An Introduction to Street Photography
Artist Review: Henri Cartier-Bresson , A pioneer Street Photographer / Photo Journalist / Co-Founder of Magnum Photos
Other artists mentioned in this article: Eugene Atget, Garry Winogrand, Martin Munkacsi, Philip Lorca diCorcia and Bruce Gilden,
A few weeks ago a member of our Facebook community asked whether I could provide some tips about “street photography”. Being torn between my wish to respond to the request, and holding my own position against the so called “tips for whatever types of photography”, I decided to prepare something that would meet both wishes. In this article we will shortly discuss what street photography is and then we focus on Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the pioneers in street photography and one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century.
Street photography is a form of photography that captures (in its core) candid shots of people in public places, like on the streets. Although people are the primary subjects of street photography, the absence of people or the trace of people can be the subject of street photography as well. A good example would be the period we are living in right now “The Corona Era”, with empty streets, empty shopping malls etc. Objects like streets, shops and buildings can also be a part of street photography. A good example would be the work of “Eugene Atget”, a French pioneer in street/ documentary photography. His photo-book “Paris”, gives a clear picture of old Paris (second half of the nineteen and the beginning of 20th centuries) with its people, shops, streets and buildings (Image 1).
Image 1. Photographer: Eugene Atget (France, 1857-1927), title: Organ Grinder and Girl, 1899
The approach you take in street photography could be also very different.
Getting very close to your subjects with a wide angle lens.
Bruce Gilden, a member of Magnum Photos, walks among the crowds in the streets of New York with his wide angle lens (28 mm) on a Leica M6 attached to an off-camera flash. He comes with his camera right into your face and takes the image while you are still in shock of what just had happened! This is a very exposed approach, you are not hidden and you need to expect all kinds of responses. The result is a close up image of a person in shock (Image 2). Garry Winogrand worked also with a 28 mm lens on a Leica M4, but he would approach his subjects with a smile and nod before making the images (Image 3).
Image 2. Photographer: Bruce Gilden (USA, born in 1946), From his NYC album
Image 3. Photographer: Garry Winogrand (USA, 1928-1984), from his album “Women are beautiful”. ,
Stay far with a telephoto lens.
This sounds like spying on your subjects. Some set even the stage using a flash (installed or in the hands of an assistant) that is controlled from the distance. For instance, “Heads” series of Philip-Lorca di-Corcia’s is a good example for this approach (Image 4). Remember that a big telephoto lens will certainly attract attention, even when you are standing far away.
Image 4. Photographer: Philip Lorca diCorcia (USA, born in 1951). This image comes from his “heads” series.
Use a normal lens and act normal.
As long as we do not manipulate images afterwards in photoshop (Like the featured image of this article), normal lens creates images that are closer to how things are at a “single moment” in time. Distortion is minimal with a normal lens and what we see in the image -within the angle of view of the lens- comes very close to how we see or prefer to see things with our own eyes. That is why this lens has been favoured by many street and certainly documentary photographers like Henri-Cariter Bresson whom we are going to talk about more in this article.
- Street photography does not mean you have to wonder around the city. Choose one area/ location/ scene and wait for something interesting to happen. If “something interesting” is too vague, think in advance about a type of (street) image you would like to make. Is it about people, colours, contrasts, location….? If you limit your options, then you can better decide what that “something interesting, or the right moment” is.
- Remember that Street photography means being ready to make the photos at the right time without wasting the time on camera settings. Hence, set the exposure in advance.
- Do not pack your biggest camera bag, tripod…. One small camera, one prime lens, a few memory cards and a reserve battery would suffice.
- This last one is the most important one: make yourself familiar with the law and culture of the place you choose for photography. In some countries / places there are limitations for photography. Even when the law allows you to make images, local culture may disapprove it. Read for instance the lawsuit of Philip Lorca diCorcia from 2006.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born on 22nd August 1908 in a wealthy French family. Not being forced to work to pay the bills and not being spoiled to do nothing, he was wondering, studying and practicing in the realm of art for several years. In 1932 he bought a 35 mm Leica (with a 50 mm lens), which by then was the smallest film format camera and Cartier-Bresson was one of the first to embrace this format.
It was in that very same year, 1932, when a photo from Martin Munkacsi -by then a famous Hungarian photographer-, changed the course of his artistic life forever. The Munkacsi’s photo (Image 5) displayed three boys running into the sea. The impact of this event was so life-changing that Cartier-Bresson described it as follows:
“In 1932, I saw a photograph by Martin Munkácsi of three black children running into the sea and I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks and made me suddenly realise that photography could reach eternity through the moment….I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street.”
Image 5. Photographer: Martin Munkacsi (Hungary, 1896-1963). Image: Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika 1929 or 1930.
He went out onto the streets of Paris and as he went, he took the street photography to a whole new level. His approach in street photography was far from random. He would often choose the location first and would frame the image through his viewfinder carefully and then the waiting would start. Waiting for something interesting to happen. Interestingly one of his famous images called “behind the Gare St Lazare” (Image 6) that has become an iconic image for this approach, is taken in 1932. In 1952 he published a collection of his images form the first two decades of his professional work in a book called “The Decisive moment”. Ever since his name is tightly bound to this terminology “the decisive moment”, which can be best described in his own words: “A photograph should be the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event as well as a precise organisation of forms”
Image 6: Photographer: Henri Cartier-Bresson (France, 1908-2004). Title: “Behind the Gare St Lazare”
However, it is fair to say that not all his street images are taken in this fashion. Instead they are the result of being a very focused observer of what was happening around him and being prepared to make the images when the time was right. The small size of his camera was an important element in his street photography. This would give him anonymity to prevent unnatural behaviours from his subjects. In fact he had painted the shiny parts of his Leica in black so it would not attract attention and he would even hide the camera inside his sleeve! This desire for anonymity in street photography became a standard approach for many other street photographers.
Together with a few other photographers, Cartier-Bresson established Magnum Photo Agency in 1947, which until this day has a leading position in this field. Cartier Bresson died on the 3rd of August 2004. I would like to finish this section by a quote from him “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and heart. It is a way of life”.
Featured image of this article: This image is the result of 6 individual images combined. This is a part of an unfinished composite series I am working on. I have chosen this image as the featured image for this article, firstly to avoid any copyright problems and secondly to show that what we see in an image is not necessarily a reflection of reality.
Below I have provided some links so you can view more images from each photographer discussed above.
I hope this was useful, should you have any questions or comment please feel free to send me an email.
Thanks for reading,