25 May 2011

What is the difference between Street and Documentary Photography?

Susan Brannon

“In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.”

*Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

There are various opinions between photographers between street, photojournalism and documentary photography.  The discussions can become confusing thus leaving the person who asked the questions without any real answers. Some would argue that street photography is documentary, because they are documenting something in turn, when they are doing street photography they are then doing documentary as well.  Others would argue that photojournalism is documentary photography in the simple case that the photographer is documenting something and telling a story.

The definitions:
Street Photography – Wikipedia says, “Street photography is a type of documentary photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places such as streets, parks, beaches, malls, political conventions and other settings.”   A.D. Coleman says, ““more and more photographers took to the streets with concerns that were not those of the reporter but rather those of the novelist and poet—a search for resonant contrasts, rich metaphors, and found dramatic scenarios.”  Susan Brannon says, “I view street photography as get up and go, snap and shoot, with a light weight camera taking images of things that intrigues the photographer of happenings in the street or in public places.  It is an image of something that was not planned, and generates some type of emotion.”

Documentary Photography – Walker Evans, “where true "documentary photography" would be photographs that served a function.”  Wikipedia says, “usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle significant and historical events. It is typically covered in professional photojournalism, but it may also be an amateur, artistic, or academic pursuit. The photographer attempts to produce truthful, objective, and usually candid photography of a particular subject, most often pictures of people.”  Susan Brannon’s says, “It is telling stories that are not necessarily newsworthy, it is the documentation of an event or occurrence.”

Street Photography

There are no rules, expectations, limitations or steps of order with street photography.  These images do not need text to accompany them.  The images are normally of people interacting, or alone in some particular environment. The images speak for themselves, however one may not know where or when.  The images create some type of emotion and are normally reflect something that occurs at that moment that was not planned.

The images below are from walking around Florence, Italy.

Documentary photography is when the photographer wants to “document” something some event, or” how to do something”.  The images in documentary photography need to be accompanied with text of explanations. It takes some planning, maybe making appointments, setting up your camera with lights and interviewing the person. Such as “How to make tiles” , “Women over 40 in NY City” or on the fly as, documenting your injured car after an automobile accident for proof of insurance.  Some good samples of documentary photography are from Mary Ellen Mark.

I decided to run outside and take some images of Fashion on Salah ed-Din Street in E. Jerusalem as an example of documentary photography.

Related lessons:
Aperture and f/16 Rule
Shutter Speed Basics

Depth of Field
Focused Bracketing or Photo Stacking 

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