What is 'Street Photography?'

I suppose there are as many definitions of street photography as there are photographers who practice it. Since I have been shooting street photography for thirty-six years now (since I was fifteen) I, too, have my own well-developed idea of what it is.

So, here, in this web site, I wish to put forth my own ideas on  what it is and what it isn’t.

The easiest way to start will be to define some rules.

My 10 rules:

1.  Street Photography is not necessarily photos taken in the streets.

Yes, I know, the name implies that we are talking about photographs and the streets, but the concept, the real concept in my mind, is not the literal interpretation.


2. Street photography is real life.

It is not posed, not staged, not made up, but rather captured by an independent observer. This is not to say that the observer, or photographer, hasn't somehow influenced the scene—this may happen too and is often unavoidable, but still, the intent and desire of the photographer is to capture reality, not invent it. A street photographer is a writer of fact, not fiction.

This doesn't mean that the facts cannot be expressed as poetry.


3. Street photography is different from documentary photography.

Both forms of photography share many of the same characteristics, but they are not the same. Documentary photographers begin with an idea, a concept, that they wish to express, and this idea is the guiding hand of the photographs they take. Street photography is not thought out before-hand. Street photography is not trying to tell a wider story. And this leads to rule four.


4. Street photography is based nearly always on the single photograph.

One moment told in one single photograph. Of course, certain scenes work as a series, and like film, some scenes are more powerful or illustrative as a sequence of images. But in general, street photography is mostly an entire story told in a single photograph. And in this, too, street photography is different from documentary photography, which almost always requires a set of photographs to convey their message.


5. Street photography is about human life. Or animal life. Or even plant life.

But it is about life, in one form or another. This doesn't mean to say that the photographs must have a living creature in them to work. Many of the best street photographs only have signs of humanity in them. (Sometimes literally signs, created by humans).


6. Street photography is often about small moments.

You may see street photography in major events, in world shaking stories, but in general these events are covered in a different way, and with a different outcome. A news story is attempting to convey the news. On occasion, street photographs arise in the middle of a big story, but often they are still just the small moments of life—a president with his or her child, a general in some off-news moment. But this is rare.


7. Street photography is most often about everyday people and everyday life.

Celebrities, politicians, business people are often the subject of millions of photographs every year, but true street photography almost always happens with ordinary people living ordinary lives. Again, street photography is about the small moments of life, and these are often found off of the main road of life.


8. Street photography is often humorous.

Street photography can be poignant, beautiful, endering, sweet, telling…but much of the best street photography often provokes laughter. Humor is a large part of street photography. It is the virus that makes the image connect with the viewers. It infects them, like a cold, or a flu, provoking an instant reaction in their bodies, an instant laugh.


9. Street photography can often be combined with other traditional categories of photography: portraits, sports, news, weddings, scientific, medical…

And the list goes on. There is no reason to un-classify a photograph as a street photograph just because it also fits into another category. Many great street photographs are also portraits. Many are also sports photographs. Many are also news photographs. The key is that they must be small, human moments, often with humor, that are slices of real life.


10. Slice of life.

This is a key to street photography. Each photograph must be a slice of life, a moment discovered, observed, and captured by the photographer. When you see a street photograph, you feel the moment, you recognize clearly the sliver of life that has been captured. If the photograph does not present a slice of life, it is not a street photograph. It can be a street scene devoid of life, and still be a street photograph. But it must depend on the moment, the light of the afternoon, the shadows, the signs that people have left behind.