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The Phyla of Street Photography

If you spend time studying a particular genre of anything, you start to see the genre’s edges, as well as its internal patterns and repetitions. Groupings. Street photography (of people) has them, and I wanted to sketch out a few examples, list perceived pros and cons, and generally prove how writing something down helps to completely confuse the issue. Plus, classifying anything is arbitrary and dictitorial, which makes it that much more fun! I’ll be updating this entry with examples (maybe even in color!), as they come to mind.

The Juxtaposition: Surprising and often humorous combinations of two (or more!) unexpected things. The refined sugar in street photography’s morning cup — that extra kick. Also known as the what? the huh? or the how’d they do that?

Pros: These pictures burrow deep in one’s memory because they’re connected to a physical reaction, a jolt of laughter, or the ah-ha! of instant understanding. They make the viewer feel smart, because the understanding instantly unifies the viewer with the photographer’s intent, as in, “wow, wouldja look at that!” while hinting that there’s something deeper below the surface, which may in fact be absent. An unexpected thrill.

Cons: These pictures are often hobbled by their own strength. A photograph that limps around on a crutch of humor or surprise can’t always stand on its own. To mix metaphors, the juxtaposed slice-of-life picture is just a slice, not a sandwich. Not enough mustard or soul. These photos can be satisfyingly glib and ironic, but how satisfying is irony, really? (Wink wink)

The Moving Masses: Photos of people engaged en masse, doing something together, even if everyone’s going in different directions.

Pros: The familiarity of ubiquity. I don’t understand the allure of these pictures, even the ones I take. They seem to function best historically, when the viewer can say oh look how styles have changed, men used to wear such funny hats.

Cons: The sledghammer of the aggregate. Declaration of the obvious, as in yes, there are a lot of people in cities and occasionally they stand very close to each other and look like herded farm animals. The photographyness of these can be evident because the subject(s) are often looking right at the camera, with annoyance.


The Street Portrait: Soul’s beachhead. A person, isolated against an urban backdrop, caught in a moment in which their private, inner self is publicly visible. May or may not be candid. These can be rewarding to study, and the best hold up to much scrutiny, like classical sculpture. Where an emotional tide flows back and forth between subject and viewer.

Pros: The end of anonymity. By isolating the subject, a face (but most important, feeling) is given to the masses. A connection’s made between the viewer and the subject that may run deeper than the photographer’s intentions. Generally, people enjoy looking at other people who are “visually interesting” as long as that person is printed on a piece of paper (or on a screen) and can’t say “why are you looking at me?” which is a question that may have already been pitched at the photographer.

Cons: Street portraits are fun to look at in a museum or gallery, but they can be tough on a living room wall, year after year. Humans are an unpredictable bunch, especially when you’re connecting with them on a strong, emotionally acute level. It’s easier to prefer pictures of architectural facades, couches on the sidewalk, or slick, windswept empty streets. As with the other examples, if a portrait is just a portrait, it may not have staying power. The weakness of anonymity, as in “who is that?” when the answer is “I dunno. Some guy.”


Walker Evans

Abstract: Compositional framing of humans on the street such that you can’t tell where the street begins and the human ends or vice versa. The Wonder Bread of street photography. Incredible shelf-life, and people prefer it to that seedy, unpredictable, slice-your-own stuff.

Pros: Forget bread, this is the supermodel of street photography. Pretty, and pretty great for parties, but often empty. Compositionally pleasing, though the pleasantness is glossy and thin. Having one in your hands makes you look good to people who like splashing each other in the shallow end. Perfect for a hotel lobby.

Cons: Perfect for a hotel lobby.

Example: Your neighborhood stock photography agency.

The Perfect Peopled Moment: As a viewer, my biased preference. The assignment - to combine the surprise jolt of juxtaposition with a portrait’s humanity.

Pros: The darting ephemeral has been plucked-out, sat down and stilled. It’s often a photograph of something or someone you’ve never seen before, or if you’ve seen it, you haven’t had the chance to stand there and study it and be amazed. Makes you wonder how the photographer did it to such a degree that you actually remember the photographer’s name (or maybe even write it down!)

Cons: The humanity takes away from the power of the moment, or the moment takes away from the power of humanity. It’s a fine balance, and it’s easy to fall off either side. As a photographer, you can’t go out and find these (as you might with a plain portrait or something abstract), they find you, even if you put yourself into the kind of situations that are fertile for these pictures. Actually, “they find you” is wrong. If you’re in the right place with the right subject, these moments gently tap you on your shoulder. As a viewer, the experience is unified: admiration for the photographer’s vision on up to the unpredictable emotional hit.


The Triple Crown: A combination of two and a half of the above. A juxtaposed moment with the soul of a portait and a dash of abstraction. A portrait within the abstract masses. A finely-balanced moment you can sit back and study while learning something about yourself, the subject, and what it means to be human.

Pros: All

Cons: None




Thanks for reading. There’s more to come on 2point8. More clumsy writing, more interviews with photographers who have interesting things to say about what it is they do, and perhaps an ongoing email chat or two. If there’s something you think 2point8 should tackle, leave a comment or send me mail at whileseated@gmail.com. It’s been sunny this spring, so I’ve been outside a lot, happily away from the computer.

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Tag: Anatomy