What Makes a Great Street Photograph?

It’s the question interviewers love to ask — and it’s the one that street photographers have come to expect. Their answers are usually non-committal. “It depends…” they’ll say, “…on things like style and approach, on what you’re trying to do.”

I’d like to find an answer that’s more definitive and which could be applied to most street photographs, regardless of styles and objectives. Surely there has to be some specific quality within the photo to prompt the informed onlooker to say: “That’s a great shot.”

Here’s my suggestion. A great street photograph must have an indefinable quality which cannot be expressed clearly in words. I think this is the key component and it need be the only component. The photo could lack all the other qualities we normally admire — pleasing composition, great light, an intrinsically interesting subject — if it has “that certain indefinable something.”

So that’s my definitive answer: something indefinable! Really, it’s not good enough. I shall have to explain what I mean.

Totting Up
My featured image (above) is a scene from a street market in Bangkok. From a technical viewpoint it’s not one of my best photos. For example, I can’t do anything about the blown highlights or the extremes of light and shade which were already there in the scene on an intensely sunny day. But it’s one of my personal favourites. There’s something about it I find utterly compelling.

The main elements that make up the image are the central figure who stands slightly apart from the others, a young woman holding a child, a stall-holder who tots up their purchases (I’ve called this picture “Totting Up”), and another man in the background who looks towards the camera.

The main figures are surrounded on each side by copious amounts of food and cold drinks, the sight of which is satisfying when we view a street scene taken in brilliant sun. Those durians look delicious, don’t they?

Yet it’s not the props or the environment which makes the picture what it is. Its indefinable quality lies partly in the pose of the main figure and partly in the fact that each person looks in a specific direction, except for the main figure who seems to gaze in two directions at once.

When I examine the pose of the central figure I awaken a residual memory of a figure from Italian art. Who can it be? I can’t find a perfect match, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the figure of the goddess Flora in Sandro Botticelli’s 1478 masterpiece “Primavera.”

Could anything be less likely? Flora is the one who stands next to Venus, on the opposite side of the painting to the Three Graces, distributing flowers — the largesse of Nature. Her arms are in a similar position to those of the girl in my photo, although her hands are not actually touching. There’s also an abundance of fruit in Botticelli’s painting, which may have triggered my memory of it.

The Ambiguous Gaze
The two female figures in my photo seem to be looking at something off to the right of the frame while the stall-holder and the baby are looking down. However, there’s ambiguity in the gaze of the main figure who also seems to gaze directly at the onlooker, backed up by the man in the background.

I like the girl’s ambiguous gaze. It reminds me of the way I tend to look at every scene I photograph.

Ambiguity is a key quality of street photography, as it is in literature. I’m tempted to say it’s a quality that contributes to a photo’s overall distinction, but I can imagine an image which moves us in an indefinable way without being ambiguous.

I’m not saying that my photo lacks all other qualities. I’ve filled the frame, achieved good focus, blurred the background. There’s good distribution of colour and plenty in the image to please the eye. It’s a complex image — and again I’m tempted to say that “complexity” is another quality which makes a great street photo, were it not for the fact that simplicity can do the same.

Frequently in these articles I talk about “contrast” being a main constituent of street photography — in the sense that the image may contrast one idea with another: such as a baby sitting on a Roman wall. A sense of time and the passing of time is nearly always a factor which contributes to a photo’s greatness, especially in an art-form such as street photography where ephemerality is almost unavoidable.

Does the featured image have contrast? It does for me — because I remember the glory of Botticelli’s painting and am struck by how the ordinariness of my little market scene contrasts with the flowing beauty of the Florentine work. The contrast gives my photo an added poignancy. Can this be the indefinable quality I mentioned?

Smartening Up
I hesitate to add any more photos to this post because I can’t use up two favourite images in one article. I don’t have as many as I’d like! But here’s one, “Smartening Up,” that almost makes the grade.

Again, it’s not technically great, but it has an indefinable something. The girl with the sandwich shows a touch of anxiety, perhaps caused by the strange behavior of her colleagues. The three figures form a nice pyramid, but that’s a fairly obvious quality of the composition. Less obvious are the circles.

There’s a pink, circular fan; a purple, circular bowl; a blue circular mirror; and a white, circular cover to the car’s fuel tank. Everyone and everything – the auburn-haired women, the stool and the car — has a circle. But the black-haired girl has none. Maybe that’s why she’s anxious.

Of course, such a suggestion is absurd, but the photo makes a point of addressing the absurd, so we’re tempted to go further and invent bizarre ideas to explain it.

Indefinable? Beyond words?
I’m not sure if anything is indefinable and completely beyond the power of language. Analysis gives us greater insight — and I think it can do so without destroying the magic of the image.

I don’t claim any of my photos to be “great” in the face of all the intense competition from other, better known photographers, but I sometimes have an indefinable feeling which tells me I’m probably going in the right direction.

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