Note: This is a guest post from Nathaniel I. Córdova, a rhetoric and media studies professor from Willamette University. I hope you enjoy this great article that he generously offered to share with you guys!
This is a handout originally developed for my students at Willamette University. As such it was designed to be generic and introductory, more an opportunity to clarify and simplify than to provide depth about a subject. Some caveats: I’m a firm believer that rigidly held category schemes can get in the way of creativity and the photographic imagination. The following is written in order to encourage you to think more about these issues. Updated: December 2010.
A quick glance through various photography forums often reveals a category of “candid” images of people walking, pretty women, people in festivals, etc. The overall impetus for such “candid” photography seems to be the casual snap of something the photographer found intriguing at the moment, or the adventure of shooting in public. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that (although some images tend toward the voyeuristic), and many of those images can be quite compelling. Unfortunately, some posters in those forums tend to conflate such “candid” photography with Street photography, eliding any difference between the two practices.
Let us take a simple definition of Street Photography: “Street photography is a type of documentary photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places such as streets, parks, beaches, malls, political conventions and other settings (Wikipedia).” That definition is minimally helpful at best. I read that and picture my mom with a disposable camera taking pictures of kids in park benches all day long – not knowing much about what she is doing – but somehow falling squarely within the boundaries of the definition.
Part of the confusion stems from the word candid itself. Street photography has historically followed a documentary style, showing the subject “as is,” in the moment of capture. As part of a “documentary” practice, street photographers sought to represent a moment of life with a sense of veracity and authenticity. Within that understanding, the candid nature of the image was understood to add to the veracity of the moment by assuring that the image was not fabricated or choreographed by the photographer. Thus, the candidness of street photography referred to a fundamental principle traditionally shared by straight, documentary, photojournalistic, street, and other forms of reportage. Such photography, as Martha Rosler explained, “points us to a way of making photographs in which evident artifice, construction and manipulation are avoided as a matter of principle.” Why avoided as a matter of principle? Because the presumption behind these genres was of a photographic practice that would capture facticity and veracity, somehow representing (although this is highly contestable) truth.
Such an understanding does not mean that the photographs are unmediated, or that selection, reflection, and deflection somehow do not play a part in the photographic process. Rather the understanding was that the photographer resisted attempts to choreograph or extensively orchestrate the subject. It is in that sense that the term “candid” might apply.
But, as the saying goes, there’s more to it than that. Street Photography evokes a kind of social commentary, with its own history and politics, and as such it is not just a point-and-shoot for whatever-comes-up kind of practice. As a practice it has a strong vision behind it, tends to be reflective, often a kind of reportage that takes place with a well captured shot. The quickness of it, that is the “lift the camera and shoot in the thick of things,” does not mean that artistic imagination and reflection have not taken place, but that much of it happens before looking through the viewfinder and pressing the shutter. The skilled street photographer learns to recognize situations, anticipate behavior, knows the scene/place(s), or at the very least understands what is visually compelling given various elements that converge in the moment.
In short, an artistic or creative vision and photographic imagination is an essential part of Street Photography. Street photography requires mental preparation and creative vision. Excellent Street photography reveals strong artistic judgment, intriguing juxtapositions, an urban perspective that is frequently about the spatiality of the subject and the “eye” of the photographer for seeing the moment deeply. Street photographers very consciously deal in texture, patterns, rhythm, contrast, form, angles, light (value), space, and the dynamic tension of the elements in the scene.
Street photography then is, not merely taking shots in public, but deploying a creative vision that reads and captures slices of what we call public life. It might be motivated by such persistent questions as: How do our daily lives unfold? What social forces pull us together or separate us? How might the built environment organize our living patterns? What are the implications of particular interactions between us humans and our living spaces, contexts, etc? Probably many more, and better, questions than those. Sometimes the questions are not conscious or explicitly present at all, just a glimmer of response to something the photographer sees (that later we can analyze to our heart’s content).
A few intriguing questions for me when viewing street photography are: how does the photographer as “flaneur” (Baudelaire’s “man about town,” a witness to life in the urban jungle) pull together a measure of order from the delicious chaos of urban life? What constitutes the everydayness (or not) of life in a community, or the moment, that the photographer captures with a special vision and brings to the viewer’s attention? A more general question for all photography for me remains: how might such photography reveal the world of the moment, the world that the photographer sees (one that might not be altogether evident for me).
I happen to like street photography that juxtaposes elements that raise such issues, that calls life in the making into some sort of question, that challenges our “taken-for-granted” understanding about public life and space(s), that highlight the often blurry boundary between public and private, and which make us stop and pay attention by giving us what Kenneth Burke called “perspective by incongruity.”
Hence, street photography aims to be revelatory. It does not aim to be voyeuristic. It is a genre with a history and an artistic ethos. The nature of the straight image itself as “candidly taken” is not enough for us to classify it in some essential way as street photography. Photography of any kind is a practiced performance, and as such it fits within a context, institutional and larger cultural norms, and within particular communities of interpretation.