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Street photography is an art photography that features the human condition within public places and does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. The subject of the photograph might be absent of people and can be object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic. The origin of the term 'Street' refers to a time rather than a place, a time when women achieved greater freedom, when workers were rewarded with leisure time and when society left the privacy of their sitting rooms, people engaged with each other and their surroundings more publicly and therein the opportunity for the photographer.
Framing and timing are key aspects of the craft, with the aim of creating images at a decisive or poignant moment. Much of what is now widely regarded, stylistically and subjectively, as definitive street photography was made in the era spanning the end of the 19th Century through to the late 1970s; a period which saw the emergence of portable cameras. The advent of digital photography, combined with the exponential growth of photo-sharing via the internet, has greatly expanded an awareness of the genre and its practitioners.
After the invention of the candid camera, candid photography in public places became an issue of discussion. Street photographers create fine art photography (including street portraits) by capturing people in public places, often with a focus on emotions displayed by people in public, as in public display of affection between lovers or a parent caring for his or her children, thereby also recording people's history from an emotional point of view. Social documentary photographers operate in public places documenting people and their behavior in public places for recording people's history and other purposes. Services like Google Street View also record the public place at a massive scale. Photojournalists work in public places, capturing newsworthy events, which may include people and private property visible from public places. Several legal cases in the United States and other countries, for example the Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia case, have established that taking, publishing and selling street photography (including street portraits) is legal without any need for the consent of those whose image appears in the photos, because photography is protected as free speech and artistic expression by the First Amendment in the US and the Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in the European Union. The issue of street photographers taking photos of strangers in public places without their consent (which is the definition of candid photography) for fine art purposes has been controversial in some countries, notably France, even though France was the home of several well-known street photographers in past and present, for example Henri Cartier-Bresson.
While individuals may complain of privacy or civil inattention violations when they become the subject of candid photography, the work of photographers cannot be done in any other way and if candid photography were restricted then society and the future generations would lose works of art, educational images, newsworthy images, and images of people's history.
In France, a legal case between a street photographer and a woman appearing on a photo published in the photographer's book decreed that street photography without the consent of the subject is an important freedom in a democracy: "the right to control one’s image must yield when a photograph contributes to the exchange of ideas and opinions, deemed “indispensable” to a democratic society."
Paris is widely accepted as the birthplace of street photography. The cosmopolitan city helped to define street photography as a genre and the photography helped to form the city as well.
Eugene Atget is regarded as the father of the genre, not because he was the first of his kind, but as a result of his popularity as a Parisian photographer. As the city developed, Atget helped to promote the city streets as a worthy subject for photography. He worked in the city of Paris from the 1890s to the 1920s. His subject matter consisted mainly of architecture; stairs, gardens, and windows. He did photograph some workers but it is clear that people were not his main focus.
John Thomson, a Scotsman, photographed the street prior to Atget and had more of a social subject style than Atget. Though he does not receive the same amount of recognition, Thomson was vital in the transition from portrait and pictorial photography to capturing everyday life on the streets.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, who has a reputation comparable to Atget, was a 20th-century photographer whose poetic style focused on the actions of people. He was responsible for the idea of taking a picture at the ideal moment. He was influenced by his interest in traditional art, as his ambition was to be a painter. This influence is revealed through his skill in combining timing and technique.
The beginnings of street photography in the United States can be linked to that of jazz in the music domain, both emerging as outspoken depictions of everyday life. This connection is visible in the work of the New York School of Photography. The New York School was not a formal institution, but rather comprised groups of photographers in the mid-20th century based in New York City. One of its most notable photographers, Robert Frank, was a part of the beat movement interested in Black-American and counter cultures. Frank rose to fame partly on account of his popular book, The Americans. Raw and often out of focus, his images questioned mainstream photography of the time, such as Ansel Adams's landscapes. The mainstream photography community in America fiercely rejected Frank’s work, but it would later become a stepping stone for fresh photographers looking to break away from the restrictions of the old style.
Most kinds of portable camera are used for street photography; for example rangefinders, digital and film SLRs, and point-and-shoot cameras. A commonly used focusing technique is zone focusing — setting a fixed focal distance and shooting from that distance — as an alternative to manual-focus and autofocus. The traditional (but not exclusive) focal lengths of 28 to 50 mm (in 35 mm terms), are used particularly for their angle of view and increased depth of field, but there are no exclusions to what might be used. Zone focusing also facilitates shooting "from the hip" i.e. without bringing the camera up to the eye. Alternatively waist-level finders and the tiltable LCD screens of digital cameras allow for composing or adjusting focus without bringing unwanted attention to the photographer.
Street photography versus documentary photography
Street photography and documentary photography can be very similar genres of photography that often overlap while having distinct individual qualities.
Documentary style is defined by its premeditated message and intention to record particular events in history. The documentary approach includes aspects of journalism, art, education, sociology and history. In documentary's social investigation, often the images are intended to pave way to social change. Street photography is disinterested in its nature, allowing it to deliver a true depiction of the world. Street photographs are mirror images of society, displaying "unmanipulated" scenes, with usually unaware subjects.
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- Westerbeck, Colin. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1994.
- Gleason, Timothy. “The Communicative Roles of Street and Social Landscape Photography.” Simile vol. 8, no. 4 (n.d.): 1–13.
- Wells, Liz. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Psychology Press, 2000.
- Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Joel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck, Boston: Bulfinch, 1994
- The Sidewalk Never Ends: Street Photography Since the 1970s by Colin Westerbeck, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2001
- Street Photography Now by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. ISBN 978-0-500-54393-1 
- 10 – 10 years of in-public. London: Nick Turpin Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9563322-1-9 
- Worldwide Photographer's Rights - privacy laws in many countries in regard to street photography
- Legal Rights of Photographers in the US by Andrew Kantor
- UK Photographers Rights Guide v2 by Linda Macpherson
- You Can't Picture This by Rajesh Thind - issues in the UK regarding photography from a public place (video)