Street Photography, A Definition

To date, it’s been hard to find a comprehensive definition of what street photography is. Ask anyone from the BSP community and they’ll each come back to you with their own perspective. Granted most of the photographers will say it’s candid photography taken on the streets, but there’s so much more to that often too simplistic interpretation. Oftentimes, and after some experience in the field, you can simply look at a photo and know whether it fits this genre or not. Other times, it’s a bit more unclear.

“Street photography is difficult to define because it can encompass just about any subject.” – Dave Beckerman

Today I came across Dave Beckerman’s insightful post “Defining Street Photography” that answers these questions in the most objective way. It’s worth reading the full post in detail as he gives several examples for each point, but I wanted to highlight some of the key points he makes below in one easy, quick-to-review manner.  

(The following quotes are derived from Dave’s post, in his own words)

On Style..

“To start with, street photography doesn’t need to be done on “the street.” And it doesn’t need to be pictures of strangers. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be pictures of people, though it usually is. Although there are common subjects for street photography, it is not so much about the subject as it is the style of the photograph..”

“If street photography were a musical form – it might be jazz.” – Dave Beckerman

On the Decisive-Moment and Candid-ness..

“The most common and famous property of street-photography is the idea of capturing “the decisive moment.” .. It’s that sort of moment, or juxtaposition of ideas, that street photographers are fascinated by.. The moment is not enough. To play by the rules, the shot really does need to be unplanned. It also needs to allow the eye to wander around and make it’s own conclusions about the meaning of the photograph.”

“Street Photography is not the same as documentary photography.. If you send our imaginary street photographer to photograph the President giving at a press conference, they return with pictures of the other photographers at the photo op. Journalistic images are a dime a dozen.”

On Curiosity and the Street Photographer’s Intentions..

“The idea of posing subjects is anathema for the street photographer.” – Dave Beckerman

“The street photographer is a perpetual tourist. They may never leave their own town, but as they walk around, they can see things that the rest of the world is oblivious to.. Another common aspect of street photography that makes it different from other forms of photography, is that it is usually not sponsored. (In rare instances the photographer is given a grant to do this shooting, but as I say, this is rare).”

“If their purpose is to make a discovery, to find a surprise, to give expression to their own curiosity about people and the things that people construct there is a good chance you’ve run into a street photographer.. I’m sure that many a street photographers dream of a cloak of invisibility.”

In Conclusion..

“.. there are the formal elements that can be used to define the street photograph: the mysterious decisive moment that is shown in context; the use of juxtaposed elements to form a new synthesis that is unusual, although the juxtaposed elements may be ordinary; the desire to let the scene play without disturbing it; and most of all, the desire to experience and communicate the surprise that the photographer feels in the frame which is pointed at the world of human beings and their creations.”

“The street photographer can best be identified not by what they shoot, but why they shoot.” – Dave Beckerman

I highly recommend that anyone who’s into street photography read the full post “Defining Street Photography” and re-assess their personal approach to this genre. Whenever in doubt about whether your work is genuine street photography or not, refer to Dave Beckerman’s words.. or create your own definition, but remember what it certainly isn’t – posed.

We’d love to hear your feedback on this post and to get your own definitions on what street photography is..


3 responses to “Street Photography, A Definition

  1. All except the analogy of street photography being like jazz. I’m not a street photographer, and I’m hardly even the type of person that takes photos of my own, but I have spent an abundant amount of time around photographers and especially street photographers. In addition to that, I am a musician, and a bit of a critic.

    From everything I’ve seen, and for knowing the BSP, as well as other world-renown street photographers , I can safely say that street photography falls a lot more between the genres of funk and fusion. It has this element of surprise, with hint of chaos; it doesn’t confine itself to the serenity or tenderness of jazz. I may even go as far that for some street photographers it’s even more like big band music.

    Just my two cents. 😛

  2. Pingback: Street Photography, A Definition | street photographers |·

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