Does Street Photography Matter?

“At a time when fewer and fewer of the images we see are honest representations of real life, their [Street Photographers] work is more vital than ever.”

Sophie Howarth & Stephen McLaren, Street Photography Now

My focus has been so heavily weighted to preparing for the Urbanity Exhibition this year, that it has been some time since I thought about street photography in a more abstract, philosophical manner. This quote froze time for me last night. It stopped me writing notes from the excellent book referred to in the quote. Is street photography important for any other purpose than aesthetic pleasure?

Whilst I am not part of the media industry, my chosen vocation gets me pretty close. I also tend to see a lot of the “underbelly” of media stories, and how so little of what we read and hear is an accurate representation of the facts. Every reportage is “spun” according to the viewpoint of the author. One person’s hero is another’s villain.

This is never more apparent than when you watch music TV. Pop stars in the 70’s and 80’s, and even a lot of the 90’s were often quite “ordinary” looking. Compare that to the perfect looking specimens that dominate the airwaves today. Our media stars are mostly impossibly good looking. Fashion and beauty photography keep reaching new levels of perfect, limited only by the software version.

And so, photography, has also changed. Pictures are more easily manipulated now to suit the intention of the author than at any time in history. Every image is carefully managed and composed and edited to ensure alignment with the story the author wants to tell.

On Facebook, Linkedin, and Instagram, we all feature a profile picture which represents the best versions of ourselves, not the versions that our partners and friend see most often.

Street photography plays an important role in capturing society completely candidly. There is no story. Only an instant, a single frame preserved forever. Building on this thought, I have come to believe that any more than a one second story changes it from street photography to photojournalism. I love photojournalism, but see it as different to street photography.

Street Photography gets past the stage management – and to a candid observation of everyday life. Whatever that may be for the individuals in frame. It can be a moment of high drama, or one of complete inertia and boredom. But it is just a single, independent moment.




“A good street photograph makes something very ordinary… seem extraordinary”

Sophie Howarth & Stephen McLaren, Street Photography Now

The manner in which the photographer captures the instant can and should elevate it as something worth looking at, into something aesthetically pleasing. Street Photography is a way to show people how wonderful and, frankly, awesomely cool we all can be, just going about our everyday business.

“Street photography is not about capturing reality as it is : it is about …turning the mundane into the extraordinary.”

Marie Laigneau

There is no such thing as a boring life – only boring people. Street Photography can help people understand just how much potential there is every day, no matter how mundane you believe it to be.

The “extraordinary” is delivered primarily through composition, mostly natural lighting (a bit of flash is OK!), position, and timing. A bit of post processing on the computer is fine too – a bit of exposure, maybe dialing up the colour a bit, or backing it off to a monochrome. These are all fine tuning the aesthetic.

The image moves out of the “honest representation” realm when the post editing changes it to something that doesn’t exist in the real world. HDR photography is the perfect example of this. Whether or not you personally find it aesthetically pleasing is not relevant – it is no longer an honest representation of a moment. It moves the scene into the same universe that contains things like high fashion photography in orbit – where nothing in the image looks anything like the original subject photographed.

I suppose, based on this logic, you could argue that Black and White is the same? I don’t consider BW to be inconsistent with the idea of “honest representation” as it does not show any anything additional to what the eye would see. With HDR, the image shows more detail than the eye (or an individual frame) can see. The same rule holds true with high fashion photography – so much is added post taking the actual image / images that they bear no real relation to the original shoot.

The Microscope.

Remember how fantastical a slice of an apple looks under a microscope? Taking a tiny portion of something that is so very ordinary, framing it, and looking at it objectively from a new perspective reveals a completely different view of the apple slice.

Street photography is the same. Take a tiny moment of time of people’s ordinary lives and prepare it like the microscope slide. Printing it out as a photograph changes the viewer’s experience of the moment to reveal so much more.

The people I photograph are not prepared, made up, or been careful to wear “something nice”. They are as they appear each and every day. Street Photography should be a true representation of society at a given point in time that cuts through story telling and image management.

The microscope analogy also feels good to me, considering my previously mentioned reluctance to shoot drunk / drug affected / homeless / mentally ill subjects. They are not experiencing what should be “everyday life” – there is a story – but it is for a photojournalist, not street photographer to tell it. There is nothing to be “elevated” beyond the ordinary with these subjects.

“I photograph things to see what they look like photographed”

Garry Winogrand

The story in Street Photography is delivered by aesthetics – making ordinary places, people, and things look extraordinary. For me, it also means that there is no underlying motivation or story or something the photographer is trying to “prove” or “change” or “fix” – it is about giving people a moment of immersion into someone else’s everyday life.

This is simply how I see things – I love that you probably have a different point of view!

11 Responses to “Does Street Photography Matter?”

  1. As a street photographer of course I think it matters. I see the value from a historical perspective, the recording of fashion, architecture, cityscapes etc
    More importantly (for me) it shows the extraordinary that occurs in the seemingly ordinary all the time. This is what makes it such an enjoyable photographic genre and so wonderful to view when done well. Jess Marlowe in Melbourne (highly recommend his latest book) offers many wonderful examples of this, as does Matt Stuart, the guy who shot the pigeon on the book cover above.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ah yes At last a sensible commentary on street photography! Naturally I agree completely that street photography matters. After all history will want to see what really went on in the ordinary lives and cultures of this time. Just as we look at the past through photos and paintings etc
    What I will say is that there is a lot of today’s SP that doesn’t and wont matter..and it’s not the SP we THINK either. Much of the work of the “popular” and “famous” street photographers of today is only thought of as good because those people are people of today: in other words they are savvy with marketing and social media. This of course speaks to the point of this post. It seems to me that most so-called street photographers aren’t really interested in “ordinary moments’though they say they are. They are interested in the quirky, the unusual, the odd juxtaposition or whatever (I am not totally innocent here lol). For example there is a current “rule” that it’s not SP to photograph people simply walking down the street. Why not I ask? I understand the points made by the answers to this question but then in photos from the past we often see people walking. Not that I do it too much really either lol
    One point I am thinking about now is this. I too don’t photograph homeless, mentally ill people etc (as a rule) but my reasons are about power balance issues. To say “They are not experiencing what should be “everyday life” ” seems to me to be a contradiction to your main point which is about manipulation of photos and the staging of real life. For the people who are homeless or mentally ill who we see on the street, the sad fact is that for them THIS is ordinary life, as much as we would like them to not be suffering like that. In other words, their lives, or rather the moments in their lives we witness must be as valid to record as anyone else’s. To not photograph these people, if we are to follow your line of thought is to exclude them from the ordinary world we are living in today and not wanting to point out the obvious, that’s what the rest of society has already done to these people. I have to think more on this though!
    I like the microscope analogy a lot. If we want to look at a slice of apple we don’t pretty it up, or we don’t say “No I won’t look at that slice because it’s bruised” before we look at it. Well we might, but then we wouldn’t be looking at THAT apple at THAT time.
    For me the main focus is on the people we photograph, and their lives. I guess a moment might or might not tell us a story. But I think almost by definition any moment can cause a story to come to us or to out of the photo at us (does that make sense? LOL). So much today is about how a street photograph MUST have a story. Who’s to say if there is a story or not. I guess if it’s a photo of a person (posed or not) there is a story at some level (now i’m waffling haha)
    Great thought provoking and insightful piece (as always comes from you mate!) thank you for getting me to think I have a motto I “borrowed” from a book I read a long time ago (not on photography) “there are no ordinary moments’ and i usually add that there are no ordinary people either


    • @Paul’s Pictures, I can’t agree with your point regarding current street photographer’s work featuring synchronicity, juxtaposition, humour etc not being the kind that will matter. As photographers I think it’s beholden on us to not just take pictures of people walking down the street, but pictures that are visually pleasing, engaging and interesting. I think there’s very few photographers who can take pics of people just walking and make them appealing rather than boring and pointless. I think the great thing about contemporary street is that it does show how, amongst the seemingly mundane, wonderful moments can and do occur, it’s about learning to see them.


      • Oh sorry I meant that often times those things are all that people go for and forget that the people they are photographing are the main point Of course ther is a need to make a photo pleasing or in some other way that causes some emotional reaction. As far as people “juat walking” not being of interest: I have been using a camere for 40 odd years and until a few montha ago I never knew it was a no-no haha. As I said who is the judge of whether such a photo is interesting or of value or not!? Mind you it’s not something I tend to do unless I sense that there is something there. Persnally i try to allow the momemt to tell me to makee the photo or not Not always successfully of course haha Im thinking of doing some research to fond out how many of yhe, asters have photos of people just walking. As with most of the other SP “rules” made up in the last few years O suspect there are heaps lol


  3. Although I have been doing photography for quite some time I’m fairly new to street. I only take photos of what I think might be interesting. I have restrained myself so many times from shooting unfortunate people except for one instance when I genuinely found this homeless man who looked like Gandalf.
    I enjoyed your article.



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