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Are Street and Documentary Photography Art?


I think the question of whether something is or is not “art” is a bit disingenuous, often 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’s 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 of a goal or end product in mind; it’s 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 in your work 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 in how I approach the topic. I’m 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 summarize a particular point in time for my client.

This is not something for which I can easily create a shot list, as things will unfold unpredictably and require fast reactions in order to properly capture 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 definition of “art” that I outlined above.

Finally, 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 quickly.

I can then curate a selection of images around this theme, and a series begins to 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 different from 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 both 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’s a more subjective discussion to be had around specific pieces, and not something that can really be learned by someone looking to change their methodology and approach.

I’m happy to call what I do “art,” and am always glad when I feel that 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 starts to feel like a design piece, then I’m usually less proud of those results in general; they represent a different kind of process, 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. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here. This post was originally published on Simon’s personal blog.