What is street photography, anyway?

July 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Discuss street photography and immediately Henri Cartier-Bresson will be part of the conversation. The names of Brassaï, Kertész, and Doisneau will, no doubt, follow. But what exactly is street photography?

Street photography is everyday life. It doesn’t matter if it is an empty avenue, one filled with people, or a mangy dog struggling for a bone. What does matter is capturing a particular moment and place. It becomes a dance between the life of the street and the photographer’s skills, instincts and observations. The choreography is different for each situation and each photographer.

Cartier-Bresson was known to choose a location which spoke to him. Then he waited for a movement or an action that defined the place and time. However, he was also adroit as a ballerina if he was in a crowd trying to capture an image. He preferred diffused daylight as opposed to high-contrast sunlight. But he was masterful with both. Above all, he photographed to capture that special instant as he traveled the world.

Brassaï became known for his photos of the Parisian demi-monde and his book of night photography, “Paris de Nuit.” He was a magician of the nocturnal light, incorporating deep shadows and silhouettes, shooting in fog and rain with long exposures. Admittedly, because of the length of exposure and the need for a tripod, he did sometimes have people pose for him. He strove to take the ordinary and to create a unique vision.

André Kertész started photographing street life as a teenager in his beloved Hungary. His work was intimate, emotional. When he moved to Paris he brought this same aesthetic with him. Cartier-Bresson said of him, “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.”

Robert Doisneau did not travel the world as did Cartier-Bresson. He never left Paris and the banlieues (suburbs). He photographed during the Depression, during the war, post-war and always the people who worked and who lived ordinary lives. He reached for the irony, the tenderness, the meaning. He said, “You’ve got to struggle against the pollution of intelligence in order to become an animal with very sharp instincts – a sort of intuitive medium – so that to photograph becomes a magical act, and slowly other more suggestive images begin to appear behind the visible image, for which the photographer cannot be held responsible.”

These “fathers” of street photography wandered down avenues, boulevards, country roads, toting their cameras, grappling with the changing light, looking for that moment which expressed a time, a place, a feeling. They stood on their toes, squatted down, hung from windows, rooftops, and connected themselves and us to the world.

In the blogs to follow, I will explore different aspects of street photography. I am eager to hear your comments, thoughts, questions and requests.

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