“Short Essay On Street Photography”

By Dave Hood

“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.”
― Marc Riboud

Street photography is taking unplanned, unposed photographs of people on the street. The street can be any public place, a park, beach, mall, sports facility, or the street itself. The photographer captures images of people and places, people and things, events, moments, happenings on the street. The photographer might take a photograph of a man smoking a cigarette with the back drop of buildings and signage, or a women dressed in high fashion walking her dog, or kids skating at City Hall. Unwittingly, street photographers record the ZeitGeist or spirit of the time. They document the urban life at a point in history, the architecture, the fashion, the movie posters, the automobiles, the social conditions, the history of life in an urban milieu. It is only after the passage of time do these images take on a nostalgic feel. We see this in the photography art of Vivian Maier and Fred Herzog. “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”(Susan Sontag)


The Street photographer’s Manifesto, posted to the Web, tells us the following about street photography: “The inescapable hallmarks of Street Photography are that it is enigmatic and quirky and more often than not surreal. That it creates relationships within the frame that may well not exist in reality. Relationships between strangers or between people and their surroundings. It achieves this through intentional juxtapositions, a combination of selective framing and exact timing. Asking a stranger for permission to photograph them in the street, instantly makes it a portrait, a street portrait albeit but not Street Photography. The moment a subject collaborates, he or she is posing. Documentary photography encompasses portraits and especially when it is humanist photography, but that is not the case with Street Photography. To call a picture a street photography portrait is in itself an oxymoron.”

What makes street photography interesting? Street Photography doesn’t always concern itself with the “truth.” A moment is never the entire truth, only a fragment of truth. Rather, if the image is a good Street Photograph, the image will capture a fleeting moment in a stream or river of flowing moments, making us realize something in the human condition. Or the image will capture something enigmatic or ironic or quirky about the human condition–and life on the street. The best Street Photography is art.The photographers searches for the visual elements of line, shape, pattern, colour, texture, space, form–and contrasts it with people in action on the street.The best images capture human emotion, such as an facial expression, and people in action. We see this in the work of the great street photographers. One of the masters is Henri- Cartier Bressen who suggested we capture the “decisive moment.” Another is Andre Kertesz who captured interesting juxtaposition, such as a pattern of chairs and a person walking in the background. In the 50s, Robert Frank toured America in his car, capturing the truth of America. He published a book called “The Americans.” In the 60s, Lee Friedlander, Steve Shore and Gary Winogrand popularized the technique and style of “snapshot aesthetics,” banal or ordinary moments of life. William Eggleston was the first to use colour. In recent years, the art word has displayed the work Vivian Maier and Fred Herzog, both who took up the passion of unpaid photography.

Three very popular contemporary documentary/street are Rui Palha, Alex Webb, and Martin Parr. Webb and Parr shoot in colour. Palha makes black and white image, relies on interesting juxtaposition and the elements of art to capture artistic street photographs. Webb likes to capture the enigmatic imagic. Rather than record an obvious moment, he prefers to take a photo that poses a question, one that has no obvious answer. One of his popular images is that of 9/11. In the foreground, a woman engaged in daily routine. In the background, the towers aflame. Its like a surreal dream. In studying Webb’s style, we learn that he uses shadows, reflections, and frame within a frame to create the extraordinary from the ordinary. In contrast, Martin Parr enjoys capturing irony with the techniques of juxtaposition. One of his humorous photos shows two kids making a mess of themselves eating ice cream cones.

For the past three, I ‘ve walked the streets of Toronto and posted countless street images on Facebook, as well as my website, capturing the people, events, moments of the street in Toronto. Street photography is my favorite genre of photography.What have I learned about taking pictures of the street? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Shoot in colour or black and white.
2. Capture people in action, in front of the city”s art–such as interesting architecture, a landmark, signage, public art.
3. Learn to see creatively. Look for lines, pattern, shapes, patterns, texture, color, space. These are the elements of art. Use them to capture a person in action. For instance, Kertesz used the pattern of chairs and person walking in the background to paint a work of art with his camera.
4. Capture the decisive moment, such as a person inhaling a puff from a cigarette.
5. Learn from the masters. A great website to check out is www.street-photographers.com/
6.)Look for interesting juxtaposition.
7.) Include more than a single element of action, such as two or more people engaged in different activities.
8.) Capture shadows of buildings and people in action.
9.) Capture reflections in a window and people in action.
10.) Be patient and anticipate the shot.

What approach should the photographer use? The best approach is to wander and explore the streets, using intuition, discovering the image, often by chance. A second approach is to trek to an event, such as the Gay Pride Festival or Santa Claus Parade with the intention of recording the “energy” of the parade–with the intention of telling a story. A third approach is to have a theme, and capture images that support your theme. Last year, I took a series of pretty woman engaged in various activities on Toronto streets, such as riding a bike or jogging. The best images capture the human condition—reflected in the facial expressions and action of people.

Street photography involves taking unplanned and unposed images of life on the street. The best photographs are works of art. We see this in the work of Alex Webb, Rui Palha, and Martin Parr. The street photographer becomes an artist painting an urban landscape when he captures a “single moment” that embodies the visual elements of art. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

Additional Reading
Visit the following websites:


About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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