Are Street Portraits, Street Photography?

Christopher Wilson
Sep 20, 2017 · 3 min read

I came across one of those silly attention grabbing blog post titles that you can’t help but click on today and it got me thinking. Are street portraits street photography? I debating writing a post or just tweeting my views, but in the end I’m going to follow “bad blogging” advice and tell you my views, then look at reasons for and against (I’m fairly sure my views are supposed to come last for “good blogging” but who cares).

tl;dr Who cares?

Honestly, I think this sort of discussion is a bit irrelevant. In recent years the term street photography has come to mean so many different things to different people that trying to enforce the “true” definition is a lost cause. I understand people who enter street photography competitions might feel more passionately about this (both if they would never enter a street portrait or would only enter a street portrait) but ultimately the judges will still decided what they include or not.

[I’d also argue that street portraits are not really street photography as I’ll explore below]

A “classical” definition of street photography

I hold to what I call a classical definition of street photography. That is, candid public photographs. They must not be staged, must be in a public space and involved the capture of light (via film or a sensor). There is a lot of space to play within this ball park and many photographers have experimented with things such as in-camera double exposures, long exposures, photographing in nightclubs, photographing in zoos, using telefocal lenses, using extremely wide lenses and so on. So if anyone says that this is creatively restrictive, it both is (that’s the point of a definition) and isn’t (there is a wide ocean to explore out there).

A revisionist definition holds that street photography is photography in the streets and you can make up your own definition. That’s a bit of rubbish frankly. These individuals would also maintain that some great street photography doesn’t involve the street and would clearly point out that a landscape photograph with no people or buildings isn’t a street photo (although that would actually match the classical definition…). So “make up your own definition” feels like a cop out to me.

At the same time, I firmly believe that a photography should explore and “work out their own definition of good photography” or what photography they take. But that doesn’t mean they should label it as street photography.

Street portraits are a clear genre

Personally, I believe street portraits ought to be their own genre rather than a sub genre of street photography. They have their own characteristics and traits which distinguish them from other types of photography and street photography. For example, there is some interaction with the subject, probably some direction, they are taken in a public space with consent and typically rely on minimal lighting set ups or natural light. Of course there are exceptions and variations. Looking at the work of Alec Soth, Brandon Stanton and Bruce Gilden’s recent photos. These are all street portraits but focus on different aspects such as the location of the subject, the story of the subject or the details of a subject up close.

One genre isn’t better than another

The problem with most of this rubbish about what is and what isn’t street photography is that street photography seems to have become elevated to some higher position for some reason. Perhaps it is the romanticism surrounding the story of Vivian Maier or the fact that “street photography” sounds fairly cool compared to “landscapes”. Maybe it’s driven by a more millennial idea of valuing “authentic” things (and as such trying to make these professionally authentic products like the heavily scripted “reality” shows or the high production behind the scenes footage with “authentic errors”. Who knows, and who cares.

Recently I’ve been trying to stay away from the label street photography (although my blog has it in the sub-headline) and instead focus on more general photography. Good photography is good photography and that’s worth pursuing more than debating whether or not something is or isn’t street photography.

Originally published at Chris J Wilson.

    Christopher Wilson

    Written by

    Follower of Jesus, English teaching, and Street photographer.


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