Garry Winogrand Flip

Garry Winogrand Flip

(Above image by Garry Winogrand)

If you want to get a deeper insight into street photography and take better photos, I feel it is very important to study the work of the street photographers who came before us and paved the way for the rest of us. Not only that, but reading the quotes and words by these influential street photographers is a great way to train your mind to take better photos as well. Below are some of my favorite street photography quotes that are concise, inspirational, and have influenced me in one way or another.

1. “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough” – Robert Capa

This was one of the first quotes that hugely influenced my street photography. When I started to shoot, I was too timid to get close to strangers to get intimate with them and tell their personal story. Over time I started to build the nerve to get closer to my subjects and to not only frame them better, but also talk and interact with them.

However don’t mistake this quote for getting close simply for the sake of getting close. Simon Garnier put together a great post recently saying that you only need to get close enough to get the scale or perspective you need to capture the moment.

2. “Photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the photo as a judgment that the photograph is good” – Garry Winogrand

When you are out shooting and you felt that you got a “keeper” it is easy to run home, post-process the image, and upload it to the internet for the rest of the world to see. However this quote by Garry Winogrand helped me realized that it is very important to slow down this process, and to not let your emotions dictate whether the photo was good or not. Winogrand would even sometimes wait an entire year before looking at his images to judge his images on their form and content.

Nowadays I try to wait either a few days or a week before deciding whether my photo is a “keeper” or not. This has helped me build some more objectivity in my images, as there have been times that photos I first thought were good really weren’t.

3. “Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.”- Helen Levitt

Street photography is all about telling stories, and also a mode of self-expression. When you look at the images of a street photographer, you are also getting a look into their soul. Cartier-Bresson was originally trained as a painter, which he expressed romantic images through his photography. Craig Semetko was trained as a comedic actor and writer for 20 years, and shows his humor through his images. I studied Sociology as an undergrad, which explains why I like to get close and interact with my subjects.

When you are out shooting, think about what story you are trying to tell– and how your images express a bit of who you are.

4. “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt was the master of finding the beauty in the mundane and making it something extraordinary. Through his long tenure as a street photographer, he shot children, dogs, and ordinary scenes and made them fascinating. The beauty of street photography is that you don’t need to go long and far to take an interesting photograph. All the greatest photo-opportunities are right in your backyard, regardless of where you live.

Even if you spend all your time driving and commuting, Lee Friedlander had a series in which he shot America through his car and made some fascinating photographs. Keep your eye open for ordinary things and make them extraordinary.

5. “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”- Alfred Eisenstaedt

Although I love to create memorable street photographs, I am even more interested in the people I meet or interact with. As a rule of thumb, I always try to smile and say “thank you” to the people I shoot. The vast majority of them give me back a warm smile and say “thank you” back. I find this is especially true when you get incredibly close to people. It is extremely important to be genuine with the people you shoot, as they are human beings and we must treat them with respect.

6. “I suspect it is for one’s self-interest that one looks at one’s surroundings and one’s self. This search is personally born and is indeed my reason and motive for making photographs.” – Lee Friedlander

Street photography is all about the journey to express yourself and finding who you are. Through my own street photography my style has evolved quite a bit. I first started shooting images similar to that of Cartier-Bresson, by focusing on scenes, geometry, shapes, people, and capturing the decisive moment. However as my environment changed, I found out that my interests in photography changed as well. The previous style of photography I was doing no longer interested me, and I wanted to try something new. I stumbled upon the work of Gilden, experimented getting close with a flash, and now it just feels right to me.
Finding your own style when it comes to street photography is a life-long journey. It is still something that I am searching for myself, so don’t feel frustrated if you can’t discover it over night. The only way to learn is to constantly go out there and shoot– and stay on the f*cking bus.

7. “I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images I live with them.” – Bruce Gilden

I had the huge pleasure of meeting Bruce Gilden when I was at the Leica Magnum event in Paris and despite his rough and tough attitude, the guy was very down-to-earth, honest, and sincere. We had a discussion about his photography and he told me how he is often misunderstood for his motives when shooting. Gilden also studied sociology when he was in school, and he is particularly interested in the people he shoots and sees them as his friends. Despite that people may misinterpret him as an asshole, he is genuine about the people he shoots and feels a sense of closeness to them.

8. “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.”- Henri Cartier-Bresson

As street photographers, we are constantly trying to chase “The Decisive Moment”. It is part instinct, intuition, preparation, luck, and skill. However I would argue that the most important part is preparation. As Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of success is just showing up”. Therefore in order to capture the decisive moment, you must always carry your camera with you everywhere you go and shoot constantly. If you have ever accidentally left your camera at home, you know how painful it is to miss the decisive moment and bash yourself in the head.

9. “Seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph” – Andre Kertesz

When you are out there shooting, don’t only shoot with your eyes. Shoot with your heart. Put your soul behind your images and you will create images that not only inspire but touch the people you show them to.

10. “Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work.” – William Klein

Draw inspiration from street photographers you admire, but try to be different, innovate, and experiment. If you haven’t been shooting for a long period of time, it is easy to get your photography compared to the work of another. Try your best to stand out and be unique. Experiment with different focal lengths, angles, shutter speeds, apertures, and equipment. Find what you are comfortable working with and make your style your own.

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  1. DAIDO MORIYAMA. See its photos several times and you will understand
    JUNKU-NEWCLEUS I love the ones from pubs

  2. I shot street for many years and the following quote describes street photography perfectly for my way of shooting:

    For a street photograph to be successful I think that something in the scene has to speak meaningful to the photographer, even if what that something is isn’t immediately apparent. Effective street photography is about telling a story in a single frame, not simply recording what was there at a particular time and in a specific place.

    –Michael Reichmann,

    1. interesting post, nice change from studio shoots, but the british weather is just not reliable enough to base a business on location shoots but would really like to have more time to do this sort of thing

  3. I’d like to offer another one – explains why I love street photography:

    The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street. – Robert Doisneau

  4. 1. If your photos arent good enough, then youre not close enough Robert Capa

    I think a lot of people make a mistake when they understand this like “get close to the subject”.
    For me Capa speak about the event : he was one of the few photographs to get close to war event next century and he said : “guys, you want good photo ? Come in Spain and follow the war, the guys who are fighting, you will have good photos…”

    But perhaps I’m wrong ;-)

    1. i think there is a double meaning — get physically closer, but also get close in an emotional connection aspect. You need to connect with your subjects for the photos to be meaningful.

  5. Hey Eric, thanks for sharing this great post. You are doing a great work building this community and inspiring photographers world over. One of my favorite is ” There is a bit of photographer in every photograph he shoots”. I don’t know who said it, but i truly think its true.

    I have started venturing more into street photography in Mumbai and its different. Do check out my latest post if you can and leave feedback.

  6. “there are no pictures when I reload.” Garry Winogrand. I like this one a lot, it may seem off-handed, but shows supreme confidence and knowledge that ultimately a subject, a great photo only comes about not because it is well and timely caught but because it needs someone to create it.

  7. Great stuff, Eric. A couple more I like:

    ‘Photographs sometimes are too subtle and maybe a little too clever, when they need explaining. If a photograph needs explaining then it arguably doesnt work.’ [David Gibson]

    ‘I think about photographs as being full, or empty. You picture something in a frame and it ‘s got lots of accounting going on in it – stones and buildings and trees and air – but that ‘s not what fills up a frame. You fill up the frame with feelings, energy, discovery, and risk, and leave room enough for someone else to get in there.’ [Joel Meyerowitz]

  8. “Photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the photo as a judgment that the photograph is good” – Garry Winogrand

    So true – I fall into this mistake myself to many times, allowing my enjoying the place or moment I was taking photographs over shadow the image itself.

  9. “The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.” Diane Arbus

    “To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.” Pablo Picasso

  10. ” A creative photographer is one who either captures mystery or reveals things, everything else is useless” – Raghu Rai

  11. Although not truly a street photography quote – it does come from the master:

    “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

  12. “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough”

    Worth noting that Capa died after stepping on a land mine…

  13. Fascinating. I’m going to bookmark this page and use it as a constant reminder of what I should be striking for.

  14. It’s a great summary. One thing I can see ‘good photos after first 10,000’ with the start of digital it might need to be upped to the first 100,000… They had to be far more deliberate and lucky… Any books you recommend on the topics here outlined?

  15. This quote isn’t attributed to a photographer, but it has a sort of, ‘Decisive moment’, ‘The moment’,theme to it.
    You can’t rehearse street photography, so to paraphrase H.C. Bresson.

    “You’re only coming this way once Jack, you ain’t coming back for an encore.” Elvis Presley.

    Which was an aside quote to a journalist when he was asked about his career and his ultimate distrust of his manager Col. T Parker.

  16. Photography exposes the truth & can find the hidden clues of life frozen in time.
    My own quotation MJBettison

  17. You guys do not even get close to what you are talking about here. Do you know that the first photo is of the moment of the death of the subject? I am really interested in what you do and would like to “walk” with you but without all the ” arrangements” , just us and our cameras. Kind Regards, Ken.

  18. The 3rd photograph is bad. The composition is really bad. There is hope if one crops and rearranges this shot. Good subject material tho ! Keep on trying.

    1. That’s a Gary Winogrand… he died in 1984. So it may be difficult for him to “keep trying”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the frame. Only your perspective. Understand it in context.

  19. 9 out of 10 mentors are jewish. I don’t judge, only mentioning. Reminds me on Hollywood. But besides, I did enjoy all the quotations. What about Annie Leibovits (jewish, but on the rocks) ? She too made some phantastic street photographs and has something to say. Regards.

  20. Great write up – I remember studying most of these photographers when I was at college many years ago- interesting how well their work still stands up and have to say what a master Elliott Erwitt is at street photography

  21. Chuck Ivy • a year ago− “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough” Worth noting that Capa died after stepping on a land mine…

    slackercruster write:

    Well Chuck, unfortunately it goes with the territory. It comes under the doctrine of…”sedit qui timuit ne non succederet”

    I’m a documentary photographer from back in the stone age. That was before they had auto focus, auto exposure, endless on the fly ISO’s, shake control, live view and review. We had to frame, focus, guess at the exposure and bring home the image with one try many a time…that is documentary photography.

    Documentary photography is the highest and most noble of all branches of photography. The doc tog does not have a cushy studio with a couch, fridge and A/C to work in. The doc tog does not have the benefit of professional models, an art director, assistants, secretary, makeup artists, hair artists, fixers, location managers and a truck load of strobes, cams, reflectors, diffusers, tripods and the rest.

    The doc tog cannot rely on endless takes and retakes, post process artists and photoshop levitation bullshit to get the image. The doc tog must go far and away from home and comfort, whether freezing cold or boiling hot. No matter what pestilence or disease is at hand.

    With bullets flying, bombs blasting, the doc tog goes out in the field and brings home the goods adopting the charge of the light brigade…“Theirs not to reason why…theirs but to do or die.”

    I am proud to be following humbly in the footsteps of the greatest camera men and women on the planet…the documentary photographer.

  22. a fascinating list of quotes thanks Eric. One thing I will say. It is good to read the words and get an insight into the minds and art of the photographers we admire. At the same time I would say we should never take what anyone says for granted. I mean by this what the Buddha said “Question everything I say and find out for yourself” Or something to that effect LOL

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  24. To add to the discourse, learning from the notable photographers mentioned here along with many others who offer great stories is imperative. You will then find what is important to you and how to tell it visually.

    Capturing life is a journey without a destination.

  25. Stare. It is the way to educate the eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.

    –Walker Evans

  26. This article is a good example of why I think Photography is mostly luck, after you reached a professional skill level; it’s too subjective. Most of the pictures above I personally though were garbage, and about three of them I liked. The composition was terrible on a few of them, and some of them were just plain boring. I would really like to see the “big wigs” in photography stop pretending like they made it because they are special, and just admit that there is no “way” to “make it” as a photographer, since everyone finds a photograph pleasing or displeasing for a variety of reasons – there is no way to objectively judge photography.

    1. There is no objective way to judge anything in life.. if you are convinced that there is, you are probably kidding yourself.
      the technical aspects like composition can take you only so far, but as for the story and expression, that is something you can’t fake. the thing, i think, what makes (street)photography is the absence of being aware that the photo is made, thus making the emotion more real because people are not acting or posing


  27. That first image is obviously Robert Capa’s most famous image, but it’s not a street image. And his quote works for street photography but he wasn’t really a street photographer.

  28. I think too many take the first quote waaaay too literally, think a little more laterally about it and you may be enlightened ;-)

  29. “sometimes you find the picture, and sometimes the picture finds you!”
    I dont know whos it is, or if its mine, but its the one that is always in my mind when on the street…

  30. “I
    never question what to do, it tells me what to do. The
    photographs make themselves with my help.”
    ruth bernhard

    “The poignancy of the photograph comes from looking to a
    fleeting moment in a floating world”
    ~ Allen Ginsberg

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