3 Essential Keys to Unlocking Supreme Street Photography
“To photograph truthfully and effectively is to see beneath the surfaces and record the qualities of nature and humanity which live or are latent in all things."- Ansel Adams
As a street photographer, I have found the aura of the world around me fascinating to watch. So fascinating, that I felt the need to capture it in its raw form, unprepared but forcefully fed to onlookers for consumption and digestion.
It is a great skill to possess if you are entering the photo-journalism realm or even just trying to emulate the spirit of the time on your photographs. Photographs that can capture history and culture are striking. They attract an audience. They question the world. They win Pulitzers.
With the creation of social media platforms, it’s easy to share your images off your phone or camera with a worldwide audience. In this sense, you must be ready and willing at a moment’s notice to share your culture for the people of this planet to see. Here are 3 keys essential to presenting street photography to the masses.
- History/ Events
Powerful photographs that you have most likely encountered have captured moments in history. They most often contain political prowess, revolution and war times. This image is a favorite of mine, because it captured the casual nature of war times during the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. Photographer Eddie Adams captured the moment a Viet Cong prisoner was executed by a Brigadier General by chance, as he encountered the two in the streets of Saigon. He has said himself that “still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.”
Adams’ photograph, as well as the thousands upon thousands of striking cultural photographs that are pillars of the art community all capture one thing: history.
History is still a part of the modern culture, be it in the continuing women’s protests, black lives matter movement, life in Syria, or continuing dictatorship in North Korea. Though we might not be exposed to war or political crimes regularly, as street photographers you must carry with you the truth that this very moment which you are capturing is in fact history.
Be a part of events, or explore new places to capture your history, whoever you are. Though Eddie Adams and many pulitzer prize winning photographers before him were professional photojournalists, do not let this discourage or silence your voice and your history in your street photography. Every captured moment counts.
2) People of the Power
Directly hand in hand with history and historical settings is the capturing of people in photographs. Most often in street photography they will be nameless, but expressions share a thousand emotions. Take this picture “Aid from the Padre” by Hector Rondon Lovera, photographer for the newspaper “La Republica.” In 1963, he captured father Luis Padilla giving last rights to a wounded soldier during a revolt in Venezuela.
It remains one of my absolute favorite photographs because of father Padilla's expression. It is undoubtedly strong, fearless, knowing there is no chance he will be fired upon by the catholic members of the enemy army. It is also in a way saddened, focusing on giving the soldier on his arms to God. Fascinating.
Capturing people's expressions in your photographs is of the essence when capturing your history and culture. A mother talking on the phone. A confused woman. An angry businessman.
Expression is the language of emotion, and the language of culture. Don't forget to focus on people when photographing the streets, even if those people are simple passers-by and nameless, their captured expressions can yield amazing results.
3) Abstract or Direct Representation
Capturing a full war zone, assassination, or moment in history is one thing, but being able to encapsulate a culture in abstract form or through abstract objects is another.
Take “Steerage” by Alfred Stieglitz. When one asks me if I think any photograph is a great photograph, I think of Alfred Stieglitz, who alongside Paul Strand believed that straight photography allows the best pictures and best moments to come to life with nothing else but a crisp, clean, camera shot. No editing or funny gimmicks, the straight photography method is a standard of photojournalism.
“Steerage” by Stieglitz is a great example of meaningful street photography as it captures different abstract shapes, people and movements that you might encounter in everyday life and perfectly represents them in a straightforward, technically astounding photograph.
Representing your culture and environment can be done using this straightforward method either by taking an abstract view of your environment, or by direct means such as a still life of a cityscape, street surroundings, etc. Photography of the everyday can capture life always as it exists in its pure form without the need for editing or manipulation. It is your job as a street photographer, however, to acknowledge both the abstract and direct ways in which you can capture your moment, history, people, culture, and what works best for it.