“I am not interested in rules and conventions … photography is not a sport.” Bill Brandt
Since the discovery and publicity of the Vivian Maier collection in 2011, it seems that the genre of Street Photography is experiencing resurgence. Vivian Maier is the Chicago nanny that left 100,000 medium-format negatives and thousands of prints in a storage locker. John Maloof discovered her work when he purchased the collection at a furniture and antique auction while researching a history book about Chicago’s NW side.
With resurgence, however, also comes strong opinion and debate about definition and process. Some street photographers insist that ‘street’ must include people, others object and opine instead about the street photography aesthetic and approach. Some street photographers focus on gear and follow after the footsteps of the early 20th century practitioners, Henri Cartier-Bresson for example, using only range-finder style cameras equipped with 28, 35 or 50mm lenses, loaded with B&W Tri-X film. Others, such as Jay Maisel, freely use high-end digital SLRs with general-purpose 28-300mm zooms.
Additional topics of debate include the use of color or black-and-white, the inclusion of people, the role of a street portrait, the use of long-focal length lenses, and what amount post processing is acceptable.
The term street photography actually came about as a means to differentiate it from the kinds of photography that were done in a studio setting or dealt with pictorial landscapes. The pioneers set out to capture the common-day life around them and, as a result, their cameras evolved to support their new ideas and, needless to say, required portability. I suggest that it is not so important to debate the gear and definition or rules of street photography, but rather how to go about creating and evaluating your own street images.
Studying both historic and modern street photography, you begin to realize that street photography is far more than just B&W images of people in awkward positions with dumb or surprised looks on their faces. Each image should be both visually compelling as well as tell a story.
Similar to writing, a good story is one that is clearly told, has character development, and leaves something to the imagination. In visual story-telling, clarity is managed by deciding what to exclude from an image. You must ask yourself if all the elements in the image are contributing to the story. Character development is achieved by the use of perspective, color, lighting, and the juxtaposition of image elements. You must explore how to exaggerate the message in your story. And finally you must pique the viewers’ interest by leaving out something important with either spatial or temporal reference to something exterior to the frame.
Today, there is a vast array of digital cameras that can meet the needs for the agile street photographer, ranging from the modern dSLR, to the new mirror-less and micro-four-thirds systems, to the digital point-and-shoot cameras, and the camera phones. Our job is to use our eyes to find our modern stories and capture them with clarity.