I could start this post by arguing whether a portrait of a person is really street photography ….so I will. Because I know many people are wondering the same thing.
By traditional standards a portrait is a composed image of a person in still position in which the face and its expression is the predominant feature. Street photography at its core is about candid, non-posed pictures of people taken with the intent of depicting life on the streets. Note that this last statement has two components, the “what”, non-posed images, and the “why, to depict life on the streets.
Just like so many other things in life the “why” is always more important than the “what” or “how”. In my view, the most important part of street photography is the intention of the photograph, the “why”. If the reason for taking the photograph is to illustrate vividly what is happening on the streets then a portrait of a person showing their daily surroundings, routine and mundane to them but different and interesting to us, is to me part of street photography.
Photographer Arnold Newman developed the concept of environmental portraiture, where the photographer captures not just the face of the person but also the essence of their life and work environment. He didn’t shoot on the streets but rather in carefully composed settings but he understood clearly that to understand a person he had to show the surroundings. One of Newman’s most famous images is the “Stravinsky at the piano”, an image of composer Igor Stravinsky.
Arnold Newman described his portraits best when he said: “I didn’t just want to make a photograph with some things in the background. The surroundings had to add to the composition and the understanding of the person. No matter who the subject was, it had to be an interesting photograph”.
I don’t consider Newman a street photographer because he shot in carefully controlled settings and carefully composed his images. But the point is that if we apply his concept of environmental portraiture to street photography then it allows us to include portraits taken on the streets as street photography because it addresses the “why” of taking a picture on the streets.
“The only thing that matters is if the picture is honest. If it’s honest , you and everybody can tell. If it’s dishonest, you and everybody can tell. That explains what good photography is about” .- Arnold Newman
I like the portrait style of american photographer Mark Steinmetz whose work was influenced by street photographers Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, whom he met as a student in the 80’s. He states: “My approach is fairly low-key. I don’t want to make waves. I’ll just ask something like “Can I photograph you as you are?” Sometimes I’ll give a little direction like “look over that way” but it’s never elaborate”. Some of his best examples are are in his collections: South East and South Central
“What is my style? it’s just a picture that satisfies me. That’s my style”.–Arnold Newman
It is really all about capturing life and the people in it. If we submit ourselves to the constraints of “this not street photography” we can spend most of our time debating street photography and not depicting street photography. It’s all about developing our own style.
I’m still working on it.