Street Isn’t Documentary

I’ve just read a rather nice essay by Evangelo Costadimas, Why Street Photography is not Documentary Photography on the Street View Photoography site, which examines the question of why street photography is so often confused with documentary photography.

Notting Hill, Peter Marshall

As he writes: “Street Photography does not concern itself with the Truth.” In fact it is largely concerned with making fictions, using a particular viewpoint or timing to create an image that misrepresents the subject.

But he goes on to write: “Street Photography concerns itself with Life” which I think is misleading. It doesn’t “concern itself” but uses life as subject matter. Usually if it concerns itself with anything it is with the reactions of the photographer and of a community of street photographers to the particular image that has been created.

Winogrand, used as an exemplar,  in some ways was not a street photographer, because his work was often if not always about wider issues of life in America, whereas much street photography is about ‘Oh what a clever and witty photographer I am.”

Peter Marshall

As I read that essay, I came along a piece of work by a photographer I know in London, Julio Etchart, a documentary photographer. In a way it isn’t special, just another typical example of his fine documentary work. But Muslims celebrate Eid Mubarak by the East London Mosque in Whitechapel is a good example of documentary photography on the street rather than street photography. Its’s important too that this is not a single image – documentary is always about project, about sets of images rather than a single picture – however fine some documentary images are, they always belong in a greater whole. The pictures made me wish I’d thought to get up early that morning and do something similar, but I live a little too far away and I’m not a morning person.

Whitechapel 1991, used on the poster for the London Street Photography show

The focus in documentary photography is always on the subject and on how you see it and what you can say about it. Street photography is about the photographer. I’ve photographed on the street for 40 years, was included in the book and  show London Street Photography, was inspired by the work of people like Winogrand, Tony Ray Jones, Lee Freidlander and others, but I hope I’ve never been just a street photographer.

Edgware Rd, Peter Marshall


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated are by Peter Marshall and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

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