Week 1: What is Street Photography?

I have been into photography  for quite a few years now. In 2011 I’ve taken my first basic photography course where I’ve learnt how a mirror camera works and how to manipulate its settings to achieve desired effects, rules of composition and what to look out for to take a good picture. Since then I’ve been taking photographs while travelling and in the cities I lived in – Warsaw and now Manchester. I felt it is about the time to dig deeper into a chosen field of photography. A natural choice is street photography as it is about photographing people. Whatever I’ve been doing so far – be it culture studies or user centered design – it is about people and exploring their beliefs, habits and needs.

Therefore when I came across Eric Kim’s online course on street photography¹ I thought it would be a good start to take my photography skills to a next level. The course is a 10 weeks introduction into street photography with a reading list or video lecture and an assignment for each week. I will share my thoughts and progress on this blog.

What is Street Photography?

First week explores what street photography is but it rather asks the question than provides you with the answer. “Introduction to Visual Sociology” by Howard Becker investigates relation of photography and sociology and how both can benefit from one another. While photography can serve for many different purposes, from fine arts to advertisement, the paper focuses on photography as a mean to explore society:

“At first, some photographers used the camera to record far-off societies that their contemporaries would otherwise never see and, later, aspects of their own society their contemporaries had no wish to see.”

It refers to ethnographic researchers from early 20th century such as Bronisław Malinowski and his study of indigenous societies of Triobrand Islands and the works of photographers like Walker Evans that recorded poverty of rural areas in America during the times of depression.

In this sense, photography can shed light on the aspects of life that otherwise would not be seen. Similarly, one of comments for the Eric Kim’s blog post “What is Street Photography?” points out that the challenge of street photography is “spotting those moments that are unseen by most people”. This may refer to so called “decisive moment” in photography, people’s emotional responses to what happens around them or just beauty of everyday scenes. Is this then what street photography is in its core? Uncovering all those unexpected moments, emotions and interactions that otherwise would not be seen? Either because they are fugitive in their nature or because we don’t normally pay attention to them.

Further in the article, Eric Kim discusses the views and misconceptions about street photography and gives his own personal view on what classifies as street photography. And again, these are open-ended questions with no definite answers.

Does it have to be candid?

One of the characteristics of street photography is that it’s spontaneous, that is, it’s not staged. Many believes that photographer shouldn’t interact with the scene or even that photographed people shouldn’t be aware of the presence of the photographer. Although Eric Kim agrees that the best street photographs are spontaneous and candid, he argues that this isn’t a necessary element.

An example considered is William Klein’s Kid with gun². The photograph shows a boy pointing a gun at the photographer with an angry look at his face. The picture is disturbing and it makes you wonder: what was the situation? A fight? An argument? Why is this boy so angry?  What made him so angry? What actually happened is that the boys were playing with toy guns and the photographer approached one of them and asked him to “look though”. The author admits he provoked this situation. Does it make it less candid or spontaneous? In my opinion, although the situation was provoked, the boy’s response to it was candid and spontaneous. Furthermore, once you know this, there is a place for wholly different interpretation. The boy asked to “look tough” could react in many different ways. His reaction reveals his idea of “looking tough”. He played aggression and anger. What does it tell us?

Does it have to be taken in public space?

Another common belief is that street photography is taken in public places, or more exactly, on the streets. In his article, Eric Kim claims that street photography can be taken in any public space, as long as it is loosely “urban” space as opposed to nature (this kind of photography would classify as natural landscape). He doesn’t believe it can be done in people’s homes though. This made me think about a project of Marek Pisuk that I’ve came across a couple of years ago. His series of photographs “Under the skin. Photographs of Brzeska Street”³ are done mainly in people’s homes. They probably wouldn’t fall into category of street photography if we wanted to stick strictly to definitions. However, to me they evoke similar impression of being honest, real and “not staged”. This is probably due to the fact that author spent enough time with the families to stop being perceived as an intruder. Additionally, although they are mostly done indoor, they concentrate around one street in Warsaw. In this sense, they don’t tell us the story of the individuals but rather tell us the story about the community living in this very specific place in Warsaw.

Does it have to have people in it?

Many people that practice street photography or are interested in this subject would say that street photography has to have people in it. If it is about people, it should have people in it, right? Eric Kim disagrees with this statement and argues that “urban landscapes” can be classified as street photography, especially if they provoke a reflection on humanity and the condition of society. I think I would agree with his point of view. When I was in Cracow a few months ago I have visited a gallery/shop that was selling works of a local photographer. Among these photographs there was a theme of thrown away toys: rocking horses, dolls and teddy bears. They were memorable photographs that evoked feelings of loneliness, abandonment and time passing by. Why were they thrown away? Did the children that owned them grow up? Did they got bored of them?

My photographs

There is no photography assignment for the week 1 of this course but it has inspired me to revisit some of the photographs I have taken so far. It is also a base with which I’m starting off and it will be interesting to see whether and how my photography has changed after completing this course.





















Links to sources

1. Eric Kim’s street photography course

2. William Klein’s “Kid with gun”

3. Marek Pisuk’s “Under the skin. Photographs from Brzeska Street”

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