Research · contemporary street photography

Contemporary street photography

Generally speaking the scene of street photography in the contemporary age seems to seek out the same visual metaphors, juxtapositions and poetic objects as did earlier street photography. The genre of street photography on the whole tends to lend itself to this kind of momentary experience that denotes an object of the everyday but connotatively speaks of a timelessness in terms of human peculiarity or habit.

Scenes of urban alienation, haphazard communications and lack of awareness are all typical material of street photos. The momentariness is what I think gives the street photo its particular appeal: the fact that the image can be funny or sad or ‘…funny and sad at the same time...’ (Mermelstein) [1] gives us a sense of connection to humanity and perhaps our own fragility and changeableness. Street photography has its origins in the urban environment and as Scott points out: ‘The language of street photography is not an amplified language as that of documentary photography so easily can be’ (Scott, 2007) [2] meaning that the way street photography functions, one can see a different emphasis as the genre suggests although I have seen many street photos that could of course cross over into the documentary field.

Vivian Maiers, May 1958 VM1958K05631-06-MC [4]

Scott draws out an interesting interpretation between the differences of documentary and street photography: ‘If documentary photography justifies its transfixation of the subject through implicit affirmations of destiny, street photography maintains
it’s transformative capacity through a lively relationship with chance.’ (Scott, 2007) [3]. In as much as we can genuinely separate out the two genres (knowing nowdays that we tend to merge and blend much more) I would suggest that Scott has a singular view of photography which perhaps does not suit the actual situation in that one could easily apply either of the above definitions to either so called street photography or documentary photos. 

Whilst its is true perhaps that the street photographer seeks out the visual metaphors in daily life on the streets, I think also this is the case with other forms of photography. The separation at times seems some what arbitrary. However, it is clear enough I think what he is intending to say.

unknown [5]

In general the subject of documentary tends to take the form of the photo essay or series, rarely is a single photograph related to as a documentary item. Whereas within the street photography genre, the only common factor is the street context and the haphazard chance meetings between photographer and photographed.

Baudelaire, the father of the concept of the flaneur, suggested that the urban environment in its Banal form is full of intrigues and curiosity. In this perhaps he is also then one of the forefathers of street photography in as much as this idea is what often drives the street photographer to action.

Barthes concept of the ‘punctum’ in the photo resonates perhaps most loudly in the context of street photography, along with Bresson’s decisive moment. Both of these concepts play and have played a major part in conditioning photographers of all genres to seek the best that they can from within their perceptual awareness.

Street photography is a flexible genre of photography. As ‘wide walls’ website points out, the genre can also extend itself to off-of-the-street photography. There is certainly a sense in which the main thrust is still candid photography, not staged and based on chance finding. This is the main excitement of the practice. From my viewing of street photography by some of the contemporary practitioners such as: Eric Kim, Bruce Gilden, Alex Webb and Anna Delany, however, we do sometimes detect elements of staging going on. I myself in practicing street photography have never staged a photo. There, I wonder if, in the context of academic investigation, one does not need to make a clearer distinction between ‘staged’ and ‘natural candid’ street photography?


  1. Street photography now (2011) [online] [accessed, February 2020]

2. Scott, C. Street photogarphy: From Atget to Cartier Bresson (2007) I&B Taurus Ltd.

3. Scott, C. Street photogarphy: From Atget to Cartier Bresson (2007) I&B Taurus Ltd.

4. Maier, V. colour street photography [online] [accessed, February 2020]

5. Image, unknown author [online]  [accessed, February 2020]


Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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