Is Street Photography Documentary?

Discussion in 'Open Discussion' started by agentlossing, Aug 14, 2014.

  1. agentlossing

    agentlossing Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jun 26, 2013
    Real Name:
    Andrew Lossing

    I can't get over how oft-debated and nebulous street photgraphy is, yet everyone has an opinion. For instance, this article claims street photography is not documentary, and that a person who is aware they are being photographed becomes a "street portrait" but not "street." So why do we keep making these distinctions, when each street photographer applies their own twist, their artistic inspiration, and no two street photographers are the same nor should be.

    In my opinion, an impromptu portrait on the street still has all the elements of other street photos, and the only thing missing is surreptition. Surreptitiousness does not a street photo make, so why is that only missing element the one that makes a street portrait not "street?"

    I understand the idea that framing and other artistic elements make street photos less than strictly documentary, but by being "more than" documentary I would not say that that makes a photo "less than" documentary if it also includes the right elements. You just can't pin these things down.
  2. gryphon1911

    gryphon1911 Mu-43 All-Pro

    Mar 13, 2014
    Central Ohio, USA
    Real Name:
    There are way too many people out there talking about photography. They want click throughs and recognition. They want what they have to say to be relevant to more than just themselves.

    Photography is something to be experienced. To me it is an action, a verb....something you do in an active way - either in the taking of the images, the post processing or the viewing.

    We need to stop trying to define everything to the Nth degree and just get back to making images.

    I enjoy looking at other photographers work, regardless of how it is done.
    I personally prefer my "street" photography to be done without the subjects acknowledging me. They can be aware, but if they are actively acknowledging me, then I feel like I lose that sense of authenticity to the persons reactions to the environment around them.
    What I do not do, is judge others who decide to engage in photography as they see fit. I've only ever been outspoken when people are doing things that are illegal.

    I won't say there is a right or wrong way - it just is.
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  3. Replytoken

    Replytoken Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 7, 2012
    Puget Sound
    Real Name:
    Both of you seem to have summed up this never-ending deabte well, but I suspect that this thread may have the ability to gather up an even larger number of thoughts and opinions on the subject. :popcorm2:

  4. gpburdell

    gpburdell Mu-43 Veteran

    Jul 16, 2014
    Labels and classifications are useful tools to help people set a context or expectation. When applied to creative arts those labels necessarily must have fuzzy edges simply because creative style is a continuous variable.

    I don't know why anyone would need to claim someone else's interpretation of a named style wasn't "real" -- though it often seems to be a means of self-validation.
    • Like Like x 2
  5. Just Jim

    Just Jim Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Oct 20, 2011
    Weeeelll. IMHO. Very humble mind you. I say Street photography is exactly pictures of streets. Documenting them, Possibly with signs, or easily found landmarks. Should there actually be people on them, to which I say GARBAGE imho, make sure they are very limited and non distracting to the street itself. We can not afford clutter our dear subject with such silly humans and their dogs that poop on them, or the ladies that degrade them with their high heeled ice picks clicking away and damaging our precious pavement. And do not forget the blacktop, we must be colorblind to our surfaces.

    Oh the lines of paint we spray on these poor streets, only to be driven on by savages that spread those beautiful garments. WILL WE NEVER LEARN. SAVAGES.
    • Like Like x 2
  6. agentlossing

    agentlossing Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jun 26, 2013
    Real Name:
    Andrew Lossing
    I have seen serious "street" photographs that were just pictures of parking lots with no other subject!

    I do have to say, those painted lines and symbols on the streets look so cool when the digital image is further manipulated into high-contrast B&W ;)
    • Like Like x 1
  7. Jonathan F/2

    Jonathan F/2 Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Aug 10, 2011
    Los Angeles, CA
    I like street photography that tells a story as opposed to the artsy fartsy junk I've been seeing lately. Also I don't really like following the street photography scene, because I find them somewhat clique'ish. Big whoop you got a Leica or a Fuji X100S, a fire sale $199 E-PM2 can shoot the same stuff, faster and more stealthier. :rolleyes:
    • Like Like x 2
  8. G1 User

    G1 User Mu-43 Veteran

    Jul 20, 2010
    I guess "Street Photography" is who you research for style and content.

    Henry C Bresson is one kind of Street Photography. less documentary, more "surreal" in one sense, as far as what juxtapositions are shown w/o manipulation.
    looking for that special moment that tells a story, where many times, the surrounding graphics/geometry, are a large part of the image.

    Bruce Gildon is more in "Street Portraits" using flash, as part of his work
    Looking for great faces with telling features for their story

    Martin Parr photographs everyday life, on and off the street, with flash and vivid colors.. many look like well executed "snapshots" or an "Event Photographer" style
    But, employs interaction with those in the photos.

    Many Street Photographers, find what they like to photograph and how to frame it over time....

    Street can be Documentary, and is, in many ways Documentary...but not of "events" as think, but, a single image that is more about the Person/Group of people and their emotional state in that second.
    But, that is can a false emotion also, since we don't know what and why they look that way when we take it.
    It can also be an expression of the overall lifestyle on the street. (Like at large outdoor markets still alive and well in many countries).

    Really, for anyone delving into "Street", they will find their own center of gravity of what street is for them.

    I think (believe) that all the different Street Photography styles are under the all encompassing category of "Documentary" Photography. Just more specialized in each sub-catagory.
    Because a street photographer is documenting a slice of life, a story, a part of the social pathos of their time and areas.

    I like Classic Street Photography, like HCB, or Vivian Maier. I am not into street portraits, though I may take a few here and there.
    So, this is type of street photography I practice at most.
  9. T N Args

    T N Args Agent Photocateur

    Dec 3, 2013
    Adelaide, Australia
    Real Name:
    call me Arg
    Some people do street photography because they want to show what the place looked like. That is documentary.

    Some do street photography because that is the forum for their art. That is art.

    et cetera
    • Like Like x 1
  10. gryphon1911

    gryphon1911 Mu-43 All-Pro

    Mar 13, 2014
    Central Ohio, USA
    Real Name:
    I really like the philosophy of Jay Maisel when it comes to street photography. I find myself looking for the story, that thing that I've never seen before...the color and the gesture.

    Color is a funny thing for me because I tend to gravitate toward gesture more, and my street images always have more impact to me in B&W. I, personally need to give color more dominance and find something in that vein that makes sense to me.

    Here are some of my favorite street images, not necessarily taken with m43 gear, but will give you an idea of what I tend to gravitate toward.
  11. OzRay

    OzRay Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 29, 2010
    South Gippsland, Australia
    Real Name:
    Ray, not Oz
    I look at street photography as being, usually, a photo of a person/s that, on its own, effectively says little to the viewer, other than here is a picture (beautiful, interesting, crappy or whatever) of a person or the like, eg here is a guy walking. Documentary photography, to me, tells a story; there are elements to the image that individually combine to create something of importance either historically or temporally (ie time limited), eg here is a man looking at the ruins left after a violent storm. Documentary photography is also usually planned or a result of unforseen events etc; whereas, street photography is more often than not happenstance, photographing anything of interest that comes across your field of view. I do believe that the two are separate. I'm not sure what the article discusses, but this is my view.

    This represents documentary photography at it's ultimate:
    • Like Like x 1
  12. Fri13

    Fri13 Mu-43 Veteran

    Jan 30, 2014
    We have art and we have documentary. Those two have very blurry wide line but they are very clear actually. Problem Ia that when doing documentary, it can become a art.

    Art is created, not captured.

    Like I can't make art by walking next to oil paint and take a photograph from it framing it either frames are included or not. That is documentary of the artists art or the artwork framed with the frames it now have.

    But I can make art by photographing different frames on same canvas or same frames on different canvas. As that is something I would have liked to create and show others in series of photographs.

    What is documentary? We store something for future as it was, how it was and why it was. And part of documentary is that we do not alter or affect to the documentation subject itself. And there things comes hard to separate.

    Like I can be photographing people on streets as scenery where I wait moments to happens and then stealthy move in and capture the moment.
    But if someone spots me and looks at camera, it is still documentary as I AM part of the scenery at that moment.

    But if someone makes faces or poses to camera suddenly , that is still documentary if I didn't create the moment on purpose, like I didn't ask or signal I want that.

    But if I do that, request people to pose or make faces, I am making art. I am changing them for me. I am still part of the scenery, but as on documentation, I am behind camera. But my actions reflects from what I photograph at the moment.

    So documentary isn't that I ask people to stand specific places or pose tp camera. People need to be as i would not be there but I am still there.

    So now when looking H.C.B work, he didn't ask people to pose, he was part of the scenery but hi didn't create anything. People look at the camera or somewhere else if they want in their free mind, if it comes from their mind.
    And that is the street photography soul that you can freeze the moment as it was without creating it on purpose.

    He got the moments just in the time when people had free mind and it was unaffected by him. It is like when photographing people at bars, if they spot the camera, their actions changes that they pose or they gets back inside uncertainty how to be. So after some time they forget the camera unless you push it to their faces or really reveal you are about to take photo.

    And same thing is with street photography. You have very short moment to capture it before subjects stance gets changed.

    And that means you can't make documentary while wearing a clown suit or huge sign "smile to the camera" as that is art then.
    But it doesn't mean people can't have eye contact with the camera.

    And the best part in street photography isn't the photos itself. It is the stories. You show photos to others and tell them the moment you saw to come, and then photograph tells rest.

    And then there are the "street photography" where friends, models or unknown people at street are requested to do something, pulled from their life and requested to look at camera.
    While it can happen on street, it is already portraiture photography but on the streets and not street photography. As it is like placing a sign saying "portraits, free of charge" and wait people come to pose for you. And that is between art and documentary. As you still don't request to wear something or hold something but they come as they are. It is like boy and girl enters to studio and request to have a portrait of them two to be taken. They wear what they want but you ask them to pose and they know you are taking shots and they react to that.

    Finally when talking about documentary there comes the ultimate question:

    What is a Objective Documentary?

    As there is now such thing by philosophy point of view, because your choice of camera angle, focal length (cropping), shutter speed, aperture, B/W or Color choice and the moment you capture photography are all from you and from your point of view, from your wishes and purposes.
    And that is greatly abused in street photography by paparazzi's.
    But it isn't always just them, often you are required to give all photos from task to editor and there is a AD who picks up the photo for the article to present his/her view of the person and moment.

    So photographer can be doing street photography well, but someone else can render photographer mission negative one by using a frame what shows subject in different light. And then comes again own ethical questions, do you want your name to be printed below photo?

    The street photography requires skills and not technical ones with camera. It requires to read the scenery and blend in the time and surroundings without disturbance to scenery. It requires skills to infiltrate to moment and capture it without being offensive to anyone's behavior and believes.

    And it isn't that you use telephoto objective to capture moments from further distance, but it same time is.
    As it can be seen from photograph that you were not there in most cases. But you are not always the important part, your story is and you can't get good story from it when you didn't hear what subjects were talking or see what was coming.

    And that is a another question, can telephoto objective be used for documentary in street photography soul?

    Sure it can but the photos don't tell anything most of the time.
    It is like some believe street photography is about capturing people outside of subject field of view or surprising them behind corner. As that can be already a art, but definitely it shows in your photos in subjects eyes or pose in negative way, what is reflected to viewer.

    But what we so not see, are H.C.B and others frames what they rejected.
    And that era photography was not everyone's possibility like today. And now more than ever it is harder to come with great photos when we see so much everyplace as art, but it should be so easier than ever to stand up from most if you are skilled one.

    And question still remains, what is art and what is documentary. It depends how it was taken and when and can't be stated as "street photography is art form".
  13. agentlossing

    agentlossing Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jun 26, 2013
    Real Name:
    Andrew Lossing
    Interesting thoughts, and one that occurs to me is, can we ever take straight documentary shots, without "art?" I'd argue that unless you're shooting from the hip with an ultrawide lens and not even choosing your moment of activating the shutter, then you're still making decisions that reflect the world as the way you see it and the things you want to express in the scene. I.e. Art.

    HCB was far from a documentarian, as evidenced by his choice of a 50mm lens, which is narrow enough that he could choose not to include some elements (his criticism of 35mm). So he was making strong artistic decisions with every shot. And we're not all HCB, but we also express something artistic in one way or another when we filter straight information through our viewpoints.
  14. OzRay

    OzRay Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 29, 2010
    South Gippsland, Australia
    Real Name:
    Ray, not Oz
    All photographers generally want to imbue some of their own vision into any photograph they take, whether it's a casual photographer, a news photographer or a war photographer. It's not necessarily 'art' that they are trying to put into the photograph, but a greater sense of meaning and perhaps drama, yet retaining the reality of what they are seeing. For many forms of photography, the only manipulation allowed is the type of lens, angle of view, lighting at time of day (or supplementary) and use of techniques/elements that don't materially change reality. Many a news photographer has been caught out violating their code of ethics by manipulating the final image in post-processing.
  15. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin .

    Oct 9, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    Real Name:
    I don't think that street photography is easily definable, so it's not surprising that there are various ideas of what it is or what it should be.
    • Like Like x 1
  16. OzRay

    OzRay Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 29, 2010
    South Gippsland, Australia
    Real Name:
    Ray, not Oz
    As an aside, I've never considered photography to be an 'art', I've always considered it a 'craft'. I don't consider a craft to be derogatory or of lesser importance than art (in many cases it requires far more skill), but I don't see it as art.
  17. Fri13

    Fri13 Mu-43 Veteran

    Jan 30, 2014
    He was not doing art, but documentary, but not objective documentary but documentary very close to come objective documentary but always with a own point of view.

    Art is about creating it, not capturing it. That's why there is totally own sub-category for art-photography.
  18. Zee

    Zee Mu-43 Top Veteran

    I'd argue that ALL photography is documentary. Even if it's a portrait, or a product photo, it's still documenting something as it was for that 1/100 of a second (or whatever your shutter speed was).

  19. m4/3boy

    m4/3boy Mu-43 Veteran

    Jul 21, 2013
    There are only two types of photographs, "Who is it?" or "What is it?"

    A single photo alone can't tell a story but can document an instant.
  20. gryphon1911

    gryphon1911 Mu-43 All-Pro

    Mar 13, 2014
    Central Ohio, USA
    Real Name:
    I'll have to respectfully disagree on your second sentence.
    Not all stories are as powerful or obvious as others, but there is a story there somewhere.