I have always been fascinated by the constantly changing aspects of urban and more particularly, city, life. The variety, dynamism and vibrancy of city life has, arguably, been captured most effectively by the documentary (street) photographers who emerged during the 20th. century. The stunning images of luminaries such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Weegee, Robert Frank, William Klein, Joel Meyerwitz have subliminally entered the human psyche. Most of us would instantly recognise their powerful images but not necessarily know who took them.
The technical constraints of early photography meant that most early documentary or ‘street’ photographs were captured on film, in monochrome. Indeed, despite television and motion pictures largely being screened in colour nowadays, there is still something appealing, comforting if you will, to see static images in black and white. In fact, perhaps because of its artistic, stark quality, many documentary/street photographers still work in black and white and sometimes, despite the explosion of digital imagery, with film. However, that said, there are some notable documentary/street photographers, such as Joel Meyerwitz and Martin Parr, who work in colour and use it very effectively. Martin Parr, for example, is well known for his bold use of bright, saturated colour in his documentary-like images.
Documentary/street photographers often have very distinct and personal approaches to their craft. Comparing the patient, ‘decisive moment’ approach of Cartier-Bresson with the ‘in your face’ style of New York photographer Bruce Gilden, illustrates the point. Gilden is also unusual among street photographers in that he uses an off-camera flash at very close range, which often results in his subjects looking surprised, even startled.
Debate often rages over the type of camera and/or lens (prime or zoom) to use in street photography, how close the photographer should get to the subject, whether shots should be posed, candid or staged and so on. For some, the resulting image (however achieved) is paramount, for others (let’s call them ‘purists’) nothing but a close quarters B&W image, using film and taken on a Leica rangefinder, will do. However, it could also be said that with the advent of smartphones, compact digital cameras and more affordable DSLRs, the range, popularity and ease of street photography has never been greater.