Street photography captures candid, unposed shots of people in public places. Unlike posed portraiture, street photography relies on spontaneity, serendipity, and impulse. The street photographer must have a quick eye to capture fleeting moments. As such, street photography is fundamentally an art of observation.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is often considered the father of modern street photography. His concept of the “decisive moment” emphasizes the photographer capturing the perfect instant within a scene. Famous examples like Behind the Gare St. Lazare show his knack for capturing those transient moments brimming with visual energy. His street photographs play with geometry, reflection, and movement in a lyrical way.
Helen Levitt was a pioneer of street photography in New York starting in the 1930s. She captured the daily life, humor, and grit of the city’s neighborhoods. Levitt often photographed children at play. Her work poetically captures the transitory joys within urban life. She had a gift for uncovering whimsy amid the mundane.
In the 1960s, Robert Frank’s seminal book The Americans cemented street photography as an art form. His work stripped away romantic notions of America through raw, gritty, ironic photographs of real life. Frank traveled across the country and captured strangers, cities, cars, and open roads with an unwavering eye. His photographs reveal underlying emotions through powerful composition.
The work of these photographers matters because they transformed street photography into an artistic medium of observation, social commentary, and subjective expression. Their ability to capture visually arresting moments imparting deeper meaning put street photography on the artistic map.
Importantly, street photography is fundamentally about the eye of the photographer, not the camera itself. Many iconic street photographs were shot on nothing more than compact cameras or even modern smartphone cameras. The key is the photographer’s ability to see and capture meaningful moments in public settings. A great street photograph has more to do with vision and timing than expensive equipment.
Several years ago, I’d go out on the streets of San Francisco with a camera bag filled with a fewo Fujifilm cameras. I enjoyed shooting with those cameras – but, frankly, the gear became a hassle – one more thing to worry about. Increasingly, I found myself just pulling my iPhone out of my shirt pocket and capturing the moment with my iPhone camera. Perfectly adequate for almost any kind of street photography. In fact, shooting bursts is so easy with an iPhone that I might do that and then select one image out of many that I shot in a second or two of shutter time.
One other advantage of street photography compared to, let’s just say, landscape photography, is that you’re usually just steps away from a spot where you can take a break, sit down, have a cup of coffee or lunch, etc. before getting back out on the streets. It’s a much better pursuit for older folks like me, rather than hiking the hills out in some national park somewhere to capture one of the iconic vistas! I’ve attended many photo workshops over the years, and I’ve come to smile at how there’d often be a line of us workshop participants with our cameras on our tripods, shooting essentially the same scene! So, so different from street photography. Both certainly have their place, but I’ve outgrown my early interest in landscape photography and now enjoy street photography much more—at least when we’re not in a pandemic and people are actually out on the streets!