Defining the Indefinable
Since UrbanWeird Photo (latest issue coming in a day or two - Winter 2015/15) is predominately street/urban photography (whatever that means – keep reading), I thought it appropriate to discuss what it means to create street images and be a street photographer. This is also timely because I am currently (Dec-Feb 2015/16) running a Google Plus Photography mentorship on street photography called “Interpreting the Street: Fine Art Street Photography”, and the first assignment I assigned my mentees was to search for images of masters past and present that resonated with them and then try to define what street photography means either by thinking of a definition themselves or using one already stated that drew their attention.
Not only was it a fruitful exercise in having them think more in depth of what the genre actually it, but it was also an exercise in frustration. Why? Because they quickly found out that there is no one definition; that what street photography is is quite nebulous and depends on the individual street photographer. There are constantly questions that come up when trying to define street photography, e.g.,
Does a street image have to include a person/people?
Does it have to be in an urban environment? Does it have to remain relatively unprocessed?
Does it always have to be in black and white?
Does it always have to tell a story?
Does it have to be technically perfect?
Do you have to get really up close to the subject and have some kind of rapport first?
Do you always have to use a fixed focal length lens (prime lens) that is on the wide end and never use the zoom function on a zoom lens?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding “NO”. The terms “have to” and “always”, in my opinion, should have no place in a definition of street photography. Notice I said, “a definition”, because there are as many definitions as there are self-identified street photographers. The above questions, if transformed into statements, would sound rather authoritarian and put-off-ish. However, if transformed just a bit more and include “I”, e.g., “I always shoot for black and white in an urban environment that includes at least one human”, then it is just what that street photographer does; it is his/her way of practicing street. And that is fine. The problem arises when that particular way of doing street becomes a kind of rule.
I liken it to the English language. Not many know this, but there is no official English. There are really no “official” rules. The language has resisted being governed by an organization, such as with French, Italian, Japanese, even after several attempts to do so a couple centuries ago. The “rules” that exist in English are just the opinions of influential people and their way of “doing English”. The same is true with street photography. We look at the influential photographers who did street and take what they did as rules and as the definition of the genre either by them saying so or people assuming it because they were/are successful.
You’re probably wondering if I am going to give a definition of street photography. I’m not going to, because I will constantly think of valid exceptions. Even if I start listing what street photography probably is not, I will think of exceptions;
It is not studio photography (most likely so, but what if you consider your city/town your studio?).
It is not commercial (most likely so due to legal issues and having to have the subject(s) sign a release form. Possible, but a major inconvenience).
I do have my own ever-changing definition of street, but instead of putting it into words, I have let such images in Urban Weird Photo and on this site explain if for me.