My article argues that a special street photo is one that engages the viewer as a participant as part of a dialogical relationship in which simple perception builds into imagination.
Crucial to making this happen are:
- Composition: an organization and spaciousness within the frame, that demands that we convert signs into symbols, objects into meanings. Some of these conditions are explained by Arnheim and others and include gestalt factors, balance, weight, icons, indexes and so on. Cartier-Bresson was particularly good at employing organization and spaciousness.
- Comprehension: the right amount of complexity and abstraction. There is an inverted U-shape relationship between the complexity of a photograph and the pleasure that it elicits. Too much complexity makes synthesis difficult. Too little complexity does not stimulate enough engagement. Kertész was a master at creating the right level of abstraction. So was Saul Leiter.
- Curiosity: a street scene should stimulate curiosity – through, for example, ambiguity, comedy, pathos – this triggers a mental process as in ambiguity creating a visual puzzle, or comedy creating a story etc. Ray-Jones was and Meyerowitz is particularly good at this.
Together and in the right mix, these things create the conditions for entering the dialogical play required to make a good street photograph. They shepherd us down the passage of engagement from simple perception to imagination, where the photograph becomes resonant with possibility, lighting up new meanings, revealing anticipated or hidden ones.
Photographs mediate a particular way of “being-in-the-world” They shape our intentionality to objects in the world.
Great Street Photographers are skilled in presenting objects in ways that provoke the imagination in a process that is dialogical and sense creating. Whether a photographer is able to move a viewer from simple perception to imagination is the key test of a street photographer’s skill. It was Husserl who said, in “Phantasie und Billiche Vorstellung” (1898):
“The difference between perception and imagination lies in the different modes of consciousness, in the presentation of something present, in the representation of something not present”.
This difference lies at the heart of what makes a street photograph good.
Here is a photo that does this conversion well: