Is Street Photography trying too hard?

mickyates Documentary, Leica, Lightroom, London, Nikon, Photography, Street photography, United Kingdom 9 Comments

I attended the excellent ‘Street London Symposium‘ this past weekend, the second of its kind.

Most professionally run and a huge amount of fun. Best photo event I have attended for ages. (thank you Nick Turpin, Jason Reed and the team – and of course Martin Usborne’s overall Hoxton Mini Press sponsorship).

The weekend had a range of international speakers and panels, with fascinating debates (the role of women in street photography to name but one), and a showcase for new talent.

Please check out Adam Maizey, An original take on street.

Speakers included Melanie Einzig, Fadi BouKaram, Stephen McLaren, Graciela Magnoni, Andrew Kochanowski, Rammy Narula, Dimitris Makrygiannakis – and great panels with Dougie Wallace, Stephen Leslie, David Gibson, Kristin Van den Eede and more. All hugely inspirational, and entertaining. I learnt a great deal.

Totally absorbing and thought provoking. Whilst we all like to take pictures, having an intellectual framework for what you are doing (I believe) always helps. And having your ideas challenged is always needed 🙂

It was also good to meet many old friends, put physical faces to social media names, and to make so many new acquaintances.

We had time to shoot in London’s very vibrant Shoreditch area.

And some of us ventured to the Sunday-only Columbia Road Flower Market. Dougie, brilliant you somehow suggested that ladies might like that market! Need to think about the 21st century a bit more …

I have created a couple of galleries, one on Brick Lane, and another on the Columbia Road Flower Market.

There is also a small gallery on the event itself.

During the weekend, I also came to a bit of an ‘Ah Ha’ moment.

I shoot street, and have done now for over 40 years, before I even knew it was ‘street’. You can see some of that in my 1970’s work in China.

However, after this weekend I suspect that I am much more a ‘documentary’ photographer than a street guy. I want to capture what is there, as it is, to understand the story behind the scene if I can. Of course I like nice compositions, and, being a painter many moons ago, I like to think I have a sense of art.

I do shoot #canpubphoto (Nick’s ‘candid images shot in public spaces with no image construction’, which is a cool initiative).

However, when I look at what is today considered the most successful ‘street’, I see an artistic interpretation of events. I see more than a document, a fact. There is an artist’s take on the context, the light, the shadows, the story – often in an effort to stand out from the crowd.

And then there are fashions. For example, what’s with the Leica ‘grimy black and white alleyways’ genre?

I love the art that you can find on the street – and the stories. But somehow it seems more than just ‘candid’. The very best images seem created, just as a candid portrait is created.

Yet this candid image wouldn’t normally be considered ‘street’, even though it was shot on the street – and I only met Pavol by chance.

Of course, as soon as you raise the camera, every artist is making an interpretation.

So, is ‘street’ trying to distinguish itself via artistic interpretation, or is it ‘just’ recording? And if it is, doesn’t it need a definition which references the photographer and their artistic vision?

Here’s the current, crowd-sourced Wikipedia definition:

Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography, is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places. Although there is a difference between street and candid photography it is usually subtle with most street photography being candid in nature but not all candid photography being classifiable as street photography. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.

The street photographer can be seen as an extension of the flâneur, an observer of the streets (who was often a writer or artist).

Comments welcome.




  • Ionut Cirja

    Street photography is a bit diferrent from photojournalism, although it is considered a subgenre of photojournalism. Anyway, there is some poetry in street that makes it go over simple documentary. And probably the best example in this sense in Saul Leiter.

  • Jennifer Barnaby

    I agree, the Wiki entry is a bit limited. Personally, I use the street as the raw material to express an artistic vision. This could include storytelling, abstract expression, or a pure recording of objects, people or events to capture and communicate a concept.

    Something from this conference stuck with me and I’ve had some time to put my thoughts into words. We chatted about this briefly before we were consumed by the brick lane buzz. I think it’s annoying when people demand that someone else’s art represent their own political agenda. Like a feminist agenda that was floated while we were looking at Charlie Kwai’s images from London’s Financial District . It would be like criticizing Picasso because he didn’t depict the Nazi occupation of Paris in his art. If you want someone to include your political views in their art, you should to commission it. I may post this on the Street London Facebook group which I just joined, BTW.

    I like your photos from the weekend and you’re right, you lean towards documentary vision, but an astute and well composed one. BTW, where DID Pavol get that coat?

    I’m glad we re-connected this way at the conference this year and I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.


  • Jennifer, thank you for this – and I agree on all counts, actually. I think the weekend was excellent, especially because it challenged one’s own ideas behind image-making without being monumentally self-absorbed, as some of these events are.

    it was fun to re-connect, and looking forward to staying in (better) touch. No idea on the coat though – if he contacts me I will ask 🙂

    And I look forward to your post about this, too!


  • Great comment – not least as Saul is one of my inspirations!


  • Helen Bartlett

    Interesting food for thought Mick. As we discussed I’m not a fan of narrow specifications for a genre, personally I like a street portrait, if a crop improves a picture I’d go for it and (pure sacrilege) if there’s an irritating sign in the background I’d clone it out. But then I don’t see myself as a street photographer, just a photographer and it’s a wide art form where we can all forge our own paths.

    With regard to the images on the street though, the good stuff in my opinion is all created. It’s an act of creation to make a good picture. This doesn’t mean we have to alter what is in front of us, to interfere with reality. But, by our choice of lens, of composition, the moment we press the shutter, our choice of which image in a sequence we single out to process as well as our technical choices of exposure, etc these all make the image

    When I look at your China image (with the bikes) this is a case in point. I feel you imply this is just a document, but to me the artistic intent seems clear within your composition. The timing with the three people in step. The strong lines in from the left, down to the right. The positioning of heads in spaces where they stand out. This seems to me a constructed picture and all the better for it.

    Practice, knowledge, skill, intent, these all add up over time and so a skilled photographer taking a quick phone snap should make a much better image than someone on their first day out with a camera, no matter what expensive and wonderful model they have, and if the new photographer makes a better image that is probably luck.

    What I look for in the top practitioners in a genre is consistency. Most people who shoot a lot will have some good images over time, what marks out the best is the ability to do that again and again and again while developing their work over time to not descend into repetition.

    Where street photography strikes me as particularly difficult, and why if someone produces consistently excellent work over time it seems almost miraculous to me is that you need the combination of skill, experience etc but also something interesting happening at the right place and the right time. As Matt Stuart says, an interesting outfit doesn’t make a good picture. Street needs it all – good action, good light, good character, good story. Makes me so glad I have cute kids to work with, I can make the action happen especially on a grey day like today 😉

    I feel artistic interpretation is key, it’s what makes a Mick Yates picture a Mick Yates picture. It’s what makes it all interesting.

  • Helen, what a super thoughtful reply, and one with which I cannot argue one bit.

    If I consider that China image, all of the points you make are true. I do think the context and timing is important, though. For me, in 1979, the delight at being in China, exploring essentially a foreign land in so many ways, demanded an accurate record – a document – rather than an interpretation. Perhaps that is where I go wrong 😉

    Another reason, though, that I feel that it’s closer to a ‘document’ than some kind of ’interpreted street’ image is that I wasn’t particularly trying for interesting angles, shadows, humour or even stories. Just, frankly, trying to take a snap of some kids playing – hopefully doing it with a sensible, sharp and balanced composition.

    Compare that with Alex Webb’s famous shot, and I was happy to have the ball reasonably sharp in the image – not e.g. covering a face in a ‘humorous’ way.

    Don’t get me wrong – I am in no way saying one type of image is better than another – though I wish I could shoot like Alex or Matt! I just wanted to offer my sense of how I shoot after a most stimulating weekend. And perhaps offer a slight critique of over-rigorous definitions 😉

  • Quentin Newark

    Human beings get all twisted up over definitions. Once you create a category: “street photography”: you then have to define it which means including some things and excluding others. This is street. This isnt. Needless to say, “street” and its exclusions did not exist for Bresson, Leiter, Winogrand, Frank. They just used the street as a place to take photos. Wandering into buildings. Took posed pics sometimes. Shot out through windows. Shot buildings or trees. All things that might disqualify the pictures as “street” if the definition, a definition increadingly hotly defended, is applied. Flick through THE AMERICANS, many shots would fall foul. Look at Bresson’s early work, those interiors, those forays into the countryside, those aren’t street. It was informative watching Fadi on Sunday, who is exploring all the towns in America called Lebanon, excuse some of his shots as “landscape”. What matters most, in my view, is making images, however your interests, intuition, and physical presence guide you. Labels don’t help.

  • Totally agree that we all get hung up on definitions – and also that there is a lot of post-rationalisation about all arts, including photography, and the artists.

    Dorothea not only posed ‘Migrant mother’ but also post-processed out the thumb

    That said, we all tend to carry mental images (and labels) in our heads about the things we do, the way we behave etc. And I do find exploring those ideas, and how they fit for us personally, is helpful.

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