Are You A Street Photographer? / by Peter Levitan

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 9.11.00 AM.png

I am trying to decide if I am a street photographer.

The two images above are from my recent trip to Venice Beach, L.A. to shoot my The People series. They were shot on the sandy beach. They are still street photographs.

My concept of street photography is based on growing up with images from Cartier Bresson, Fan Ho, Joel Meyerowitz, more recently with Vivian Maier and the truly awful Bruce Gilden (how about fame built on running up to strangers and sticking a flash in their face. Sound like a fun day out on the streets?)

venice beach 2-63.jpg

A Question…

Are my isolated, composed street-portraits street photography? Is using a portable studio street photography? Do street photographs have to be candid? I don’t hunt for or ‘catch’ the great shot – I make it with my subject. OK?

I am not sure if I really care all that much about the definition itself. But - Big But… the sheer ubiquity of the term street photography - Google has 6,300,000,000 results for “street photography”, there dozens of street photography articles and books - means that many people seem to care. So, lets go.

A few photography websites use the Wikipedia definition as a starting point. Here you go:

Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography is 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 and some 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.

Just for the hell of it, here is my rather abbreviated definition.

Simply put, street photography is made in public spaces - any public space (well, maybe outside). The images may or not include people. Street photographs do not have to be candid (and appear to live in a gotcha moment). There can be photographer to subject interaction.

The People

My portrait series The People is street photography. It is a very controlled system but is street nonetheless.

I shoot on the street – examples are L.A.’s Venice Beach; in front of a Selma Alabama Walmart; hanging out in Shanghai China’s People’s Park and San Miguel de Allende Mexico side streets.

I ask my subjects to stand in front of a portable white background.

My subjects are chosen at random - well, I actually choose them.

I interact with the subjects.

More Street Photography Definitions

Here are a couple of additional definitions. Just food for thought.

"I only know how to approach a place by walking, for what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner."

Alex Webb

 “I think this is the most controversial point I will bring up in this article. I personally don’t think that street photography has to be candid. I think that the best street photographs are the candid ones– but I don’t think that it needs to be a necessary element.

I think in street photography there are now lots of sub-genres as well.

I feel that we have candid street photography (what I might classify as “classic street photography”- think Henri Cartier-Bresson), street portraits (focused mostly on portraits of people on the street, instead of the environment– either with or without permission like Diane Arbus or Bruce Gilden), urban landscapes with or without people in them (think Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Joel Sternfeld, etc), still life street photography (think Martin Parr or William Eggleston), or socio-documentary street photography (think Bruce Davidson).

Erik Kim

What Is Staged Street Photography?

“The definition of staged street photography may differ depending on who you speak to. The hardened street photographer may suggest any kind of manipulation (including editing) of reality is staged and not authentic. Whereas the more relaxed street photographer may see it as a scene that is played out with ‘actors’, the positioning is set up and then the image is sold as a completely off-the-cuff street photograph. Personally speaking, I learn more towards the latter definition of the term.”