Section: Opinion

Weekly Column: Keep street photography a subtle art

Over my gap year, I picked up photography as a hobby. I started by taking pictures of my friends and the gardens around my home with my dad’s old digital Fuji camera, and then transitioned to photos of nightlife and sunset outings with a borrowed film camera. This year, after developing an interest in street photography, I saved up just enough to buy myself a Fujifilm x100v. During one of my first-ever street photography experiences, an old lady and her friends playing cards in front of a New York City Dunkin Donuts gave me the finger when I walked by and took a picture of them. 

Street photography aims to document everyday life, particularly in urban landscapes through candid, spontaneous photos when your subject isn’t aware they’re being photographed, resulting in a more honest and powerful image than if it were staged. You can almost think of it as a form of visual poetry from the way these photographs prompt us to think about the minute details of everyday life. The challenge of street photography is to bring form and coherency to the randomness that’s happening around us. But do street photographers ever take it too far? 

One photographer I came across recently whose work can answer this question is Mark Cohen, an American photographer renowned for his confrontational, close-up flash photography. Cohen is not afraid to trespass your space with his camera. His photographs are direct, extremely personal, and have a degree of intimacy that’s rare and difficult to capture from afar. His street photography serves as a dynamic journal of what he personally notices, as well as his interactions with his subjects. But as innovative as his photos may be, this form of photography, especially in the modern day, can be extremely invasive and even become borderline harassment. 

Those who adopt his evocative technique skulk the busy streets on the lookout for interesting people and details often overlooked in the humdrum of everyday life. Once they choose their subject of interest, they make the calculated risk to approach them just inches away, snapping a quick shot, and then hastily careening away.

On one hand, being a photographer doesn’t grant you the creative license to invade other people’s space without consent, especially when the subject of interest is someone else’s body. I would not be surprised if street photographers who attempt Cohen’s chummy method of photography today end up walking away with a black eye. 

But these photographs, regardless of their controversial nature, are actually pretty great because of their ability to capture their subject’s candid, raw energy. It takes courage, a robust understanding of your camera and environment, to be able to compose a shot on the fly like Cohen does. So with all this considered, where is the line between great art and privacy? Is there a limit on how much personal space there should be when getting in your subject’s bubble? And what are some ways photographers can push the limits of their art while making sure it doesn’t lose the reality of the moment in which it was made? 

Gregory Spaid, Kenyon’s former photography professor, shares that the job of a street photographer is to take something that seems ordinary and invest meaning and beauty into it. Spaid explains that streets in urban cities can be compared to a “sidewalk ballet,” a term he coined from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of American Cities. Kids are whizzing down the street to catch the school bus, construction workers are readying their safety gear, while others are running up the block with their yorkshire terriers or briefcases for the day ahead — there’s an ebb and flow of different people minding their own business. As a street photographer, Spaid’s job is to look for something meaningful in the gestures of those people by turning those fleeting moments into a universal statement about the human condition. 

People who are in public know they’re going to be seen, and in urban areas as rambunctious as New York, they purposely dress to do so! According to Spaid, this is true especially in places like music festivals, horse races, or motorcycle rallies — people are there to be on display. It isn’t the same violation as if you took a photo in someone’s private space. There is a huge difference between snapping a shot of your eccentric neighbor in his Sunday-morning briefs while he struggles with his lawnmower, and a shot of the man with the braided beard and red cowboy boots you passed on the subway. 

Of course, it varies from culture to culture. But the vast majority of people don’t really care as long as you’re discreet and respectful about it; if anything, based on Spaid’s experience, they’re often flattered that someone paid attention to them in the first place. If they ask you why you took a photo of them, take advantage of the opportunity and engage in conversation.

I think the misconception here is that people assume street photographers are out to expose them — a fair misconception considering the state of modern media today — but the majority of the time, street photographers do their best to honor their subjects. 

There are many innovative ways you can take on street photography without approaching your subjects the way Mark Cohen does. For Spaid’s collection Pedestrians, for example, he cleverly lowers his shutter speed just enough to create a blur effect while tracking his subjects’ rhythm with his viewfinder from a bird’s-eye view, staying out of sight while freezing his subject’s blurred movements in the frame. Be innovative and clever, yet discreet about your techniques. That’s what street photography is all about! 

 

Angie Tran ’25 is a columnist for the Collegian. She is an undeclared major from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She can be reached at tran1@kenyon.edu.

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