Landscape photographers photograph landscapes, wedding photographers photograph weddings, and sports photographers photograph sports. Portrait photographers take portraits. Travel photographers document their travels. Nude, architectural and wildlife photographers point their cameras at nudes, architecture and wildlife. Fashion photographers photograph fashion. So what do street photographers photograph?

For the past several years, I’ve been publicly associated with the photographic genre known as “street photography” — an association I’ve grudgingly accepted, yet yearned to shed.

The majority of photographic disciplines are defined by subject matter. A few others, such as underwater photography and aerial photography, define themselves by the photographer’s location rather than by subject. Sometimes, as with macro photography or infrared photography, the discipline is defined by technique.

But street photography? As a subject, I can assure you I’ve taken very few photos of actual streets. As a location, I haven’t more than a handful of images shot while standing in the middle of the road. And I guarantee you that neither the streets, their pavement nor the vehicles that traverse them are in any way instrumental to my photographic technique.

Yet here I am: a “street photographer” in the eyes of many.

Street photography is perhaps the only genre that defines itself through existing photographs. Unlike all the other photographic disciplines — which are classified by subject matter, location or technique — street photography is evaluated by how closely the images mimic those of one or more photographic forefathers.

But which type of imagery should define the genre? The kinetic enthusiasm of William Klein? The uneasy naiveté of Garry Winogrand? The political undertones of Robert Frank? The visceral colors of Joel Meyerowitz? The ironic humor of Elliott Erwitt? The witty gamesmanship of Lee Friedlander? Should street photographers emulate Cartier-Bresson, who forbid the cropping of his photos? Or should they emulate Daido Moriyama, whose technique practically demands drastic cropping? Which stylistic governance is correct?

People who align themselves with the street photography genre actually argue about this stuff. They argue about such “rules” as where one must photograph; what one must photograph; whether or not the subject is allowed to notice the photographer; which lenses are acceptable; if the photo needs to tell a story; what type of story to tell; whether you’re required to look through the viewfinder when you shoot; whether or not you’re allowed to photograph the back of someone’s head; how close you must be to your subject; how closely your photo must conform to the golden ratio… the list contains as many entries as there are photos to define the genre.

Because I’m publicly associated with the “street photography” discipline, and since I’m occasionally asked to speak about street photography or to give workshops on the topic, it’s logical to conclude I might shed some light on the debate — thus helping photographers separate the real rules from the made-up rules.

So here’s my take: There are no real rules, because there is no such thing as “street photography.” It’s an artificial designation invented to satisfy people’s need to classify that which had been previously unclassifiable. “Street” photography is just a fancy name for “other” photography — photography that didn’t fit within the specific confines of any of the more particularized genres.

I’ve never met anyone who wants to be categorized as an “other” anything. Humans have an innate desire to belong. “Other” is an exclusionary term that implies you don’t belong to anything. “Street” makes you part of a club. But it also subjects you to a set of rules no less ridiculous than a club that requires you to wear a funny hat, learn a secret handshake, or greet each other by quacking, mooing, or braying like a donkey.

Throughout the years, a certain thematic “sameness” has permeated the “street” genre — the inevitable result of its own incestuous definition. I have tremendous admiration for the many photographers whose vision was once so unique that it required the designation of a genre to define it. These photographers pushed the envelope of what was considered acceptable, but I don’t believe this same envelope need confine us in the future. Because street photography is defined by images of the past, it has the adverse effect of limiting photographers in the future.

For this reason, I actually prefer to think of myself, plus all those inspirational photographers of “other” subjects, as observational photographers. There’s a lot less baggage accompanying this term.

Essentially, everyone has two choices when they pick up a camera. They can make a photo or they can find a photo. 95% of the time, I try to find my photos. But even in those rare instances when I do set out to make a photo, I leave plenty of room for serendipity — preferring to give chance the opportunity to exceed my preconceived expectations. Some might argue that this defines me as a “candid” photographer, but I think the word “candid” implies an intent to photograph people — and this isn’t necessarily the case. I’m going to point my camera at whatever interests me. Frequently that’s people. But sometimes it’s a building, or a sign, or an object, or a shadow. Sometimes it’s something orderly. Sometimes it’s something chaotic. Sometimes I don’t even know what it is. But it’s always something that I found interesting.

I have no rules and no manifestos. But, like any photographer, I do have my proclivities: I prefer to shoot in black & white; I like to be close to my subject; I’m fond of romance, and drawn to irony — particularly when it’s so subtle I’m not even certain it exists; I’m rarely concerned with focus, sharpness or fidelity; and, somewhat embarrassingly, I find myself sensually comforted by film grain. But these proclivities are not rules — I don’t rigidly adhere to them, and I certainly wouldn’t be so arrogant as to dictate that others must.

If asked to write down my guidelines as an “observational photographer,” I would tell you that “I sometimes take photos outdoors and sometimes indoors, usually using whatever light exists, unless I want to add some. I mostly handhold the camera but sometimes press it against a steady surface or, if necessary, affix it to a telescoping three-legged contraption. I’m ambivalent as to whether I shoot in the day or the night, on public property or on private property, on paved or unpaved surfaces — either natural or manmade, stationary or moving. I carry one or more cameras of either film or digital persuasion, along with one or more prime lenses of whatever focal length struck my fancy as I walked out the door. I point my cameras at either a knowing or unknowing subject that may or may not be of organic origin. I process my photos however I think they look best, print my favorites, and post them singularly or in groups for others to view.”

The great thing about being an observational photographer is that you’re not required to adopt a lot of silly rules and regulations. You are absolutely free to establish your own photographic parameters and follow your own vision. Unlike the suffocating stipulations that the photo beau monde (aka “internet forums”) heap upon anyone who dons the “street” label,  there’s nothing restrictive about being an observational photographer. If you see it and you like it, then you shoot it — however best you see fit. And isn’t that why you chose to become a photographer in the first place?


©2013 grEGORy simpson

ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Street” was actually taken in the middle of the street — a rare occurrence for me, in spite of being identified with the so-called “street” genre.  It was shot with a Leica M9. I’d tell you which lens I used, but there’s no indication in the EXIF data, though I suspect it’s one of my old screw-mount 50mm lenses. “Intimate 1″ and “Intimate 2″ indicate just how arbitrary the term “street photography” really is. They’re both similarly framed and convey a similar closeness between two people, yet not many viewers would consider “Intimate 2″ to be a “street” photo. The first Intimate photo was shot with a Ricoh GXR using the 28mm (equivalent) f2.5 A12 module. The second Intimate photo was shot with a Pentax K5 using an old Pentax-M 50mm f1.4 SMC lens. “Something Orderly” and “Something Chaotic” unabashedly illustrate a point made in the body of the post, and both were shot with a Leica R4 and a 50mm f2 Summicron-R lens on Kentmere 100 film at ISO 100, developed in Diafine. “Hip Hop Hedge” definitely breaks one of the so-called “rules” of street photography — “thou shalt not photograph people from behind.” C’est La Vie. Shot with a Leica M9 and a 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M lens.

NOTE: I’ll be co-hosting a Street Photography workshop for the Leica Akademie in Vancouver Canada on July 20-21, 2013. Anyone wishing to see how I deftly dance and weave and worm may way around the obvious irony is encouraged to sign up for the workshop!

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