Are street and documentary photography art?

Dec 27, 2019

Simon King

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Are street and documentary photography art?

Dec 27, 2019

Simon King

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I think the question of whether something is or is not art is a bit disingenuous, and can be used more as a tool for gatekeeping than true analysis or critique. There is no objective standard for what makes something enjoyable as a piece of art, whether that is a photograph, music, sculpture, or a blade of grass in a field. However when it comes to the deliberate creation of an artefact I think that the intention of the creator is very powerful, and can offer some strong insight into the way that work can be interpreted.

One of the best descriptions I heard, I think when I was still in University, regarding the difference between an artistic process and a design process is that design is about the destination, whereas art is in the journey.

This implies that a designer works with some final goal in mind, a blueprint of materials and techniques that they may go about producing the end result based on what they see in their minds eye. An artist would not have as clear a goal, or end product, and is more about experimentation, making mistakes, and not knowing what the end result will really be until they see it come together.

This isn’t a clinical definition, and I’m sure there are other valid ways of explaining these processes, but for me these really make sense. I think that incorporating elements of both art and design can make for a very articulate portfolio, with an intention behind what needs to be communicated, but an openness in the way that is implemented practically.

When I’m assigned work I make sure I discuss with my client which of these roles they would prefer for me to embody. For example if I’m hired to take some studio portraits, in a certain style, with a set number of deliverables, and clear visual language then I’ll understand that in terms of a design project, and adjust my approach accordingly. I may prepare a shot list, and be more strict about the lighting, and make sure certain aspects like framing, and the expression on my subject is consistent.

However if I’m hired for a documentary project then I have more freedom for how I approach the topic. I am hired for documentary work like set stills/BTS, or wedding photography because of my skill at telling a story through images, using detail, emotion, and gesture (among other things) to offer a series of images that really summarises that point in time for my client. This is not something I can easily have a shot list for, as things will unfold unpredictably, and require fast reactions in order to properly capture the moment-to-moment happenings.

I can’t rely on consistent lighting, or situations, and this means that my approach usually ends up far closer to the “art” definition I outlined earlier.

For my personal photography, which is mostly street photography, I almost never have a clear idea of what I may come away with from any given day. I may have an inkling of a theme I want to explore, but I will never know where I will encounter that theme until I do, for a fraction of a second, and must react to it as quickly.

I can then curate a selection of images around this theme, and a series can take shape; the images I’m curating will be very different from each other, and represent a lot of trial and error, spontaneous decisions, and experimentation. This is very unlike curating a set of headshots from a portrait shoot, where at most I’ll be removing examples where my subject blinked.

I think that based on my definitions of the process behind art and design street and documentary photography can be understood as an artistic process; not even the photographer will know quite how the images will look, and what situations they’ll even be shooting.

Whether or not the end product feels more like a piece of art or design is almost irrelevant to this discussion – that is the more subjective discussion to have around specific pieces, and not something that can really be learned from by someone looking to change their methodology and approach.

I’m happy to call what I do an art, and am always glad when I feel I am spending time engrossed in the process of photography, rather than worrying about the end result. When i do spend too long on a composition, or curating it can start to feel like a design piece, and I’m usually less proud of those in general – they represent a different kind of hard one, one which I don’t value at the moment for myself, and not where I want to be taking my work moving forward.

About the Author

Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. You can follow his work on Instagram and read more of his thoughts on photography on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which you can read about here. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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11 responses to “Are street and documentary photography art?”

  1. Don Barnard Avatar
    Don Barnard

    apparently taping a banana to a wall is art so why not?

    1. Del Robertson Somerville Avatar
      Del Robertson Somerville

      Don Barnard taking a dump could be considered art if it’s done in a gallery.

  2. Mark Nycz Avatar
    Mark Nycz

    Who’s asking???

  3. David Ar Lester Avatar
    David Ar Lester

    They are talking about if there is a Santa Claus.

  4. Stephan Hughes Avatar
    Stephan Hughes

    It can be.

  5. Craig Johnson Avatar
    Craig Johnson

    I always thought Street photography as a form of recording social history. It’s a snapshot of time in its purest essence.

  6. Les Cameron Avatar
    Les Cameron

    obviously the question revolves around the definition of “art” – does “art” have to be “true”? or “beautiful”? if something is disturbing or unattractive is it disqualified from being “art?”

    great question to think about but it illustrates why (in English at least) “art” often gets combined with a modifier – i.e. “fine art”, “modern art” – then the subjectivity of “high art” and “low art” is in the same category as “pornography” (i.e. “we know when we see it” ;-) )

    personally I’m still working on being a good craftsmen – so imho opinion what differentiates the “amateur” from the “professional” isn’t a paycheck but “intentionality” –

    i.e. If I go out and take “X number” pictures, just by accident I might get 1 that is “good”, meanwhile the “professional artist” might go out and take “3X number” pictures and only think 1 is “good” but the other “X-1” were all attempts at getting a certain result brought about by conscious effort … (and of course the universal advice every beginning photographer has been given is: “take more pictures” but that is a different subject)

    just for fun – a quote from good ol’ Pablo Picasso

    “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

    1. Simon King Avatar
      Simon King

      That addition of qualifiers is an interesting distinction to make, that’s a useful way to think about it!

  7. Matthew Nehrling Avatar
    Matthew Nehrling

    Yes, next question.

  8. Jore Puusa Avatar
    Jore Puusa

    I can`t see photography as an art form of any kind. Camera is a machine and shoots when the button is pressed. Pics are machine made. An artist uses brush and his/hers talent and starts with a tabula rasa.
    I have been working as a photojournalist for 40 years, I teach this industry and never seen a photograph I could tell is an object of art. Photography is reproducing with a machine.

    1. Simon King Avatar
      Simon King

      I would disagree that being made by a machine reduces the possibility for something to be enjoyed as an art. If a sculptor uses tools, or even 3D prints an artefact that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed as art. Whether or not something is seen as art is subjective – but the intent and journey behind the creation is what my article here was concerned with!