Reflections on Street Photography by John Cogan

Street Photography… what, why and how?

By John Cogan ARPS

After several conversations with fellow DPS members, there is a question that needs to be resolved: what constitutes a definition of that elusive beastie; Street Photography?  The recent, and very welcome, introduction of Street Photography as a competition category and the subsequent judging has made this topic relevant.  So, the first question is obvious and simple: just what is Street Photography?

The obvious response, I suppose, is photography that takes place on the street.  “Doh!”  says Homer Simpson… That’s as good a start as any, and is correct, as far as it goes.  But, what about photographs of conflict, say those shot in Syria? Most of those are taken on the street.  Though technically street photographs I doubt that many people would wish to include them.  What, then, should (or could) be included in the canon of the Flâneur (the French word for one who wanders the streets looking for interesting things to photograph)?  The implication is to include a non-conflict situation.  An interesting point could arise should the category be about peaceful situations but include photographs of people arguing in the street? 

Consider the position of a photographer who shoots a street empty of people.  Does this constitute a street photograph?  Why not?  It is a photograph of a street and taken in a street.  The back cover of the classic book on Street Photography Now ( Howarth & McLaren, Thames & Hudson, London 2010) has the picture of a rubbish skip placed in front of a shop window the latter displaying the picture of a peacock.  It is the juxtaposition of the skip to the neck and head of the peacock that makes this image a success.  It’s humorous and captures a moment that may never be repeated.  Does the “skipcock” provide us with a clue to what might be at the heart of street photography?  Can we conclude that the Flâneur records situations, scenes, events and people that have some measure of significance.  What constitutes “a measure of significance” is open to subjectivity.  What interests one Flâneur may not interest another.  Cartier-Bresson, prior to becoming a photographer, trained to be a painter.  At the atelier he attended the emphasis was on composition.  Day after day and week in, week out he analysed paintings till the intricacies of composition were “hard-wired” into the way he looked at the world.  So, when he eventually took to the streets, his visual acuity enabled him to evaluate/to read a situation unconsciously and act accordingly.  Walking around the streets with his Leica wrist-strapped to his right hand and invariably relaxed and hidden behind his back, he could respond immediately.  It is hardly surprising, then, that many, if not all, of HC-B’s street photographs have the look of well-considered composition.  A different approach can be seen in the work of Ian Berry.  Berry started his professional photojournalists’ career in South Africa.  His work was dictated by the demands of the newspapers he worked for and the prevailing norms of a society in thrall to the cruel demands of Pass Laws and the corrosive atmosphere created around Apartheid.  His interest and, consequently, his canon of work is very different to Cartier-Bresson. 

This produces a visual paradigm of great complexity.  The street photographs of the Australian Trent Parke are semi-abstract image of people within an atmospheric, weather-dominated urban environment consisting of Sydney’s concrete canyons environment.  His rationale is: “My photographs are more questions than answer.  I use photographs as a way to help me understand why I am here.  The camera helps me to see.”

In his quest to understand life, Trent Parke experiments with what his camera can achieve.  In so doing, his images change over time, however subtly.  What gives all Parke’s images a sense of cohesion is their “texture”; the “feel” of each dense, highly contrasted picture with its distorted human imprint. 

Is it me or is there a hierarchy of genres?  It’s just that he comments I hear from the various judges who have visited the DPS imply that at the top of the tree might be landscapes.  Whatever the genre it has to be visually perfect and that places that standby of the Flâneur, The Grab Shot, way down the list of desirables.  The givens, sharpness and clarity, detail in the shadows and nothing that could constitute a blown highlight, are difficult to guarantee when hunting down “your prey” out there on the mean streets.  There is also no way of respecting the Golden Rule of Thirds when you may only have seconds to complete the shot.  It might even be argued that these absolutes are, potentially, the antithesis of imagination.

How can you evaluate the extremes of imaginative photography?  And here we have a problem: how do we reconcile the limited opportunities offered to the street photography and the demands of standards that are both explicit and finite?

The much-maligned Grab Shot is a staple of the street photographer but it falls far below what is expected of a “good” photographer.  In the pantheon of photo techniques it is only marginally higher than a “holiday snap” but lower than the “Record Shot“.

Reading The New Street Photographer’s Manifesto (Tanya Nagar, 2012) you can learn the various techniques supposedly appropriate to being a Flâneur and offers advice about dress and choice of camera, lenses, the pros and cons of colour over monochrome, the possible view-points you can chose and the implications of each one.  The recent publication of Vivian Maier’s gentle street shots has added more credibility to the genre.  Michael Freeman’s new series Photo School has a book devoted to Street Photography (published on 1st April 2013) only serves to confirm that the genre of Street Photography is not only gaining ground but is becoming codified.

Street Photography is unlike other genres as it offers what Cartier-Bresson says is “hunting for an image”.  Free from the complex variables of other genres, Street Photography is a fast-developing genre and one that provides the photographer with intellectual and perceptual challenges. 

As a consequence of its multiple faces and flexibility, judging can be a nightmare.  When confronted by several street images of differing subjects and what (on first glance) are of varying quality, what criteria does the judge apply?  We could follow HC-B’s example and opt to evaluate the composition.  But, would that require a series of certainties, such as the rule of thirds?  What is a certainty is that the demands of this “beastie” means creating a new set of variables; and in so doing it inevitably precludes past criteria. 

The ultimate set of criteria would be bespoke for each image, but that is obviously very difficult and hardly practical.  However, by creating a series of clearly defined sub-groups, each one with its own criteria by which to judge that set this may go some way to provide a reasonably satisfactory framework. 


v The traditional street shot (which portrays some human interaction) might constitute two sub-groups: one being the rough/raw (in the non-computer language sense) image that has only a minimum of manipulation; the other being the worked-image that has a greater degree of manipulation. 

v The structure-dominated street shot which has, at its heart, a building of some kind (albeit only a wall or something similarly simple) against which, or around which there is some human activity.

v An activity that has a cultural basis relevant to the society you are in, though said activity may not be obviously “street”… such as people working on a rubbish dump.

v Occupational street shots where there is a definite interaction between the street and the workers (rubbish collection or the laying of electric wires etc.).  Having said that, should tramps or bag-people be included in this category?

v Street portraits fall into two groups: the posed portraits (which should have a higher degree of technical ability than….) candid street portraits.

v Street animals (and their keepers if applicable).

v The development of a narrative consisting of at least 3 images.

Once you have considered the various demands of each category then there are the two elements that will help tie every image together: the degree of emotion implicit in the composition; and the strength of the narrative.  These two elements are, possibly, the most contentious of all.  How can you quantify the emotional content of a picture?  The second thread is as ephemeral as emotion and that is the story the image tells, either overtly or by implication.  This becomes less of an issue (or a conundrum) when you increase the number of images that constitute the narrative.  There is then a beginning, a development and a possible outcome.

Having outlined all the above, the question still remains: how do we construct a framework for moving the DPS forward and developing the evaluation of images in the context of a competition.

Perhaps this will become another of Durham’s legacies for 2013… the development of a structure for judging the growing number of street photographs.  There is one suggestion that might ease the way forward… not to leave the judging of these photographs to the inclination of one person and their personal peccadilloes.  At least 3 judges using some marking system and for their observations to be restricted it comes to the process of announcing the results.

Whwhen at happens at the moment, when the single judge is allowed free-rein to give their opinions, generates much comment and argument amongst members.  What is refreshing is that we do not see people challenge these decisions.  This is a very important aspect and one that should be retained… if possible.  With clear criteria and an assessment process that is open and seen as being as objective as possible then you might be on to a winner.

Good Luck

John Cogan    

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