A lot of people understand when someone mentions ‘street’ photography, however, throw out ‘urban’ when referencing photography and people tend to get a perplexed look on their face (somewhat similar to that ‘huh’ expression when a dog turns its head). So, what do we mean when we talk about urban photography then?
To define urban we must first discuss what street photography is so that we may point out the differences and the need for differentiation. Street photography is most commonly referred to as photography of subjects/people within (public) cityscapes in a manner reminiscent of documentary photography. Often the street photography is connected to the golden period of photography from the 1890s until about the 1970s—the age where portable cameras were de rigeur. Of course most photographers interested in street are aware of such masters as Cartier-Bresson (and his trusty Leica—often the camera of choice for street shooters), Weegee (real name Arthur Fellig with his crime-scene b/w photographs), as well as others such as Robert Frank, Arthur Leipzig, and Garry Winogrand (to name but a few), all who captured (or are famous for capturing) images of people. Other street photography masters include Brassaï (famous for his work Paris at Night), Lee Friedlander, and Eugene Atget whose works are mostly of street landscapes with people sparse or completely absent in the work. And this is where the problem begins.
With the resurgence of street photography as a genre there seems to be a dichotomy between what I’ll call ‘new’ street photography and ‘traditional’ street photography. The new street photography has moved solely toward photographing people in situations. This is great, and there are a lot of fantastic neo-street photographers out there, however, this new street photography completely neglects other aspects of traditional street shooting. Gone are the cityscapes, the objects, and the surreal. They have been replaced with peoplescapes and situational photography that emphasizes the foreign or the funny and thereby losing a lot of the ‘chutzpah’ of traditional street photography. True to form in a post-modern capitalist society based on immediacy, convenience, and shallow and simple entertainment, street photography has lost its depth and become a quick-glance consumable for the masses. Foreign and funny replace banal and quotidian. And to be honest, there is nothing wrong with this, but because of this we must either reclaim what once encompassed grander notions of what street photography was, or we must espouse a new term in lieu of that which has been claimed.
Enter urban photography. Similar to what traditional street photography was, urban photography seeks to encapsulate not just people, but also objects, cityscapes, the surreal. Not only that, but urban photography moves away from the surfaceness of neo-street photography to a photography that critically examines objects, subjects, and landscapes and how they are (dis)connected and constituted by/constitutive of the city. Urban photography is not only a visual representation of an idea, a capturing of ‘the decisive moment’, no, it is also a commentary on contemporary life in an ecological space. This is important because more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities (urban areas).
Neo-street photography still has merits of course and still has a lot of fantastic practitioners such as the inPublic photography collective (Nils Jorgensen, Nick Turpin, Melanie Einzig to name a few), Bruce Gilden (from Magnum), and Maciej Dakowicz—all of which I like—amongst a wack-load of others. The issue is that neo-street has taken away the urban aspect of traditional street. It has become situational. Because of this a new term—urban as suggested above—should be used to encompass the growing canon of documentary style photography that was formerly known as street, but in the modern sense also encompasses cityscapes (landscapes, architecture, interior/exterior), subjects (animate objects: people, animals, vehicals), and objects (stationary items). Just as street photography has been co-opted and redefined we can incorporate it into our new definition of urban photography and have it as one aspect of urban photography: situational urban photography.
So, in a nutshell, urban photography is more than just street photography, it is everything that is urban: cityscapes, subjects, objects and all that is in between. Urban photography is also critical rather than consumable and should have deeper meaning than just something that is funny or foreign. The power of the visual is there so why not use it.
Get out there and start shooting urban. Objects and -scapes can be just as exciting, telling, and juxtapositional as people, you just have to open your eyes to see.