What’s Important in Street Photography: Style, Technique, Or Something Else?

I recently read a critique on Severin Koller’s blog regarding the ethics of street photography and shooting street photography close, with a wide-angle, and a flash (similar to Bruce Gilden). He brings up issues that I think that all street photographers should consider when they think about why they shoot street photography and whether there is a “right or wrong” approach in street photography.

For this post, I will try to type out some of my personal thoughts on the topic at hand. There will be many flaws in my argument but please bear with me—I consider it more of a personal essay that will help me explicate my own thoughts. I will try to draw from street photography books, my personal experiences, as well as some pseudo-philosophy to back up any of my claims.

My ultimate claim is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to shoot street photography (as there is an abundance of street photography styles out there). However when it comes to street photography, we should argue less about the aesthetics, styles, technique, and approach and —and concentrate on the question: “Why do we photograph?” It doesn’t matter if you use a wide-angle lens or a normal lens or if you use a flash or not. In the end the most important question remains: “Am I creating images that makes a statement on humanity, and will my images have the power to influence others to see differently?”

Styles in street photography

One of the things I love most about street photography is that there is no one “atypical” style. If you keep your eyes open when looking through the work of street photographers, you will see there is a vast array of styles.

I will list a general outline of some styles I see in street photography (and mention some photographers). Also note that this is not an extremely comprehensive list. Just because a certain “style” may not appear in one of the categories below, I wouldn’t dismiss it as not being street photography.

1.One liners

Elliott Erwitt

Focused on interesting visual puns that may be hysterical, odd, or surreal. Great street photographers who use this style (but not exclusively) include Elliott Erwitt and Blake Andrews.

2.Ethnographic street photography

Robert Frank

Street photography focused on studying a small society (or society at large). “The Americans” by Robert Frank is a classic example. Also “Haiti” by Bruce Gilden.

3.Romantic street photography

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Street photography focused on classic composition, balance, and beauty in the image and aesthetics. Similar to the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz.

4. Abstract / Surrealist street photography

Trent Parke

Focused on shapes, lines, colors, light, and an “out-of-the-world” experience. See the work of Jesse Marlow and Trent Parke.

5. Sociological street photography

Garry Winogrand

Street photography that has an aim to have a social critique or message. I would consider Garry Winogrand (even though he would disagree), as well as some of the work of Lee Friedlander. This is probably the genre I consider myself in, and would like to promote this way of thinking.

One of the things I am starting to realize is that street photography should be less about the aesthetics than the overall message, emotion, and mood. Composition is incredibly important to make an image appear to be interesting, but without context soul – it has no depth and has very little ability to convey a larger message.

In a recent essay I wrote, “Why street photographers need to take them more seriously”—I discussed the shortcomings that photography inherently has. For example, in photography it is difficult to tell a story with just one image—you need a series, project, or essay to do that. One photograph alone is like a sentence in a book—it can be taken out-of-context and has little power on its own.

What I have learned from Winogrand

Garry Winogrand

I recently bought a book by Garry Winogrand titled: “Winogrand: Figments from the real world.” The book was written by John Szarkowski, a photographer, curator, historian, and critic. From 1962 to 1991 Szarkowski was the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The book started off by a very thoughtful essay from Szarkowski about the life of Winogrand and describing how Winogrand thought about images and photo-taking.

Winogrand worked with a 28mm for most of his life, and dabbled a bit with a 21mm. He was frustrated with the 21mm because of the strange distorting effects of the ultra-wide focal length. In his career, he has also stated:

“There is no special way a photograph should look.”

In an account a student wrote of his class at the University of Texas (in a document titled “Classtime with Winogrand” O.C. Garz stated:

“If students were taking Garry’s class to learn photographic techniques and methods, they  were sorely disappointed. Garry didn’t teach much technique. That was left to the PJ side of the photography world or to his “TAs”. You have a lifetime to learn technique, he seemed to be saying, but I can teach you what is more important than technique, how to see; learn that and all you have to do afterwards is press the shutter.” (Link to PDF)

The fascinating thing about Winogrand is how prolific he was. Legend has it that he would shoot around 10 rolls every single day, which sounds about right as he left behind nearly 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film and 6,500 rolls of developed but not proofed exposures. If you take a look at the contact sheets of his later years, you can see that he shot almost aimlessly—without much consideration.

Szarkowski elegantly ends this essay by stating that he believed that: “Winogrand didn’t shoot to make a photograph, but to capture life.”This seems to make a lot of sense, as Winogrand himself said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”

Therefore I would say I learned the following things from Winogrand:

1.There is no single way a photograph “should look”.

Therefore we should focus less on the aesthetics of the street photographs we take, and focus more on the emotion and content. We should put less emphasis on lens choice, focal length, bokeh, aperture, camera, flash or no flash, or angle. As much as the things forementioned are important, a photograph should be less about the technical things.

2.The final image isn’t the most important thing

Of course as photographers we ultimately want an image that is both compositionally and emotionally appealing to us. However what I am starting to realize is that we should focus less on the final image, and more on the process. That means having the role of documenting life—and enjoying the things associated with it.

For example, when you are out shooting on the streets—the joy of talking to the strangers you take photographs of. Or enjoying the sense of zen of walking on the streets. Or enjoying the sound of the shutter and the company of your friends (if you shoot with your friends when on the streets—as I like to).

3.Have a deeper message with your photographs

Two of his books which fascinate me are “The Animals” and “Public Relations”. Both books (whether intentional or not) are critiques about the society in which we live in through juxtapositions and the way he frames the scenes.

For his book “The Animals” – Winogrand would visit the local zoo and take photographs of people and the animals. However the way in which he framed his images can suggest to the viewer that the people visiting the zoo can often look much more beast-like than their animal-like predecessors. Not only that, but I can get a sense from the images in the book that we humans, are more caged-up than we like to think as well.

For his book “Public Relations” he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph what he called “the effect of media on events.” Through shooting an array of public events (press conferences, demonstrations, sports games) he shows in an interesting sociological manner how the media changes and even defines/creates the event iself.

Both of those books challenge myself how I should see humanity, society, and the media. They are making me realize that many of my old street photographs were simply snapshots, and without a context of a series or project—they are visually interesting but have no narrative or “real” impact on the viewer.

My personal influence with Bruce Gilden and shooting with a flash

Bruce Gilden

When I first started shooting street photography, I would be incredibly timid of shooting strangers without their permission. Therefore the shooting technique I adopted was somewhat similar to that of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I would look for interesting backgrounds, scenes, or situations—and capture it without the people noticing or interfering with the scene. You can see some of my earlier work here.

However the problem is that over the course of around 2 years shooting in this manner, I got bored of it. Shooting street photography didn’t seem very challenging or interesting to me anymore. I felt that I had too much a reliance on interesting backgrounds to make an interesting story, rather than taking ordinary scenes and “constructing” it by framing what I already had in a certain manner.

While I was having my “quarter-life street photography crisis” – I did a bunch of searching on YouTube for street photography videos. I remember coming across the video of Bruce Gilden shooting the streets of NYC. At first I was shocked by his style. Thoughts that came to my mind: “That guy is kind of an asshole—how come he hasn’t been punched in the face yet?”

Regardless, something that fascinated me was the irony of what he said: “The people I shoot are my friends.” He seemed to have a deeper meaning why he took the photographs that he did and after watching some more videos on YouTube (this video being the most influential) I started to realize he wasn’t just a dick walking around with NYC scaring old ladies with a flash. His style reflected who he was as a person: aggressive and in-your-face, but he still had upmost respect for his subjects.

My encounter with Gilden and Charlie Kirk in Paris

Me and Bruce in Paris

A few months back, I got invited to the Leica + Magnum event in Paris, where they unraveled the partnership between Leica and Magnum as well as the new Leica M9-P. I would say that my time spent in Paris influenced me greatly—by meeting Bruce Gilden himself and Charlie Kirk.

When I first got invited to Paris, I also got a message from Charlie Kirk on Twitter saying that he would be going as well. I had followed Charlie’s work for quite a while, and was interested in his images as well as his technical use of a flash. When I first was about to meet Charlie in Paris, I felt a bit intimidated by him and his “bad-boy” presence online. However meeting him in-person, he was quite open and warm—and gave me tons of great advice on street photography. He encouraged me to take my street photography more seriously (as well as my blog) and taught me the technical elements of shooting street photography with a flash. After a night on the town with his off-shoe flash and M9, I was hooked.

I then met Gilden at the after-party of the release of the Leica M9-P and knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to talk with him. I talked to him about street photography, and he described how his style was often misinterpreted. After chatting to him for a while, he really did have a genuine interest in the subjects that he captured, and felt strongly in terms of his personal/emotional connection with them. Some more details of our encounter here.

Although most people know Gilden for his flash work in NYC, his most recent projects focus more of an ethnographic or sociological manner—studying the Yakuza in Tokyo, the housing crisis in America, and the aftermath of Haiti. Considering that Gilden studied sociology briefly while in school, I would say that his interest in humanity and society is what drives much of his current work.

Style: is it something that we learn ourselves or something that we copy?

Mark Cohen

When it comes to street photography, I think I am influenced by two types of photographers. One type of photographer I am influenced by their aesthetics (how their image looks) and the other type of photographer (how their message influences me). Both have had a huge impact on me:

Aesthetically in terms of shooting street photography with a flash, I have been highly influenced by the street photography of Bruce Gilden, Charlie Kirk, Dirty Harrry, Weegee, and Daido Moriyama. In terms of the message of photography, I have been highly influenced by Martin Parr, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Alec Soth.

One thing that troubled me when I started to first shoot street photography with a flash is that people would just call me a “Bruce Gilden Wannabe”. A lot of controversy was stirred by a video I made a while back of me shooting street photography with a flash in Hollywood.

It caused me to question why I shot street photography with a flash—and what my style was—and even if I had my own style.

This topic of “what my street photography style” was deeply troubled me—and I talked to many photographers to hear their opinions and advice.

One thing that really inspired me and gave me a ton of insight was from a good friend and photographer William Reeves.  He told me:

“People need to realize that style isn’t something aesthetic.”

This caused me to rethink my own photography and photography in general. We often get so caught up into thinking that style is something aesthetic (composition, framing, technique) that we forget it is something deeper. Rather, style is a reflection of who you are as a person and how you see the world. For example, considering I studied sociology in school I first consider myself a sociologist and secondly a photographer.

Even Gilden said it himself:

“Shoot who you are!”

Gilden wasn’t the first person to shoot street photography with flash (Weegee was probably the most recognized before) and wasn’t the first to shoot street photography up-close with a wide-angle lens (Gilden claims to have been influenced much by the work of Lisette Model). Case-in-point: everyone draws inspiration from other people.

Therefore when it comes to finding your own style, rather than focusing on how your photographs look like—think about what your overall message in photography is. What are you trying to tell about humanity? What critique/message do you have about the society you live in or visit? What makes your view of the world different from others?

Inevitably we all become influenced by other photographers (in terms of aesthetics and message).

For example, I love the gritty black and white images of Daido Moriyama, and it has influenced me having a tendency to liking high-contrast and gritty images. I like the effect of how a flash can illuminate a subject and create separation (subject in-focus and blurry background).

In terms of message, I have been influenced strongly by Martin Parr as of late. I am fascinated in exploring society and the ill-effects of wealth, consumerism, and capitalism. I am currently working on a series of projects which are similar to previous work done by Parr.

Henri Cartier-Bresson vs Gilden: Defining street photography

Eugene Atget

Street photography has changed dramatically within the last century. From the early work of Eugene Atget in the streets of Paris with a large-format camera, to the capturing of “decisive moments” of Henri Cartier-Bresson, shooting street photography in color like Meyerowitz, to using a flash in the streets like Gilden, street photography has evolved and changed dramatically. Much of street photography has evolved from changes of technology (large and bulky cameras to small and portable ones) as well as different philosophies on street photography by different photographers.

I feel nowadays there is too much debate online in terms of what street photography is versus what street photography isn’t.

If you ask 100 people how they would define street photography, you would get a 100 different answers.

However frankly speaking I am not so interested in defining street photography as in practicing what I believe street photography to be (which is capturing humanity). Rather than spending time on debating whether a certain photograph is a street photograph or not, we should rather be spending time on determining if the image is interesting and has strong content.

Ethics and exploitation in street photography

Matt Stuart

I feel that discussing exploitation in street photography is a deep matter—and a much more philosophical one than about photography itself. I feel that photography itself is quite simple—just aiming the camera and clicking the shutter. However the ethics/philosophy of shooting street photography tries to answer questions such as: “Is it “right” or “wrong” to take this photograph?”

I have thought about ethics in street photography to a large degree, and wrote a post about it a while back here. To summarize, I stated that ethics comes down to the individual and his/her intent. I feel that if a street photographer is truly genuine in his/her mission of capturing humanity- that is ethical. If a street photographer is disgenuine about his/her motives of capturing a person – that is unethical and exploitative.

Shooting with a flash in street photography – my experience

Eric Kim

People often say that shooting street photography with a flash is unethical or that it interrupts the scene and loses its candid factor.

The biggest misconception about shooting with a flash is that you shoot with a flash to elicit a reaction. That is totally untrue unless you flash your subject multiple times. Rather, the flash goes off so quickly is that you capture the scene before the subject notices the flash go off. The only photos that show people reacting is to the photographer actually taking the photograph, rather than the flash going off.

As with the ethics of shooting with a flash, it is another issue. I typically prefer to shoot street photography with a flash during the day, in the shade. I like it for several reasons. First, it allows you to illuminate your subjects in the shade, as lighting in the shade is awful and causes your subject to blend in with the background. Secondly, the flash isn’t as strong or blinding during the day—most people actually don’t notice the flash going off. Third, it allows you to always shoot with zone-focusing. Once I am in the shade or it starts getting darker, I don’t have enough light to shoot at f/8 and with a relatively fast shutter speed. Lastly, I also like the aesthetic of shooting with a flash with a slow shutter speed, which allows you to get the subject in-focus and sharp, with a blurry background.

I do shoot street photography at night with a flash, but with caution. If it is in a relatively well-lit area (at  night) the flash won’t really surprise people too much. However I rarely shoot with a flash when it is pitch-black, as it will scare people and I don’t like scaring people with my flash.

When I first started shooting street photography with a flash, I liked the fact that it was different from what most other street photographers were doing and the “bad-boy” image of it all. After all, it does take more guts to shoot street photography with a flash. I also am constantly interested in experimenting, and I was intrigued on trying something different and new.

However nowadays I realize that the previous point is probably the wrong reason why to shoot street photography with a flash. I got good advice from Dirty Harrry which helped me set myself the right way. He said something along the lines of, “Don’t shoot with a flash simply to look hardcore. Look for the meaning behind the photograph, rather than thinking of the flash like a magic stick to make your photos look more interesting.”

I still shoot with flash, but with a more technical and artistic purpose. If I have good light, I have no need to shoot with a flash. However when my subjects are in the shade or its starting to get too dark, I use a flash. I am also currently working on a project on the opulence of Los Angeles—focusing on the inequality of wealth and the dirty side of capitalism, by shooting in Beverly Hills and wealthy areas of LA. I am shooting with color film and with a flash to re-create the advertising look or “flashy LA” – similar to the aesthetic of Martin Parr. It is the look which I feel will add to the content/message of the project.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was totally opposed to shooting photography with a flash. However an interesting tidbit I picked up from a Gilden interview is that although HCB didn’t agree with his style of photography, he never called Gilden a bad photographer.

Last thing to note is that people often get confused that Gilden is the only street photographer to have ever shot street photography with flash. Before Gilden there was Weegee, Diane Arbus, Mark Cohen, William Klein, and others.


Garry Winogrand

To conclude this incredibly long and disjoint essay, I would like to make a few concluding points to summarize certain points mentioned before.

1.Don’t worry so much about the definition of street photography.

Shoot what interests you, and if it happens to be on the streets, in-public, or unposed so be it. It is a waste of time to argue whether a photograph is a street photograph or not. Think of whether it is a good photograph or not.

2.Technique and aesthetics are important, but the overall message is the most important

Don’t worry too much about the gear, focal length, and technical settings. As Winogrand said, “There is no way a photograph should look”. Focus on what message/critique/commentary you are trying to say through your images – rather than the aesthetics of the image itself.

3. Ethics in street photography is driven by intent

Have a reason why you are shooting on the streets—for a positive reason. In the end there is no ultimate objective way of saying if something is ethical or not ethical. Focus on what your heart says, and use it as a moral compass—and keep your mind open to critiques from others.

4. Constantly look at other photographers for inspiration

I used to feel that photographers shouldn’t look at the work of others because it would influence them too much and cause them to lose their own personal style/voice. However I now totally disagree with that opinion.

Look at as many photography books and works of others as humanly possible. We always gain inspiration from others, and it will help us further understand the world around us and solidify our own style. I don’t think there is such a thing as a truly “original idea” anymore. Rather, it is all mash-ups of different thoughts – with a few different nuances. But realize that in the end, it is the subtle differences that makes your own photography/message unique.

5. Constantly contradict/challenge yourself

In society it is frowned upon to contradict yourself. After all, who likes someone who constantly changes his/her opinion? It makes them look like a hypocrite and someone who can’t keep the same position.

However one thing I learned from philosophy is that we should constantly contradict ourselves. If we don’t—we get stuck in the same old way of thinking, and cannot further or knowledge and understanding. A year ago I thought shooting film was pointless, and now I have found the benefits and shoot film (more or less) exclusively. I used to be horrified/offended at the idea of shooting with a flash, and use it quite a bit in my work. I used to think that single photos were the way to go, but now only focus on working on street photography projects.

Also constantly challenge yourself in terms of thinking why you shoot street photographs and be open to the suggestions of others. Don’t become close minded and take critique from others with an open heart and mind.

As always, any thoughts, critiques, and feedback is appreciated in the comments below!