms about what I photograph ‘out there’. The rule used to be very simple, anything you could see from the Queen’s Highway was ‘in public’, you could photograph it, with very few exceptions.

    Now the situation has become very muddied, the above is still the case but officials on the street now have ‘on the spot’ discretion. Despite repeated written advice from senior officials this is still used as a justification for harassing photographers on the street

  2. 8 October 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Another interesting post, Jose. So far I think I’m a participant quite often: being a voyeur doesn’t feel right and makes me more nervous than being seen. But taking this type of picture is relatively new to me and I’m still finding my feet.

    I agree with you about Steve McCurry’s exhibition not being “street” as such. I don’t share your concerns about the Street Photography Now project: in fact I signed up for it.

    It’s quite possible that I have missed the point you are making but I can’t see any inherent difference between taking part in this project, with the weekly instruction as an inspiration for taking images, and enrolling on a structured course such as TAOP. I understand the value of wandering round with a clear mind and open eyes, but people often take street documentary images based on a theme. Surely there’s room for both approaches?

    The “instructions” aren’t that precise: they’re meant to stimulate rather than serve as detailed guidelines. The first instruction was “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph. – Bruce Gilden” I’ve found the project stimulating and it is encouraging me to think more deeply about what Street photography is – as your post does.

    • 9 October 2010 at 5:57 pm

      “I can’t see any inherent difference between taking part in this project, with the weekly instruction as an inspiration for taking images, and enrolling on a structured course such as TAOP.”

      I think this is a fascinating question Eileen. When I first got the email about the Street Photography Now project I thought “Surely the fundamental point about street photography is that it values the unexpected and unplanned?” However your challenge does make me think that the value in it could be to develop street photography skills. It will be interesting to see how it pans out.

      • CliveW
        9 October 2010 at 8:04 pm

        In response to yours and Eileen’s post, that crossed with mine…

        Now we see the ‘instruction’ it’s really an ‘inspiration’ which I think is a very valid jumping off point, a little catalyst to get people out on the street, which is what I would expect from the people involved.

        I seem to remember going to a presentation at Photofusion in Brixton a few years ago when they were starting to get this movement underway.

        Their instruction, such as it is, offers boundless possibilities, as do all the OCA courses, it’s just a question of perception.

        When I first studied photography in the early 70s, during the first year, we were given a theme every Friday and asked to produce a finished, spotted, mounted black & white print for a group print crit the following Friday; where we would discuss the work quite rumbustiously, developing a critical language to attack, defend and agree with, we weren’t allowed to just like or dislike. Then we would vote on ‘print of the week’.

        A group of us were already concentrating on producing ‘street’ photography with London as our theme; inspired by the Americans, the Europeans and Tony Ray Jones. So when were given the theme of pets one week we groaned. How were we going to do anything with that; images of kitten’s in baskets, or playing with balls of wool, flooding our minds?

        Come the Friday a Mexican student put up an image of someone apparently dangling a cat by its neck over an empty bath. It caused a furore, the students wanted to vote it print of the week but the tutor wouldn’t allow it.

        ‘This I can’t even look at’ he said as he turned it to face the wall. It was a Pauline moment for a group of us which permanently changed my whole perspective on the practice of photography.

        You could take a theme as apparently anodyne as pets and produce an image that someone couldn’t look at because of the experiences they brought to reading it.

        For me it immediately conjured up Buñuel’s critique of the dark side of the Catholic soul. For the first time I understood the power and complexity of image as metaphor.

        If you can do that with pets what could you do by smelling the street or with any of the OCA assignments?

        ‘ }

    • 11 October 2010 at 12:02 pm

      Very convincing and astute reply Eileen; thanks. I agree with Gareth that if the Street Photography Now project helps people develop their photographic skills then there is value in it – as a learning tool. But I would say that skills have to be put to good purpose. And what will be the intention of the participating photographers? Could they genuinely answer the question: Why am I taking this photograph? I bet there won’t be many participants whose answer don’t hint of objectifying or trivialising their subjects.

      I’m also caught in that conundrum by the way. I often take street photographs because of the mild humour or irony I find in the scene in front of me or just because I feel an irrepressible drive to do it – no reason, just a reflex, only because I can. But is that good enough? We live in an era of visual fluidity and perhaps we need to think a bit more about why we – including myself – take photographs.

  3. CliveW
    8 October 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Oh I forgot to address the ‘Street Photography Now’ project. Of course the idea that you are directed runs completely contrary to my ideas but these people are doing a good job of raising street photography from its modernist grave, putting a lot of thought and energy into it.

    That can only be a good thing for photography and photographers; we’re not all consumed by a passion for water towers or in the thrall of dead French men. ‘ } How do you put smileys on here? Hahaha

  4. Carol Stimpson
    9 October 2010 at 10:14 am

    A fascinating discussion. I’m relatively new to photography but street photography is genre that interests me very much. It is however a frightening prospect to go around taking photographs of strangers. Obviously stealth is a skill that needs to be acquired. I shall be dipping into the recommended reading – there is much to learn and think about. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  5. 11 October 2010 at 10:47 am

    I’m assuming most people are aware that the Street Photography Now Project stems from a book of the same name. There’s is a copy in the OCA offices and I have to say its pretty good. Though it hasn’t been without its own controversy (see here over at the 2point8 blog).

    If anyone wants to see different ways of working then these might be of interest.
    Joel Meyerowitz

    Jeff Mermelstein

    Bruce Gilden

    Mark Cohen (fast forward through the first 1 min 40 secs).

    Garry Winogrand

    James Dodd, a fellow Statement Images photographer, and current admin of the biggest street group on Flickr (HCSP) has been in discussion with some of the In-Public photographers about us filming some video features with them. If we ever actually manage to find the time to go and do the filming I’ll be sure to post some links up here!

  6. marmalade
    12 October 2010 at 11:54 am

    Very helpful links thank you.

  7. lisa
    15 October 2010 at 8:12 am

    the sand sculptures remind me of weymouth

    i am thinking of doing photography with open college am trying to raise funds at the moment. please could people email me with their experiences.

    thank you

  8. norman
    15 October 2010 at 2:50 pm

    I feel that the work ‘voyeur’ is being wrongly used here. The dictionary defined it with sexual connotations that I am sure the correspondents do not intend. Street photography involves not only the subject but also the photographer who is striving to find out what is going on, what the world about him/her means and to record it in a personal way. The guiding hand of the ‘project’ approach is one which should lead to a heightened perception and a refinement of technique which will end in work becoming more meaningful to the taker and the viewer. But be careful about the words that might become associated with a valuable part of the work and world of photography.

    • 17 October 2010 at 8:51 pm

      It’s an interesting and valid observation Norman. It is true that ‘voyeur’ has sexual connotations, but this doesn’t mean that the term cannot be used in contexts other than those purely sexual. If you think about it, even the sexual connotations of the term voyeur apply to street photography. We have this compulsion to see – scopophilia, to visually possess other bodies whithout disclosing our very own presence. We capture images, nothing short of fetish objects, instantly with our gaze or permanently with our camera. There is something definitely ‘sexual’ about it. Well, that’s my own personal opinion of course.

  9. 17 October 2010 at 12:20 pm

    “I realise that while there is a surplus of voyeurs out there, there are hardly any participants. And that’s something that street photographers such as Helen Levitt achieved: to make the photographer an implicit participant in the scene. So what will you be, voyeur or participant?”

    Jose – please could you explain in a bit more detail what you mean by this? I am not sure I fully comprehend your definitions. TIA

    • 17 October 2010 at 9:06 pm

      Hi Helen, thanks for contributing to the blog. What I meant to say is that most of Helen Levitt’s work makes me feel that what I’m seeing is not just scenes that she photographed but products of her interacting with whatever was happening in those scenes. So while she was a street photographer I feel that most of her images show an implicit participation in the photographed scene. A kind of flirting with their subjects, a certain complicity with them.

      However, what I often see in recent street photography is the opposite, an implicit psychological distance between the photographer and whatever is happening in the shot.

      On the other hand, a degree of psychological distance is pertinent if the street photographer wants to convey that alienation that we often feel in modern cities.

  10. 19 October 2010 at 10:54 am


    Your article intrigues me, sets me questioning the medium .. thanks for that!

    I did not notice that Steve McCurry’s work had been referred to as “street photography” which is surely a misleading comment even with a broader definition of the “street photography” genre.

    In regards to the Street Photography Now project, I have looked at the book which is impressive and has sold out on Amazon. One of the authors runs workshops in street photography and the weekly injunctions are actually quotes from street photographers (such as Bruce Gilden). These “exercises” are practical not unlike the ones on the OCA course.

    Yet you raise a valid question as to whether it makes sense to adopt a certain attitude that relies on predictability when street photography is all about unpredictability. As a student at the OCA, I find myself “chewing the cud” over this particularly as I often question my motivation for doing the OCA course and what I expect to get out of it.

    “People and Place”. the current course I am doing, is an interesting approach. The “exercises” are not so specific as the Street Photography Now injunctions and leave much more to the imagination and surely this is important; photography is in part mechanical yet for it to work, non-mechanical qualities are essential.

    Yesterday, spending a day in London, I found only one photograph worth taking though there were endless possibilities! Yet I did visit the Edward Muyerbridge exhibition for the second time; my reason for a second visit was to analyse Muyerbridge’s treatment of the “People and Place” theme and write it up for my blog. His only “street photographs” were posed, the genre not existing in the late nineteenth century owing to the limitations of the medium.

    “People and Place” is not a genre yet it does provide an interesting framework through which to consider photography. “Street Photography” is a narrower approach that relies on the instantaneous.

    • 21 October 2010 at 1:50 pm

      Yes, I was stunned by the label of ‘street photography’ being attached to Steve McCurry’s images. He is a photographer who often keeps eye-contact with his subjects. That’s one of the reasons why his portraits are so powerful: the person photographed is returning our gaze. This can make the viewer feel uncomfortable, which is something rarely achieved in street photography, where the viewer/voyeur are invisible to the subject – a much safer situation for both the photographer and the viewer. Yes, as Peter Haveland pointed out there is still room for a critique of contemporary surveillance.

      And I’m not surprised that the Photography Now book has sold out. I can perfectly understand how the book itself may become a fetish object.

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