Why I Shoot Street Photography

Street Photography: A Brief History

I wasn’t aware of street photography as a “genre” for many years. I just considered it walking about town and taking photos. Then I discovered a photographer named Zack Arias who, along with his amazing portraiture, shot streets as a hobby. As I became more familiar with Zack’s work, I was captivated by his street photos. So I did some research.

Street photography can be traced back to the earliest form of photography—when French photographer Louis Daguerre snapped photos of dark, blurry figures on the streets of France with his Daguerreotype. Fast forward a hundred years and the camera is now unrecognizable by Daguerre’s standards. Photographers like Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Elliot Erwitt are photographing the streets of the world—fundamentally influencing the art of photography. The candid, visually interesting, sometimes abstract work from these monumental artists (as well as many others) became the framework for what is now considered street photography.

Thanks to the digital age, the internet has opened up the floodgates to a tidal wave of images. Everyone has a camera. Everyone is potentially a photographer. Still, there are those who continue to define the genre of street photography, echoing the artists from the past with their unique vision and clarity of the art-form. Photographers like Alex Webb, Eric Kim, David Gibson, and Trent Parke are carrying the torch of street photography.

 What is “Street Photography”?

“If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.” – Bruce Gilden

Arguably, street photography encapsulates all other forms of photography. One will find aspects of fashion, portrait, documentary, abstract, and many other forms of the art under the umbrella of street photography. So what makes a photo a “street photo” and not simply a portrait? There’s a lot of debate around the subject online. Over the years photographers have argued the true nature of what makes a street photo a street photo. Black and white vs. color? People vs. evidence of people? Public locations vs. private locations? Can you instruct subjects or must they remain candid?

While the debates rage on, I believe each individual photographer must define what he/she believes street photography to be. In order to do so we have to look back at the greats who defined the genre. For me, there are a few key points that stick out.

“Candid”

Street Blog-18|Main Street, Kendallville 2017

In my opinion, one of the most defining aspects of a street photo is its candid nature. Photographing the world authentically requires us to step back and capture things as they happen. This means we can’t direct subjects. We’re observing the world behind mirrored glass.

“Very little post manipulation”

Street Blog-21
|McCray Factory, Kendallville 2017

Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t crop any of his photos. He believed the images were made by the individual—the camera was simply a tool. While I leave room for a few adjustments—exposure, saturation, contrast, etc., there should be absolutely no digital manipulation of a subject or scene in order to make it more visually interesting. Making the photo interesting is the job of the photographer! Never take a photo with the mindset, “I’ll fix this in photoshop later.”

Don’t be that photographer!

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Make the ordinary appear extraordinary” 

Street Blog-23
|Main Street, Kendallville 2017

Street photography is all about diving into the world around us. It’s about getting below the surface and seeing things that others ignore. If you can train your eye to catch the subtle details, you can make interesting photos. Interesting is the key word—make photos that are interesting. With the amount of photos taken and posted online everyday, we need interesting photos more than ever—we need meaningful photos!

“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of poetry twice.” – Robert Frank

“Define it yourself—study the greats”

From my perspective, street photography can be defined by one word—curious. It’s exploring the world with child-like wonder and an intense desire to experience life. Naturally I explore the streets, but street photography doesn’t necessarily have to be set in an urban environment. There are some street photographers who shoot on the back roads of rural America, which inevitably lead back to the streets of town. Study the great street photographers of the 20th century. Define what street photography means to you, and then go make interesting photos.

“Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.”- Helen Levitt

Street Blog-24
|Main Street, Kendallville 2017

“Why I shoot Street Photos”

I am relatively new to the world of street photography, however, I believe I’ve learned a great deal about the art-form over the past year. Coming from a background in portraiture, I feel that street photography has become a sort of free expression—an opportunity to pursue photography in an entirely different way. Free from directing. Free to explore. Free to push the boundaries of my camera. But for me it’s not just about photography, it’s about living.

Street Blog-13
|Dublin, Ireland 2017

Anonymity

“I’m sort of a spy.” -Vivian Maier

Picture this (pun intended)—a commanding photographer, brick size DSLR in hand, attempting to bark posing orders over the babble of a dozen drunken groomsmen. This was me—just a few years ago. I was the guy with the tank-like 70-200mm lens, sticking out like I had a sign around my neck—PHOTOGRAPHER. Everyone knew my intentions, even if I camouflaged myself in a dark corner of the dance hall, folks were still aware of being photographed from a distance. Now, when I shoot street photos, my camera is much smaller (and thank the lord, much lighter). As photographer Vivian Maier once said, “I’m sort of a spy”. The purpose is to go unnoticed. The purpose is to capture TRUE life in action. In order to do so you must remain unseen. Henri Cartier-Bresson was said to carry his small black camera in a hankercheif. No arranging. No posing. No, “Stop, can you do that again?” Most of the time my camera is inconspicuously held in hand or tucked away in pocket until needed. Most people have no idea I’m a photographer. If they see me during a decisive moment, I’m simply a hobbyist, or tourist taking snapshots.

It’s a game.

I can disappear—and I love to disappear.

“If you get stopped taking photographs, you’re doing something wrong.” – David Gibson

Street Blog-9|Dublin, Ireland 2017

Meditation 

Have you ever worked on a painting, a blog post, a DIY project and found yourself totally consumed, looking at the clock and wondering how three hours have gone by? When we find an activity that allows us to enter the “Flow” state, it becomes a sort of meditation. For me, walking the streets and creating images is a way to lose myself. I forget about all the drama, the news headlines, the stress of daily life, and I can focus entirely on the world around me. I can be fully present—lucid.

Street Blog-89
|Bixler Park, Kendallville 2017

Document

As I age I realize the importance of photography in the fact that we are documenting our world for the future. I’ve taken photos of objects and buildings that no longer exist. I’m capturing my friends, family, and social groups in order to tell their story. We look back at photos from decades ago to see the changes in style, culture, technology etc.—it adds context to our world, it adds context to the future.

“I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images I live with them.” – Bruce Gilden

Photobook Images-23
|Dalton Foundry, Kendallville 2014

Shoot More

Since I became interested in street photography, I find myself shooting more and more. I almost always carry my camera and I’m constantly searching for images to make. When you open yourself up to this mindset, every moment becomes an opportunity to create something interesting and meaningful. You become connected to the world—a participant rather than a bystander.

“You put your camera around your neck in the morning along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you.” – Dorothea Lange

Photobook Images-58
|Main Street, Kendallville 2017

“In the end, I do it to be alive.”

For me, street photography is a meditation. It’s a place where I can get lost, searching for those happenstance moments. It’s a treasure hunt—collecting a world in photographs. It’s a different project every week. It’s finding joy in solitude. In a way, photography is like writing. In her book Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott quotes a friend that’s a writer. In reference to finding inspiration he says, “I have to ask myself how alive I want to be today.” When I put my camera around my neck and step outside, I have to ask myself, “How perceptive of the world do I want to be today?” How deep do I want to go? It forces me to engaged with my surroundings and be fully present.

In a sense, photography forces me to be alive.

That’s why I do it—to be alive.

Photobook Images-4
|Main Street, Kendallville 2017

For more examples of my street photos follow my Facebook page or Instagram @timothymichaelphoto

To purchase my new Street Photography book follow this link: Kinda Blue: Street Photos of Kendallville, Indiana

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