Context

February 12, 2013

man & dog

kon’-tekst, noun

The interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.

Since the renewed interest in street photography there is a never ending discussion as to what exactly, street photography is. While a consensus is rarely reached, there are some givens. First and foremost, street photography is candid photography. By all standards, a photographer’s intervention in the scene being photographed is unacceptable. Street photography and documentary photography (and photojournalism) are bound together and can overlap. A picture can be both a documentary and street photograph. The fine line that distinguishes them is in perceived storytelling. Simply put, street photography asks questions, documentary photography provides answers (hopefully). Street photography has no responsibility to be compassionate or address social issues (although it may). It is the selfish expression of the photographer’s view of the world captured for his or her own pleasure. While there is a certain “look” to street photography, it is hard to define and continually evolving. While telephoto lenses are widely used in photojournalism, they are not in street photography.

A comment about the photo above brought to mind another characteristic of street photography: context. A photographer, who judging from his own photos is new to street photography, suggested that I do a vertical crop to include just the young man and dog. The soft puffy clouds, swaying palm trees and empty street contrast oddly with the focused gaze of man and dog, at what, we don’t know. It is the context that makes this more than just a photo of a man and a dog. The tranquil setting itself enforces the oddness of the man, the way he is holding the dog, and their fixed gazes. Imagine how different this photo would have looked with cars and people in the background.

A street photo can be as much about context as about subject. Often it is the context that is the reason for a street photo. The subject becomes secondary. It is this attention to context that separates street photography from documentary. For street photographers, managing context is often more challenging than subject. The more complex the scene the more difficult getting the elements into place becomes. While some street photography may look like random snapshots, choreographing a scene into a single still frame in a split second is challenging. It is also exhilarating when it succeeds.

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