The popular allure of street photography rarely wanes, regardless of time or place. Much of its power to influence audiences rides on the ability to take it for granted that it will show us something we either want to see or need to see, without our having to be there. This is inescapably the most dominant factor of street photography’s success. Offered without a script, it is a natural alternative to television.
But even as major museum exhibits and art publications mark its global and historical success, it is notoriously difficult to understand what we are to expect when something is called Street Photography instead of Landscape, Reportage, or some other label.
As a result, while any street photographer has some cachet as an explorer, witness or sharpshooter, one photographer can become preferred or exalted over another based mainly on the influence of the audience. Yet, audiences are diverse at any one time and can change over time, so what today has highest public priority may not remain so, elsewhere or later.
Another key factor at work is the notion that one photographer has a more important style than another. Style is offered as the explanation for why something about the street becomes graspable. It is the visual equivalent of the composer, and the composition is the interpretation of the visible. The interpreter, of course, is the actual messenger. Since style is so often used to justify the importance of recognizing the photographer, it is all the more confusing to discover that not much more than consistent repetition reveals what style probably really is. Under pressure of popularity, style risks becoming its own subject. And increasingly, the wide variety of “styles” on display within the boundaries of a major show or portfolio of “street photography” challenges the idea that street photography is itself anything more than an opportunity to visualize things..
A third significant factor is the photographer’s own perspective. Any given perspective is generated from a point-of-view, and we intuitively look at street photography expecting an answer to the question, “so, what is your point?”… Naturally, we can depend on critical preferences forming around what, in particular, the photographer exposes to us. The photographer’s selectivity and editorialism are more specific value-generators. This is a way of saying that even if all streets are somehow interesting, some are simply more important than others to show — and further, it is more important to show the street in some ways than in others. The question here is, who gets to decide? Well, even if that attitude is marked as “subjectivity” it is still clearly a valid functional discriminator of different collections of photographs. We simply have to identify what makes something “important” at the time we are considering it. For example, if the subject is literally disappearing, then souvenirs, evidence, and nostalgia all rise in importance to audiences that found the subject desirable and would miss it when it is gone.
The interplay of the semi-heroic role of the artist, the audience’s influence, the visibility of style, and the photographer’s mindset maps out the sociological context of the displayed work — a context that can suppress or propel the recognition and appreciation of the photographer.
But photographers do not define street photography.
All flavors of Street Photography contrast mainly with studio or interior images. The essential ingredient is that the photographer is expected to be using the camera outdoors on a street, with the street clearly included in the “depiction” even if only by implication.
Streets are essentially connectors, pathways. And central to all street photography is the fact that streets are created by people. But with still pictures, the default poetic device of street photography is to turn the path into a destination, and to have the image be “about” the destination.
That notion of subject matter usually covers (a.) the street itself as a local scene, (b.) the life at (in, on) the street, or (c.) some mix of the two. We can account for why pictures look like what they look like, and what the look is attempting to do. At any time, a photographer, known or unknown, can take up the camera and produce something that we can readily position within the scope of the table below:
The rhetoric of the image projects its potential meanings in several typical ways. Each way in the following four is a range of relative affects:
- POV is 1st-person, 2nd-person or 3rd-person
- Depicted elements are conventional or exotic
- Familiarity is intuitive or analytic
- Appearances imply or resist narrative
Because those affects can be blended with each other, the image can engage its viewer with nostalgia, fiction, humor, revelation, explanation, proof, or numerous other impacts. Those results fuel demand that circumstantially translates into the attention that elevates some work and some photographers above others.
The final understanding from all of the above is that “Street Photography” refers to images that are generated from a preoccupation with the presence and influence of the street. The label itself is not a predictor of the content of any single past or future unique picture.