Passive vs. Active Street Photography

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Cha Cha – Little Italy, New York, 2003 (copyrighted)

In its many definitions, ‘street photography’ (SP) is often understood as a hunting process, by which one walk the street and look for scenes to capture. It is akin to prowling. Indeed, the vocabulary of photography has been based on aggressivity in the last two hundred years that it has been practiced. Howard Zehr, in his book ‘Contemplative Photography‘ made an interesting parallel between photography as hunting and photography as contemplation. The main idea is that contemplative photography viewed the process more of receiving the light reflected off the scenes, rathern than grabbing. I think that Joel Meirowitz said it best -when it comes to SP- when he compared SP to “… it is like going to the sea and letting the waves break over you. You feel the power of the sea. On the street, it successive wave brings a whole new casts of characters. You take wave after wave, you bathe in it…” His work shows clearly that he is immersed into the scene and becomes part of it as he practice his art. My favorite SP book – Bystander: A history of street photography – has many of those examples. The above image is one of the results of such case, in which the woman in white appeared suddenly, fending her way through the crowd, offering the above scene without the intervention or the influence of the photographer.

While one may reach a quick conclusion that the contemplative approach to SP calls for a passive attitude, in contrast to its active nature, the practice is actually more than an active vs. passive issue. I often adopt an attitude where I keep reminding myself that I may not be clear in my goal when doing street photography, but if I let myself in, then the scene will present itself. Whether that is an active or passive approach is outside of my consideration, but I know that it helps me to be in the present moment and welcome the unexpected.

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