Street photography is a type of nature photography in which an outdoor habitat common to towns or cities is the setting for observing the unscripted behavior of people including their use and creation of the habitat.
The cultural history of the term “street” photography is similar to that of the sports term “football”. While there are many different variants of games that are called football, the primary distinction being made is that the game is played on foot on the ground, as opposed (historically) to on horseback or other elevating base that had already been established as the acceptable norm. The primary distinction of street photography is versus the studio.
A stylistic convention of the observation being conducted is that it is performed and represented from the point of view of an anonymous inhabitant of the habitat.
A range of interests is accommodated within that point of view. As a rule, the observer is not included as a performer nor as a catalyst of the observed behavior. However, an important principle at work in the observation is that the opportunity to do the observation can be found in any position of view that an inhabitant of the habitat might have.
In that regard, the observer usually represents, to some degree, someone whose presence is part of the characteristics that are “ordinary” for the particular habitat, regardless of how different the displayed habitat is from other environments.
The result of that representation is the implicit narrative of “the environment taking a look at itself” – which in turn presumes that the subject of all the observation is the a priori condition available to any observer.
Street photography, from that foundational attitude, also accommodates a non-judgmental exploration of any factor that can be argued is a consistent cause of the a priori conditions. Those factors represent the “natural laws” of the observed habitat and behaviors.
As part of the observer’s point of view, such causal factors normally provide topical context (conceptual perspective) to individual images. However, in street photography, those factors are not the subject of the observation but instead are the occasion. Such occasions can be highly general, such as a time of day, the weather, a social mood, or a type of event.
Street photography emphasizes the a priori nature of the habitat and behaviors to the observer. It consistently positions the observer as having arrived to the scene with the observable conditions already being predisposed by factors other than the observer’s presence. In this specific sense, street photography’s default attitude engages the scene as a theater.
In addition, the observer’s own attitude can be predisposed, evident as a sensitivity to given characteristics. In street photography, however, it is conventional for that observer’s particular predisposition to function merely as a navigational instrument in the observed habitat, which in turn may be responsible for anticipating scenes or determining the representation of a scene.
Much of the activity and output of street photography can be indistinguishable from other types of photographic effort. For that reason, recognizing the distinction of street photography as a practice from other types of photography is done in terms of the difference of intent rather than result.
The most notable related genres having overt similarities to street photography are documentary and journalism.
Journalism, in its representation of the “observed”, brings a pronounced attention to the sequence and implications of activities in the habitat. Both the sequence and the implications are visually proposed within a span of occurrence that can be extremely short and compressed or just as easily spread over a very long period of elapsed time.
Documentary, in its representation of the “observed”, brings a pronounced attention to the “state of affairs” at a given time, with a stronger emphasis on portraying the topical context than on the observed subjects.
As just seen, the comparisons of documentary, journalism, and street modalities are not hierarchical. One is not a parent, nor a dependent, nor a subset of the other.
Instead, it is typically true that images produced in one genre may be interpreted within, and even used for, the interests of a different genre. The production can be in any phase: planned, active or completed.