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The subject of street photography

000 MAIN

I had a minor epiphany about street photography today:

In street photography, the subject is not a person; it is a situation.

I don’t mean by this that people aren’t essential to a photograph in this genre; of course they are. But such a photograph does not become a portrait, not even an environmental portrait which works by placing the subject in a context which allows us to refine our understanding of the subject. There is an essential difference, which becomes apparent in how such are composed, what sort of moment is captured, and — perhaps essentially — the way the photographer’s gaze functions and appears.

Street photography is in this respect more like landscape photography than like portraiture. In landscape photography, every element of the composition can, potentially, have equal weight, and the subject of the landscape photograph is the sum of the parts, or the synthesis of them.

I think that effect is very much at work in Cartier-Bresson. Bresson’s photographs often display a surprising lack of interest in the particulars of the people who populate his images. Often the person appears at a great distance, or as a blur, or with their features obscured or out of focus. But Bresson has captured the shape or the motion of the person at a particular point in space or time which fits with the city or countryside around them in a why that is sublime — in much the same way as a windblown tree or a stray cloud may unite and transform a landscape.

Telegraph Avenue

This notion has been very helpful for me in understanding the task of composition in street photography. Composition is critical, and it takes place in four dimensions. Each conjunction of human and inhuman elements in space and time is unique and cannot be recovered after it is lost; thus, the “decisive moment” really is.

Ferry Building Farmer's Market

Of course, I don’t intend to present these comments as the sage remarks of a street photography wizard. (Especially not given some of the harsher things I had to say about Frank’s The Americans recently.

Hell, I’m not even past the struggle with my social reticence and ethical qualms about whipping out my camera and photographing people in their sight. I’m just thinking things out in this context because trying to explain things to someone other than oneself is often the best way to actually start getting a grip on them…

Telegraph Avenue

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