To Street or Not To Street

I’ve been sporadically keeping track of things on this blog for a year this week. I intend to keep it going (more interviews, more fun!) but I wanted to put a stake in something I’ve been mulling over lately.

I’m beginning to think that street photography doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with streets, sidewalks, or cities. I mean, can’t you do street photography even if you live in a small, rural town? Is living in one of the few remaining pedestrian-friendly cities in America a requirement if you want to do street photography?

In the spirit of keeping the definition as wide as possible, I thought I’d list a few examples that struck me as bearing characteristics of traditional, idiomatic street photograpy, but extend the form up and off the streets, which mean it can happen anywhere, regardless of where you live.

* Winogrand’s party pictures (and whole swaths of “Public Relations”) are shot entirely indoors, but further the aesthetic he created on the street. If you, like Winogrand, walk around outside a lot with a camera, looking at things to see how they might look photographed, you know there are certain variables that can work to your advantage. Light, backgrounds, density/sparseness of people. Sometimes those variables occur with great frequency and depth indoors. The party pictures may be inside, but they’re still street photography.

* Diane Arbus’ apartment room portraits. She met many of her subjects on the street and followed them home to photograph them in their surroundings. The pictures were taken indoors, but it’s still street photography. One could ask, “why?” but one can ask “why?” about a lot of things. Trust me, the medicine is good for you — Arbus was a street photographer.

(A quick aside: if street photography in the last fifty years were a body, Arbus would be the left arm to Winogrand’s right. Further, ever consider why more photographers appear to pursue the Winogrand style in their own work, rather than the Arbus-mode? My hunch and slim experience tells me it’s because it’s easier… Fightin’ words!)

* Brian Ulrich’s “Copia” pictures are taken inside shopping malls and thrift stores. They’re surreptitious candids (some are unpeopled still-lifes) that are often taken under flourescent lighting, in large, air-conditioned buildings. But I’d still consider them a kind of street photography.

* Some of Thomas Struth’s museum photos (the good ones, showing people’s faces as they’re looking at art) are a kind of street photography (with a totally huge and cumbersome camera!)

* How are these not street photography?

What I’m trying to get at is the idea of inclusivity. I’d even argue that some of Alex Soth’s portraits are street photography. The video I saw of him trying to talk a subject into being photographed is Arbus-ian, regardless of how big his camera is or how slow its shutter. Street photography doesn’t require a small camera and fast feet. Keep the people though. Don’t crop them out just yet.

I’m starting a new flickr group called “Not Street Street” (name nod to K. Bjorke) for gathering examples of photographs that maintain a street sense, even though, technically, they weren’t taken on the street. If you want to know what I’m talking about with street sense, start here.

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6 thoughts on “To Street or Not To Street”

  1. I’ve been thinking along similar lines lately and came up with the term “off-the-street photography.” Kinda conjures “off the cuff,” “off the wall,” “off your rocker…”

    (And Brian Ulrich is incredible.)

  2. Very interesting article. Let’s just take Winogrand again. He photographed in airports, zoos, rodeos, parties and so on. And Friedlander in hotels, offices, parks and gardens. It is perhaps a pointless task to arrive at an exact definiton in either geographic or subject terms. Perhaps it is better as you suggest to accept images which “further the aesthetic”. To me street photography has a loose definition and encompasses all the areas just mentioned, and more.

  3. Excellent article. Some of my favorite Winogrand photographs are in the airport. I love candid party photographs but most of mine are of friends so would probably be breaking the only strangers rule.

    Bryan

  4. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately. I had a brief fling with “on-street” street photography, but soon found myself much more drawn to photographing people in bars and at parties. I consider most of this work to be just as much “street”, if not more so, than the earlier photos I took outdoors. Here are some recent examples of the type of thing I’ve been doing.

    See you on Flickr…

  5. I agree that “street” photography can happen anywhere. The thing that has traditionally tied it to the street is that public spaces have the highest concentration of random juxtapositions. Also, there is a degree of anonymity in good street photography which is most easily found in urban areas. But the core of “street”, the serendipitous visual relationship of separate forms and people, can occur anywhere.

    I am a hardcore street photographer who recently moved from a mid-sized city (Portland) with many street opportunities to a much smaller city (Eugene) with less. So far it hasn’t slowed me down much. Although there are less opportunities here, they do exist just as they exist everywhere if you are in the right mental state to receive them. About half of my photos are of my family and I’d consider them very “street”ish, even though family life is as far from the public street as imaginable.

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