THE ENDANGERED TRADITION OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
By Bill Dobbins
Modern street photography, catching people in public with candid images, came into it’s own in the 1930s with the introduction of the small, unobtrusive 35MM Leica. The most famous photographer who shot these kinds of images was Henri Cartier-Bresson, who popularized the phrase “The Decisive Moment” to describe how he observed life unfolding around him and tried to snap the shutter of his Leica just at the instant that best illustrated the reality of the situation.
His approach was to shoot with a Leica he painted black to make it less obtrusive (this was before Leica offered cameras with a black finish), a 50MM lens, no flash and printing full frame with no cropping. A rigorous discipline, but Cartier-Bresson was the master of it.
Photographers had been doing street photographs every since the invention of the camera almost hundred years before Cartier-Bresson began his career. But cameras back then were large and unwieldy, lenses and emulsions were slow. So there was no way to shoot people in a really candid manner. In fact, quite often there are no people visible in street scenes, or you only see ghostly blurs, because of the long exposure times necessary.
Since Cartier-Bresson, there have been numerous really expert photographers doing street, candid, lifestyle and journalistic photography. Robert Frank published toured the country shooting photos of everyday life and published his images in The Americans in 1958. William Klein prowled the streets of New York City looking for photographic opportunities. And the international photographic cooperative Magnum Photos has boasted dozens of celebrated street and journalistic photo artists among its members.
Street photographers will prize the Leica for its small size, build quality and sharp lenses. The Leicia M and Q cameras carry on the tradition into the digital age. They are, however, very expensive and there are lots of alternatives that create high quality images that are more than sufficient for the technical demands of shooting on the street. The Fujifilm X-Pro 2 and X-T2 are among a number of cameras ideal for street photography that company has to offer. There are any number of guides to this subject to be found on the Internet.
There are still many street photographers working around the world but this seems to be a finishing niche for professionals. There are over a billion digital photos being uploaded every day – and with so many smart phones who knows how many photos are actually shot? Magazines like Life and Look no longer exist to pay for and publish images like this. There have been 40 billion photos uploaded to Instagram and an average of 95 million photos and videos are shared on the service every day.
So the “market” for street photos has pretty much gone away. But this is still an exciting, rewarding and revealing kind of image making to engage in. But walking around with a camera looking for “decisive moments” – looking at everything in terms of what would make a good photos, how to crop it, what the light is like and so forth – can be exhausting. But for anyone who is fulfilled by making images this kind of photography involves very little investment or production, no cooperation from a crew and there are plenty of opportunities nowadays to communicate and share the results.
If you are satisfied doing street photography for its own sake it is a great way to exercise your image making talent.
Credits for photos above: Bill Dobbins
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: