The beauty of owning a camera is that we are totally free as to where to point it. Some direct their lens to a field or a stream, while others get up close and try to capture a telltale portrait of a fellow human. However, the truly daring among us venture onto our chaotic streets amidst the raging populace and try to catch a glimpse of humanity in action. These are the street photographers!
The world of these fearless artists is one of constant observations and decisions. While trying to separate the mundane from the seductive, they must always have their cameras at the ready. In the world of the streets there are no second chances. The streets are unforgiving. For every stunning image a photographer may obtain, they will unequivocally proclaim they missed five or more insightful ones. Regardless of these failures, they go out each day in pursuit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment.”
These fearless artists obviously need more than a camera and a street. An established technique and learned approach are critical. The objective is to be an unseen observer and an invisible recorder. While the sports photographer needs a huge piece of fast glass, the street photographer requires something small in order to blend in and become the military’s equivalent of a camouflaged sniper. Mirrorless cameras equipped with a short wide-angle zoom appear to be the upcoming standard.
Perhaps the first question these artists should ask is whether what they see would be best portrayed in color or black & white. This is a question without an answer. The decision depends on a wide array of variables. Some images cry out for vibrant color, while others require the humility of black and white.
One age-old technique is the use of silhouettes to both conceal and enhance the subject. Sometimes just the form of an individual within an environment is all that is needed to portray the artist’s intention. A hint of something is often far more enticing than the reality itself.
The above is the work of an unknown photographer capturing a silhouette against the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson
The ultimate street photographer is the photojournalist. These daring men and women, who often face grave hardships and dangers, risk everything to capture an image that has the power to change the course of history. For them, the rules of photography are ignored simply because there is not time to worry about lighting and composition. The goal is to somehow depict the harsh reality of a tragic situation.
The above two photos are perhaps the most powerful images of my young life. They served to bring the reality of the war in Vietnam home to the American people, and it can be argued that they further contributed to the end of that war.
The first is a photo by Eddie Adams of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese official, as he performs an execution during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The second is s photo by Nick Ut in1972 of 9-year-old Kim Phuc, as she runs down a road following an aerial napalm attack.
Another popular subject of street photography is the use of shadows especially in black and white photography. A strong shadow has the power to enhance the drama of an image. The photos above are from my friend and colleague from the Baltimore Camera Club, Sandy Nichols. More of her art can be seen at https://sandynicholsphotography.com/. Check out her work!
Sometimes Street Photography is all about color. The subject is still important, but the color raises the image to the next level.
Often on the street, an image is composed of two subjects, and the metaphysical interaction within the scene becomes the focal point. This juxtaposition presents a visual dichotomy that serves to entice the viewer. The above images are of that genre.
A major challenge of street photography is the capture of honest human emotion. The problem here is that the mere presence of a photographer in a scene alters the reality of that scene. Here the photographer must remain invisible as to not actively interfere with the subjects who are experiencing these feelings. Personally I would often walk with a friend, and pretend to take their photo. At the opportune time, I would simply change the focus of my camera and shoot. No one was the wiser! Care must be taken, but if done properly, the results are rewarding.
Catching children at play is always a street photographer’s dream. By their nature, these young humans are open and true to the camera. Obviously care must first be taken in interacting with the parents. Asking permission in a polite manner, while explaining that you are a serious photographer with a major camera club gives you credibility. If needed, have your website on your phone at the ready to validate your expertise. Usually with a caring and sincere smile, all goes well.
A joy for the adventurist photographer is to actively interact with interesting strangers on the street and seek permission to take their portrait. These Environmental Portraits often show a raw honesty that separates them from the norm. It is a challenge for the bashful, but if attempted, the street photographer will be rewarded.
The above represents that rare occasion when one captures a family dynamic that transcends the norm. Here a father is occupied with his own photographic mission, while at the same time performing his duties as dad caring for his older son. After we both finished shooting, the dad and I looked at each other and just laughed.
One thing a true street photographer never says, I think I will go out today with my camera and take some photos. One thing a dedicated street photographer always says, “I am going out. I better get my camera.” The mantra of the serious street photographer is that my camera is always by my side when I venture out into the world. One never knows when opportunity will present itself for that iconic image.
A major question many photographers face is whether to look at a single individual or a group of people to convey part of our human condition. Most of the time we tend to focus on individuals or a small group of people. Other times the large group serves to depict a significant part of our humanity.
A street photographer needs and enjoys people. We are social beings, and our cameras are our instruments of love in this pursuit to document the human condition. We require patience and sometimes bravery. We realize that our three hour walk may only produce one significant result. We require the instincts of a detective and the luck of a gambler.
The psyche of a street photographer is vastly different from that in other genres. The landscape photographer is a loner who enjoys hours alone in the wilderness. The sports photographer is an action junkie who thrives racing up and down the field catching the death-defying play. The macro photographer is slightly OCD while spending hours setting the stage for his image. We venture into our world and record!
Do not be afraid to stray away from your species. Sometimes our little furry friends and lifelike mannequins make for interesting subjects.
There is always the strange and the bizarre. Where would our culture be without these intriguing outliers?
Sometimes the ultimate joy is in catching a young street photographer-to-be in the beginning stage of his professional development.
Finally let me say that the challenge of a street photographer is creating beauty out of the mundane. The pursuit of a chance encounter with an average person in their daily routine is our mission. This is far more difficult than shooting a glamour model or a blooming flower in the spring, which by their nature are absolutely stunning. Realize I am being slightly facetious here, but there is some truth to it.
We all love taking pictures of beautiful people and things, but the street photographer goes beyond that. We are involved in the creation of beauty. We are trying to tell a story, and sometimes the stories are timeless. The story of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is as significant today as it was in 1936.