What Street Photography Is To Me

Street photography of a boy on a scooter near Covent Garden, by London street photographer Darren Lehane

The question about what street photography is is as old as the medium of photography itself. It’s also an incredibly divisive question that causes more arguments than politics and religion combined – ok, perhaps that’s an over exaggeration, but you get my point. So, I certainly don’t want to add another consenting voice to that ongoing and unwinnable debate.

So I thought I’d start off my new street photography blog by simply talking about what street photography means to me personally.

Street Photography Definitions?

You can find lots of different definitions of street photography all over the website. Wikipedia describes it rather grandly as:

[Photography]… conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places. Although there is a difference between street and candid photography it is usually subtle with most street photography being candid in nature but not all candid photography being classifiable as street photography. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.

As David Gibson states in The Street Photographer’s Manual, “the question is best answered by first considering who does street photography. If you delve deep into motivations everything becomes clearer.” In fact, David spends an entire chapter on attempting to answer the question what street photography is.

My Street Photography Motivations

So let me start by looking at my own motivations for undertaking this wonderfully elusive photographic concept.

London street photography of a worker at the Southbank Centre by street photographer Darren Lehane
One of my earlier street photos, taken at the South Bank Centre in London in 2007

As an individual I can bore easily. Things that initially excite or interest me can soon lose their appeal if they become routine.  So I need something that changes in order to hold my interest.

When I go out onto the street I never know what’s go to happen in front of me and my camera. That’s what excites and interests me. But if I’m honest, it can scare and intimidate me too. In lots of ways it takes me outside my comfort zones. It’s challenging, not just in the technical aspects but also in overcoming the fear to actually do it. When you do that and everything comes together it’s the ultimate buzz, the complete thrill.  I can only think a footballer feels the same elation scoring a cup winning goal at Wembley as I do getting a street shot that really works for me.

I enjoy the spontaneity of the street. Street photography allows me to act on instinct. I like to shoot and then to quickly move on. It’s that moving on that’s a key element for me.  For instance, say it’ not working in Trafalgar Square, well not a problem, let’s move on to Regent Street instead…maybe something will happen there.

It’s that excitement of anticipation. As a street photographer I think you have to be an optimist. Not matter how lousy a day is, no matter how bad the weather is you still keep pushing yourself to do it…move on, something might turn up. I like to think I’m an optimist. I’m definitely a dreamer. So that’s part of the large appeal of street photography for me.

Plus, to be simplistic, it gets me out and about. I love walking. I love London and urban environments – again because everything is changing, happening fast. It’s random and chaotic. Nothing stays the same for too long…it’s moving on continually.

So knowing my motivations, what is street photography to me?

The Philosophy of Street Photography

Well, without wanting to sound all pretentious about it, street photography is more a mindset and an approach to me.  It’s not something to be taken too literally.  Some may think it’s just photos taken on the street. In fact, I’d say there’s a huge difference between ‘street photography’ and ‘photography on the street’.

But what do I mean by that?

London street photography of a man sleeping beside a wheelchair in Trafalgar Square, by street photographer Darren Lehane.
I want to capture images that transcend the everyday. I don’t want photos that simply document what you expect to be happening in that given situation, but something that’s unusual to the setting.” (Trafalgar Square, London 2011 by Darren Lehane)

Well, for me street photography has to be a challenge.  Anyone can stand on a street corner and point a camera at random passers-by. In fact, a young child could be taught how to do it.  So it might be photography on the street but it’s not street photography.

In my mind, when I go out, I want to capture images that transcend the everyday. I don’t want photos that simply document what you expect to be happening in that given situation. I want something that’s unusual to the setting. It most probably asks more questions than it answers.  That’s what sets it aside from pure documentary photography.

Street photography is all about getting behind expectations and finding something a little more unusual. A split second. Something you can’t come back to 5 minutes later and get again.  I guess this kind of touches what the great Henri Cartier Bresson called “a decisive moment“.

It goes with saying it has to be candid. I don’t want to create anything or pose it. I don’t want to interact with people, I’d rather not be noticed at all. But at the same time I want to be inside the moment, rather than on the outside shooting in.

Location, Location, Location

Beach street photography in Altea, Spain by London street photographer Darren Lehane
Does it need to be on the street? No, for me the “street” bit just means places and spaces where I am photographing unobserved or freely without others reacting to the camera.” (Altea, Spain 2015 by Darren Lehane)

Does it need to be on the street? No, for me the “street” bit just means places and spaces where I am photographing unobserved or freely without others reacting to the camera.  Often people talk about it being in public places, but I think you can do street photography inside people’s homes or at parties or, dare I say it, at events like weddings. It’coming back to that mindset and approach again.

Does it need to be of people and strangers? Again, personally, no and no.  Street photography might be, as others would say, about the ‘human condition’ but you don’t need people to be in the frame to demonstrate aspects of the human condition. A lone shoe or an empty space can suggest as much as a person can within a frame.

Even animals can reflect aspects about us, without any person needing to be in the shot. After all, legendary street photographer Garry Winogrand‘s most famous book is entitled The Animals and brilliantly demonstrates lots about humanity without humans in many of the photos (it should be said though that Winogrand hated the term ‘street photographer’, he felt it was meaningless, but I’d dare to suggest he was moaning about the literal interpretation of it.)

As for strangers – not really. I’ve gotten lots of good shots of friends and family in candid and unguarded moments. As long as they’re not aware and it fits with my other interpretations of what street photography is, then it doesn’t always have to be strangers.

Get Closer

I said earlier that I like to be on the inside of a moment shooting it, rather than on the outside looking in.  What I mean by this, is I don’t want to be on the other side of the street shooting with a long lens. That’s too easy. As I said , I want street photography to be a challenge. So I use prime lenses, with either a 28mm or 35mm focal length. That means you have to get in closer to get the shot.

Black and white street photography of two pigeons by the Thames in London, by street photographer Darren Lehane
Whilst I shoot predominantly in colour, I’m not adverse to shooting b&w on occasion. The only personal rule I have on this is, if I want to shoot in b&w then I’ll set my camera up to only shoot b&w – rather than post edit into b&w. This forces me to look at things in a different way when shooting b&w.” (Vauxhall, London 2007 by Darren Lehane)

These days I tend to prefer shooting in colour. There are those who will argue that street photography should only be black and white. And then there are those who argue that black and white is stuck to the sentimentality and history of the genre.

Matt Stuart, a leading contemporary street shooter, once answered a question about why he only shot the street in colour these days along the lines of, “there’s far too many great street photographers who shot in b&w, there’s a lot less competition in colour.” I’m sure it was said slightly tongue in cheek, but it makes a point about being aware of past masters but forging ahead to create something new now.

Personally, I’d say there’s no right or wrong here, it’s more about the photographer’s personal taste. Whilst I shoot predominantly in colour, I’m not adverse to shooting b&w on occasion. The only personal rule I have on this is, if I want to shoot in b&w then I’ll set my camera up to only shoot b&w – rather than post edit into b&w. This forces me to look at things in a different way when shooting b&w.  We’re kind of back to that mindset thing again.

All The Gear But No Idea

Of course, there are some who will talk about camera choice as being important in what considering street photography is.  I think that’s a different subject for a different day, so I won’t talk about gear here for now, other than to say a camera doesn’t haven’t a clue whether it’s shooting a decisive moment in downtown Manhattan or a landscape in the Scottish Highlands.  That’s all I think needs to be said about gear at this stage!

I’m sure there’s a lot more that can be said about street photography – but this is what street photography is to me personally. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong or is how you should be approaching (or defining) it.  If you have other ideas, then I’d love to hear your views below.

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6 Comments

  1. Hi Darren,
    welcome to the world of Street Photography blogging. Your first post was very interesting to read and gave great insights about how you approach the genre we all love. Will follow and am already looking forward so see/read more from you!
    Marcus

    Liked by 1 person

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