Street photography is the hottest trend these days. It become in vogue around the same time Flickr is at its peak. Then, I begin to see workshops. From Los Angels to New York, London to Tokyo. More workshops, more seminars on the subject. Every street I go, I see people with cameras in their hands. Every body wants to be a street photographer now.
How do you define street photography? Wikipedia specifies it as a type of documentary photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places such as streets, parks, beaches, malls, political conventions and other settings. Still, after spending a lengthy period experimenting, reading and looking at the work from master photographers such as Gary Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier, I find street photography is more than just a type of documentary photography. Street photography is personal. It’s not a hobby or a career. It exists since the day the first camera was invented. It’s a part of our culture in the photography world.
The photographs from the masters I mention above show more life than any documental photograph we see. They show not only the liaisons between the photographers and their subjects, but also the intuitive feelings of the surroundings. These masters give each of their photographs a soul. And those souls speak to the audience. Those souls are what capture our attentions. Not the photographs.
If you already read and studied these master photographer’s books and photos, you would understand that they spent a chunk of their days on the streets. They didn’t get on the street with high resolution cameras and fast speed AF zoom lenses. They didn’t have what we have in their time. They did not shoot thousand photos a day and hope to get one photo that would wow their audience. They observed their scene. They carefully chose their subjects. Then, they quietly shot their frames with passion.
Even Bruce Gilden, a street photographer who is famous for his uncompromising, in-your-face shooting style, chose to observe his scenes before he approached his subjects. Take a closer look at his photographs—not my favorite photographer, by the way. But I have to admit that I love his work.
The loud scream of a Russian gangster. The posh silence at a mafia funeral. The noisy crowd of the NYC beach scene. You’re not only hear the sounds but you also feel like you’re actually there, witnessing the atmospheric phenomenon with the photographer.
In contrast to Gilden’s audacious and direct-to-subject style, Winogrand often composed his frames loosely to include the surrounding. The two photographs below could easily be mistaken with the work from an average Joe; somehow, Winogrand turned these loose compositions into the magics that brought his audience closer to his depicted subjects.
I am marvelled by the way Helen Levitt froze time and captured the children’s activities in the photographs below. Her photographs don’t glare at the audience like what you see in Winogrand’s images. Instead of screaming for attention like Bruce Gilden’s work, these photographs silently whisper to your ears, quietly pull you into the world of these children.
Street photography seems easy, but it’s just not intend for every body. Regardless how many workshop you take or how much you spend on your gear, you will never be success if you don’t have the passion and an observant mind. Without passion, you will never been able to push yourself closer to your subjects. Without an observant mind, you will never see that decisive moment, which every street photographer have been trying so hard to capture.
If I ever hold a street photography workshop, I’d rather talk about these two elements before I give lecture about composition techniques and gears. In fact, I may not even talk about gears. Gears would ruin the passion you have for photography. Gears would turn you into a snob instead of a successful photographer…
Now that I have shared with you the first essential elements of street photography, it’s time for you to utilize them into your work. Get personal. Give souls to your photographs. Allow them to speak to your audience.
Stop explicating so your audience can listen to what your photos have to say.