Documentary/Street Photography- Photographers Work

The confusion between street and documentary photography is a large one, and categorisation of photographers work into one of the genres is often hard; some work can be seen to belong in both but others it is clear which one they belong in. I want to look at a range of photographers work to see where they are categorised and whether I agree with this.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

One of the reasons this confusion between the two genres persists is because one of the major contributors to the development and the form of Street Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who made his living as a photojournalist. Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t called himself a street photographer, but he also claimed to have no interest in documenting. The images he created as a form of self expression have become iconic and went on to inspire the next generation of ‘street’ photographers, even though he did not call himself a street photographer, there are aspects to his photographs that can be seen as very ‘street’.

Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photographing people in daily life situations consisted of very careful and precise framing and compositions that were used to setup the capture of a ‘decisive moment’. That moment alone could bring full meaning to the image, a split second earlier or a split second later could not achieve the same meaning. To Henri Cartier-Bresson, his photography meant recognising when those moments are about to happen and getting the shot, he is wait for a precise moment when his vision occurs. In this instance, could his photograph be seen more than just a snapshot or a mere document. To me he combines both documentary aspects and street, he doesn’t go out with a direct brief yet he is not just taking snapshots, he waits for a precise moment.


Henri Cartier-Bresson, Hyères, France, 1932

Martin Parr

In comparison to the street photographer, the documentary photographer has an agenda that narrows down the choices of whom or what to photograph based on that agenda. Martin Parr only shoots what is relevant to the particular series that he is working on at the time, such as ‘the mundane and boring’ or the ‘cheap and nasty tastes’ and so on. Martin Parr is not a street photographer as many mistakenly label him, with an international reputation for his innovative imagery, Parr has an interesting approach to social documentary photography. Many of Parr’s photographs look at the intimate aspects of life, in particular documenting the social classes. As a result, his photographs are original and entertaining, accessible and understandable. But at the same time they show us in a penetrating way that we live, how we present ourselves to others, and what we value.


Martin Parr, British Tabloid, Beach Scene (1991), Skegness, England

William Edward Kilburn

One of the earliest documentary photographs is ‘The Great Chartist Meeting at The Common, 1848’ – this photograph is a record of an event and significant moment in time. By having a photograph is it a literal record that would otherwise be unavailable to the viewer, the photograph has a purpose of documenting that event and now allows use to look back in the past to that event.


William Edward Kilburn, The Great Chartist Meeting at The Common, 1848

Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was a journalist and social documentary photographer. In his project, ‘How the other half lives’ 1893, Riss produced both a visual and written account on the living conditions in New York Lower East Side, revealing appalling conditions and social deprivation. He made the issue clear to the audience, and issue that many viewer would not have seen or know about before. Riis went out with a purpose to specifically photograph these people and places, making him a documentary photographer rather than a street photographer. Through Riis’ photographs the audience becomes aware of this different lifestyle and they are informed about the ‘other half’.


Jacob Riis, Children sleeping in Mulberry street, 1890

George Rodgers

Rodgers was interested in the people of the world ‘who didn’t have a voice of their own’, by documenting their lives and highlighting the situation they live in, his photographs gave them a voice. Whereas some documentary photographers get close to their subjects, Rodger approaches his subjects with a respectful distance, documentary from afar. Rodger’s is committed to history, his camera records a specific event or moment in time, with his images remaining true, showing exactly what is there and what has happened. His photographs raise war as part of the documentary tradition and so war photography becomes encased within documentary photography, a small subsection. Can street photography be seen like this? I believe that street photograph steps further away from documentary photography, there are aspects and similarities that are the same but street photography is a different genre in its own right.

Bill Cunningham

People initially think of Bill Cunningham as a street photographer, but his work also transcends any genre of photography. His ability to see trends in fashion translates to patterns in culture, art, and design, making these connections so seamlessly. Because he can be seen as a street photographer but also has links to other fashion genres I believe that sometimes when it comes to categorisation and setting a genre to a photographer sometimes you have to be flexible and willing to accept that some photographers cross over between different genres. With street and documentary photography I believe that his boundary is so close that photographers can be both a street and documentary photographer within their work.


Bill Cunningham, On the Street

Markus Hartel

Markus Hartel is a street Photographer with a slight difference, he frames the camera from the hip, this unusual framing allows a different perspective for street photography, also it makes the camera less detectable and obvious to the subjects so that they are unaware, giving true and real photographs of the subjects. Hartel sees slices of peoples lives happening around him and immediately captures some of these reflections of everyday life – real, unaltered impressions of public places, places you visit every day, your street, the parking lot of your favourite grocery store, the subway. He is the eyes of mundane nuances of life, capturing the mood in a fraction of a second – he freezes a moment with his camera that you will forget in the same amount of time. As he has no set subject to photograph and just goes out hoping to spot a good photograph opportunity, I believe that he is the essence of street photography and belongs in this genre.


Markus Hartel, Coney Island

Matt Stuart

‘I am not sure which came first, being nosey or an interest in ‘street photography’, but a fascination with people and the way they live their lives is why I enjoy the business so much.’

‘I can’t hide behind lights and technology, I am reliant on a small camera, patience and lots of optimism. But what I get in return is the chance to make an honest picture which people know immediately is a genuine moment and which hopefully burrows deep into their memories.’

‘I think we are living in a world where everything is photo shopped or fake- and the fact that street photography is a trend for people to document what is going on in their lives and what is in their street, museum, or park—and showing these very insightful peaceful moments that actually existed, happened. I think it is fantastic- more relevant than ever.’

These quotes from Matt Stuart clearly tell me that he is a street photographer, he doesn’t go out with an agenda but he is looking for any good photo opportunity to show people and their way of life. Stuart is capturing humans in their natural habitat, relationships between strangers or between people and their surroundings, all unposed.


Matt Stuart, Trafalgar Square


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