What is street photography? Let's define it by it's intentions: to capture some sense of contemporary life, usually in cities, and always non-commerical.
Some sense of contemporary life is an interesting phrase because it can include things that mankind has created, anything from a smashed soda can to a skyscraper. How we live. What we feel. What we think. What makes us laugh. This is the attempt. It has nothing to do with the street and it has nothing to do with what tools are used to create it. But it is always non-commerical in nature.
Non-commercial: the attempt is not to sell a product; not to beautify a bride; not to pounce on a profit for somebody selling hamburgers.
But then what is the difference, if any between documentary photography and street photography?
The line is blurry, but in street photography, the photographer often searches for connections beyond the mere documentation or anthropoligical. At it's best, it can find humor or pathos in ordinary situations by a process of combining subjects in ways that we might not ordinarily see. The street photograph is as much a portrait of the photographer as the subjects.
The long lens photograph of a baseball pitcher releasing the ball that struck out the criticial hitter, is not street photography. It is taken to document a certain moment in time; not to find personal expression. The background is blurred and you can't find two or more elements in the shot.
However, if you were standing on the field during the game, or the sidelines, with a wide angle lens, and the third baseman, trying to make a catch fell into the stands, and knocked the hotdog vendor down, and if you were lucky enough to catch the hotdogs flying all over. That would be a good "catch."
And just because a shot is taken in the street doesn't make it street photography either. Fashion shoots are routinely done "in the street." Snapshots of friends and family are taken by the millions in the streets around the world.
The motives of the street photographer are as important as the results. The sensibility is one of the hunter. If this were another time, the street photographer might have been a hunter. Stealth, as well as a willingness to confront danger come into play. Techniques about how to be there and not be there at the same time obsess you. Like the hunter, you may need to put the equivalent of branches on your cap. It may not be the danger of a wild beast charging at you, but it may be as simple as the fear involved in photographing strangers doing strange things.
It is also involves a willingness to be unappreciated financially. No matter how good you are at it, you are intrinsically not making images that are going to make a money for someone else. If you want to make a better profit, make models look beautiful, or their clothes, or their teeth.
Take beautiful pictures of beaches, landscapes, or famous people.
My print of Promenade, for example - which is the best selling print I have - is not street photography. It doesn't mean that I went out to make a commercially viable print, I didn't. But it is not street photography. It is landscape photography. It is barely documentary photography. Ten years from now there's a good chance that you could go out and recreate Promenade (Poet's Walk) and that it will look the same.
And the idea that street photography is dead is silly. It will fall in and out of favor. Street photographs taken today will age well. They will become more important in fifty years because they will show us things about how we lived that we don't care about today. The clothes people are wearing will change (I hope). Buildings will come and go down. Cell phones, which are so much the rage today will become smaller and more difficult to photograph. In that sense, it has something in common with documentary photography. But on top of that, it will show something unique, that comes from the mind of the individual photographer who was working at the time.
It really doesn't matter whether the photographer is working in digital, or whatever comes after digital. It doesn't matter if every human being in the world has a camera and is constantly snapping away. Everyone has a pencil today but I don't see an improvement in the literature of the times.
Spelling (my own included) has gotten worse because of spell checkers. The majority of photographs will get more banal. But this will only make the unique photographers of the times, more valuable.
I am not a "pure" street photographer. I enjoy creating fiction. I don't care that much whether a shot has been posed or not. I don't see anything wrong with paying models to stand and kiss on steps surrounded by real passersby. I haven't done this, but I don't see anything wrong with trying to photograph something that you see via imagination rather than fact. I often have an idea and I want to see it happen. If I can get it spontaneously, great. If I need to cojole someone to look a certain way - I will do that. Believe me, I am not a purist.
So hold on to your intentions and let the excitement, the expectation, and ultimately the loss - because you are almost always doomed to failure when you photograph looking for the unknown - let these be your companions during your urban quest. And as they used to say, good hunting.