Street Photography: Definitions by John Cogan

  1. An Introduction: Similar to English Law, Street Photography is defined more by practice than anything written down. What it is not and never has been is a constructed image. As such, it demands a different mind-set and cannot conform to the standard expectations of the standard competition photograph. Like wildlife and nature photography, something has to define it and keep it separate from other photographic genres, otherwise why have it as a category in its own right?

In the past it would have been considered a Candid photograph and, heaven forbid, a grab shot!

  1. Definitions: The following definitions have been arrived at through extensive research into the history of Street Photography and the views of those who have practiced it.

* To qualify as an authentic Street Photograph there should be the minimum of interference from the photographer. At the moment the shutter is activated there should be no collusion between the author and the subject. The photographer is attempting to capture a fleeting moment of social documentation.

* Once the image has been made there are limits to what can be done with said photograph. The author can crop, in moderation. S/He can dodge and burn, work on the contrast, and sharpen… but again these processes are to be considered minimal in the genre.

* What the photographer is attempting to do is record an incident, event, something that might be considered a “Decisive Moment!” To be validated by the audience it must be seen as “an honest image”. This concept precludes excessive manipulation. A good exemplar to consider is that developed for Nature and Wild Life photography. A copy of which is attached as an Appendix.

* Posed photographs contradict the ethos and honesty of a Street Photograph. Collusion is not to be considered. Should the photographer approach the subject and seek permission prior to the shot being taken this turns the image into an Environmental Portrait.

In Conclusion, the following highlight the process of Street Photography:

  1. The image made must occur naturally.
  2. The subject does not necessarily have to be of a street or include a person but you are recording a “Human” situation (which should not be natural or free of human influence.). There should be no collusion between actors within the dynamic of the image… i.e. no posing!
  3. There are the same restrictions on the post-capture processes appertaining to Street Photography as there are to Nature and Wild Life photography.
  4. The final image should be a narrative, or example, of human activity. It could be serious or humorous but is subsumed under the heading of Social Documentary.
  5. The key to where the photographer might develop in Street Photography is how s/he learns to “read” a situation and anticipate what may happen next. This, naturally, necessitates more images are made than other genres might demand, and that the standard of clarity and composition may be weaker than that expected when the photographer has a tripod or time to compose the image. It is the ultimate development of “The Grab Shot!” This is where the genre may appear to threaten the established mores of Club Photography… that you must free yourself from pin sharp images and Immaculate prints. Photographic technique becomes secondary to the narrative and the social document. Perhaps this is not the arena of the Photo Club?
  6. As a consequence of the above, the customary reliance upon colour balance, composition and pin-sharp images become less significant, and not as important as narrative and clarity. It requires a deeper understanding of what is a “Decisive Moment”.

 APPENDIX… from NCPF Newsletter, relevant sections highlighted in red.

 Nature photography is restricted to the use of the photographic process to depict all branches of natural history,

except anthropology and archaeology, in such a fashion that a well-informed person will be able to identify the subject material and certify its honest presentation.

The story telling value of a photograph must be weighed more than the pictorial quality while maintaining high technical quality. Human elements shall not be present, except where those human elements are integral parts of the nature story such as nature subjects, like barn owls or storks, adapted to an environment modified by humans, or where those human elements are in situations depicting natural forces, like hurricanes or tidal waves.

Scientific bands, scientific tags or radio collars on wild animals are permissible. Photographs of human created

hybrid plants, cultivated plants, feral animals, domestic animals, or mounted specimens are ineligible, as is any form of manipulation that alters the truth of the photographic statement.

No techniques that add, relocate, replace, or remove pictorial elements except by cropping are permitted.

Techniques that enhance the presentation of the photograph without changing the nature story or the pictorial content, or without altering the content of the original scene, are permitted including HDR, focus stacking and dodging/burning. Techniques that remove elements added by the camera, such as dust spots, digital noise, and

film scratches, are allowed. Stitched images are not permitted. All allowed adjustments must appear natural.

Color images can be converted to greyscale monochrome. Infrared images, either direct-captures or derivations, are not allowed.

Images used in Nature Photography competitions may be divided in two classes: Nature and Wildlife.

Images entered in Nature sections meeting the Nature Photography Definition above can have landscapes, geologic formations, weather phenomena, and extant organisms as the primary subject matter. This includes images taken with the subjects in controlled conditions, such as zoos, game farms, botanical gardens, aquariums and any enclosure where the subjects are totally dependent on man for food.

Images entered in Wildlife sections meeting the Nature Photography Definition above are further defined as one or more extant zoological or botanical organisms free and unrestrained in a natural or adopted habitat.

Landscapes, geologic formations, photographs of zoo or game farm animals, or of any extant zoological or botanical species taken under controlled conditions are not eligible in Wildlife sections. Wildlife is not limited to animals, birds and insects. Marine subjects and botanical subjects (including fungi and algae) taken in the wild are suitable wildlife subjects, as are carcasses of extant species.

 John Cogan ARPS June 2015


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