21 Street Photography Quotes That Will Change the Way You Think

Hua Lamphong - Bangkok - Monk
Photo by: Edward Leon / The Siam Wire

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Quotes are always a great source of inspiration, and instead of just grabbing a bunch of them and sharing them with a particular order or logic, today we’ll be commenting on some of the most interesting photography-related quotes. The vast majority of these were said around the context of street photography, but there are a few that could refer to a broader plane of existence.

When thinking about this type of quotes, one can’t help the immediate instinct of thinking about Robert Capa’s “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough” quote; which has become a sort of mantra for street and documentary photographers alike. Therefore, we’ll dedicate an entire critical thinking entry to it, and today we’ll be sharing a more diverse set of photography quotes that hopefully will inspire you into becoming more passionate about this particular genre.

So, let’s start with this!

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

This is perhaps one of the best-known photography quotes ever, therefore is a good place to start. This phrase surely needs to be re-contextualized, and with digital photography we could think about raising those digits to 1 million shots, or even more.

Here, HCB was trying to tell us at least two things. First, if we decide to develop photography throughout our whole lives, we’ll surely see a progress going on between the early and the more mature years. Second, don’t expect your magnum opus to raise from the very first shots that you make. And even in the unlikely scenario that something like that could happen, how boring would that be?

“Your most important gear is your eye, heart and soul.” – Marius Vieth

Attention fellow gear heads, this is a call made exclusively for you. Cameras and lenses are fabulous tools, and we have nothing against feeling aroused towards them, as long as this sentiment doesn’t cloud your minds. Photography goes beyond the latest and greatest, and thanks to marketing strategies coming from big brands, the ultimate goal of telling meaningful stories through photography becomes a bit murky. Here, Marius Vieth shakes our heads with this simple yet bold reminder about the importance of our inner-selves before thinking about any piece of photographic equipment. Thanks for everything Vice, wherever you may be my friend.

“Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.” – Helen Levitt

For all of those incapable of expressing through other media or format, let me tell you one thing, we are certainly not alone. Just like Master Levitt, I also consider myself as an inarticulate human being, at least in graphic and verbal terms. And in my personal case, photography has allowed me to heal or leverage out this lack of expressive talent to some extent. And this healing power could go even further if you are able to cope with photography with your lives in a free way. Street photography has more to do with satisfying our own visual craves, rather than meeting clients’ expectations. This particular spirit makes street photography less tied and somewhat difficult to define genre, which allows personal expressions and self-fulfilment in a joyful way.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” – Kǒng Fūzǐ

Yes, I know, Confucius wasn’t a photographer. But he surely had a point here with this beautiful thought. Nothing exhales more underseen beauty than the regular, everyday, quotidian life. And perhaps, the reason why this beautiness keeps vastly hidden from our eyes is because we are extremely used to it. As street photographers, we can’t allow ourselves to take things surrounding us for granted, we need to make an extreme effort for keeping all our senses in tune with the contexts around us

“Best wide angle lens? Two steps backward. Look for the ‘ah ha’.” – Ernst Haas

This genius idea applies not only to wide angles but to any lens that one could imagine*. Also, there is a hidden message here aimed towards variable zoom lenses (which perhaps were yet unknown to Haas since they are quite a novelty still) which tend to spoil us into being lazy. Street photography is all about becoming part of urban life, and registering it while seamlessly being within.

*Mighty telephoto lenses are a must for distance shooting like sports and wild-life, so don’t make this an overall mantra in photography.

“A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.” – Eudora Welty

Photography mediates or enhances the underlying processes behind building memories, and with the virtual ability of recording everything that we experience nowadays, having some sort of distance with this practice could deliver more meaningful and powerful memories. A single shot has the power of recalling a complex story, and by limiting ourselves to the amount of photographs we make, the resulting shots could gain a deeper symbolic value when compared to the over-flooding stream of photographs that we could make. When everything becomes “memorable”, how can we state that some moments are more important than others?

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.” – John Berger

More than a human invention, time is quite an obsession. And thanks to light, we can not only capture it, but also make it visible. Whether short or long exposures, photography manages to easily register time in a way that is simply impossible for our eyes to perform.

“With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.” – Martin Parr

I couldn’t think of a better definition for street photography. Real everyday life offers valuable inputs for us to transform into meaningful visual stories. It is our job as photographers to make the quotidian look different via our own voice and personal interpretations.

“If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.” – Eve Arnold

I don’t think this could get any much clearer than it already is, if you feel that this truly doesn’t apply to you, then you should try on looking at other genres that give more value to technical issues like landscape or conceptual photography. And if you are still drawn to the urban scape, then you can also try blending the landscape’s approach to the cities.

“Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies.” – Diane Arbus

Seriously, does this beautiful contemporary idea needs further thinking? As long as photography is able to trigger similar playful feelings in your life, then you can be sure that it will have something valuable to say.

“The photograph is completely abstracted from life, yet it looks like life. That is what has always excited me about photography.” – Richard Kavlar

If we reckon Berger’s reflection on light and time, then photography could be considered without a doubt as something completely abstracted from life. Yet, it is able to capture humanity in one of the most vital possible ways, as observable artifacts that stick through our eyes and pierce our whole lives.

“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” – Alfred Eisenstaedt

Street and documentary photography are very much alike; and although the second one requires finer social skills, street photography can benefit from it’s ways of approaching the everyday. Many times in street photography you’ll find yourselves socializing more than taking photographs, and is part of the joy of the craft.

“Photograph the world as it is. Nothing’s more interesting than reality.” – Mary Ellen Mark

Reality could be understood here as the mighty absence of further interventions on the photographs that we take. Obviously, there will always be a degree of subjectivity within this “reality” that we capture. Therefore, how can something like that be real after all? I think that this quote could be contextualized into our times by saying that we shall focus on the act of seeing and registering rather than spending time behind a screen and tweaking our files in order to fulfill a trendy look or style. In other words, seeing and occasionally taking photographs delivers a more pleasing experience than heavy-filtering your raw files so they can appear to be like other photographers’ works.

“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” – Garry Winogrand

Hmmm, this one is quite confusing, but we like the whole hermeneutical aspect of it.

“The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.” – Robert Doisneau

And that’s why you should always be prepared for the unexpected to burst in front of your eyes. Daily practice is the only way one can become a proficient street photographer, and using a camera rather than a phone forces me to always be on the lookout for things to happen.

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things in words.” – Elliott Erwitt

This is a tricky one, and we are sure Erwitt isn’t talking about avoiding the act of writing captions (or using hashtags if you wish) on our photographs like Walter Benjamin demanded us in 1934, but to pursue those images that will need no further words to speak right and true.

“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.” – Steve McCurry

Photography can become a powerful excuse for us to see the world, and by that we don’t mean the entire globe literally. By thinking about the world as anything surrounding you, the extreme urge of traveling far can be considerably reduced. Traveling is awesome, but it is resource-consuming, and at this particular moment in time, it isn’t that doable either.

“The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong. It gives me both a point of connection and a point of separation.” – Susan Meiselas

See? Photography is a beautiful excuse for seeing above and beyond our proximal perception.

“Photography has the capacity to provide images of man and his environment that are both works of art and moments in history.” – Cornell Capa

It is true, and even when street photography was raised to the state of art in some moment of our time, it revolves around recording history, even if it seems to be in transcendental.

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” – Dorothea Lange

It won’t happen right away, but it is true that after a long relationship with the camera, the human gaze gets reconfigured or reconstructed to some extent. Everything opens to ourselves as compositionally possible thanks to framing, lighting, and other visual elements that get along with each other. Photography makes us understand that our seeing is a treasure, and we shouldn’t take it for granted anymore.

“When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget I’m human. It’s the same thing when I’m behind a camera. I forget I exist.” – Robert Mapplethorpe

Comparing photography to the strong pleasures produced by sex, is one of the most beautiful things that we have ever find about this visual craft that we love so much. Whenever I’m on the streets with my camera, I stop feeling the need of eating, smoking or drinking water, everything becomes sufficient, and nothing else matters but those fractions of a second in which I feel absolutely fulfilled. If street photography is able to produce such resonant and aesthetic experiences in your lives, then there is definitely something good about the way you relate with the process of making your images out there in the world.

These sorts of ideas are always inspiring to read, especially when being tied by a massive and merciless creative block. We hope that you have enjoyed this modest list of street photography related quotes!