When we enter the world with a camera intending to photograph it how it is, we are engaging in the practice of street photography.
The street photographer faithfully carries their camera, searching for the moments which will eventually captivate their viewers and perhaps even tell them something insightful about humanity. The honest street photographer seeks to preserve a bit of history. Their works have and will continue to speak volumes in ways that words cannot.
All of that sounds great, but is it really as easy as it seems? You go out into the street and attempt to make pictures. Do you photograph people? Maybe your intended subjects notice you and shy away from your eager camera. Things? Buildings? That scene over there? There’s so much to see that you don’t quite know what to take pictures of first. So you photograph everything. In the end, it’s difficult to decipher the banal from the will-be iconic. The whole process seems so far from the purported effortless snapping of such greats as Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon, and many others. Luckily for the modern street photographer, their well documented bodies of work have much to offer by way of teaching. Here are some principles from the masters to guide you in making meaningful, artful images of life in the world as you experience it.
Seventh Avenue Looking South from 35th Street, Manhattan By BereNice Abbott
Plan Your Approach
These days, there are a lot of people carrying cameras around all the time. But not everyone is a photographer, and here’s why: a photographer decides what he or she will photograph, and is not merely clicking a button. So, as a street photographer, when you go out into the world with your camera you must do so with intention. Decide in advance what the thing is you are going to photograph. It can be an idea, an event, objects, conditions, whatever calls to your heart, but make a decision about it. This can help to narrow your focus of the world.
Once I’m looking for something, I’m oftentimes surprised and intrigued by what else I see because I’m paying closer attention. Some examples of this curated approach would be Berenice Abbott, who documented a rapidly transforming architectural landscape of 1940s New York City in the tradition of her mentor Atget, or the Swiss Robert Frank who shot the alienation in American life as he traveled cross country. They each photographed many things in these bodies of work, but in general the photographs relates to a central theme.
“But not everyone is a photographer, and here’s why: a photographer decides what he or she will photograph, and is not merely clicking a button.”
Commit to Your Subject
Once you’ve decided on your subject, photograph it relentlessly. Choose a camera you can carry so you can be a slave to your craft. Likely, your one photograph from that time you went out on a Saturday will never say as much as a group of images that show complexities such as relationships or change over time. Your dedication and observation will be evident in the work. This isn’t to say that you should take the same photograph over and over. Rather, try to document every facet of your theme. If it is an aspect of humanity, it will inevitably be complex.
Dorothea Lange traveled around the poverty stricken west for four long years while documenting for the Farm Securities Administration, making such an impact with her photographs which spoke so loudly about the deplorable conditions there that the government was forced to act. Her visual story is so deeply compelling in part because it is so thorough.
Alternate Shot – Migrant Mother By Dorothea Lange
Consider who you are when you’re photographing in environments where you are an outsider. Consider photographing or beginning your foray in street photography in an environment you belong in while honing your techniques and building your confidence and finesse. Make a relationship with your subject. Introduce yourself. Return with prints. Engage. Even if you don’t want your photography to seem staged, it’s important to show these people, who are collaborating with you by allowing you to make a portrait, the respect they deserve.
Danny Lyon began his career as a student newspaper photographer during the Civil Rights movement. He then, in a fashion similar to Gonzo Journalism in literature, developed an approach that was very subjective and involved. He lived among them and even in ways acted like them for periods as long as five years. Because of this, he was able to create amazing, intimate photographs of such difficult to access groups as outlaw biker gangs and inmates of Texan prisoners. He didn’t let any bias that one might initially feel when considering such groups affect his work because he got to know them as people.
Have Fun and Be Creative
Creative, exciting, fresh images are sure to engage your viewer and can make your work memorable. Humor in imagery is almost as effective as shock — how can you surprise or enchant your viewer? Photographers like Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander juxtapose whimsical self portraits, lighthearted moments, and humorous images with more serious ones for maximum impact. This creates a holistic portrait of life and can add credibility and authenticity to your work. It paints a much more dynamic picture of life to show the moments of hope and happiness along with everything else. Having a keen eye to the moments of whimsey is just as important as capturing life’s injustices.
Coney Island Aquarium, 1963 By Garry Winogrand
New York City, 1967 By Lee Friedlander
What Are You Waiting For?
Looking back at some of the great street photographers who came before gives us a great place to start when working as a street photographer today. Each of them has a rich and diverse body of work that can be studied at length for more insights on how to photograph in the street. Meaningful street photography has been of great importance for the entire history of the incredibly self-interested medium. So, armed with these principles and your vision, go into the world with your camera and continue in this tradition of making these works which matter to all of us.