Fine Art Photography Series
Street Photography

Snapshots of Urban Street Scenes.
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New York (1962)
A powerful street photograph taken by
Gary Winogrand. Even in this cropped
version it is still possible to observe
some of the numerous storylines.
Such as: man on the right watching
someone off camera to the left; man
in centre watching man on right; the
two ladies watching others left.

Street Photography (c.1900-present)

Contents

What are the Characteristics of Street Photography?
Compared to Documentary Photos
Compared to Pictorialist Photos
How Technical Developments Affected Street Photography
History of Street Photography
Interwar Years
Post-War Era
Postmodernism: Mid-60s-present
World's Top Photographers

For more about the early inventions upon which today's camera art is based, see: History of Photography (c.1800-1900).



Poughkeepsie (1937)
Street snapshot by Andre Kertesz.


Rue Mouffetard, Paris 1952.
Snapshot by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

PHOTO TERMS
For a brief explanation of
camera and photographic
terms, please see:

Art Photography Glossary.

PHOTO ARTISTS
For the Top 80 len-based
artists and inventors, see:
Photographers: 19th-Century.

What are the Characteristics of Street Photography?

This particular genre of fine art photography is probably best understood as an opportunistic response by the camera artist to a public scene in front of him. Typically, street photography is all about capturing chance interactions of everyday human activity within urban areas, but unlike documentary photography, the general content of the scene or its precise location are immaterial. What counts is the creative quality of the snapshot. How interesting, funny, extraordinary, or perceptive is it? Very often it is a matter of timing. The exact same scene snapped two seconds later, or from a slightly different angle, may look utterly different. In other words, the real art of street photography comes from the artist's vision and sense of timing. In addition, as always, the processing and cropping of the snapshot may be critical in helping to shape (manipulate) the viewer's understanding and appreciation of the scene in question. This type of street art is about capturing the exact moment in time when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. As a result it has nothing to do with staged photography, also known as pictorialism, since authenticity remains a key attribute. Some of the very greatest photographers to explore the genre include: Andre Kertesz (1894-1985), Brassai (1899-1984), Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004), Robert Doisneau (1912-94) and Garry Winogrand (1928-1984).

For a brief guide to the aesthetics and artistic nature of lens-based art, please see: Is Photography Art?

Compared to Documentary Photos

Street snapshots differ from documentary photography because the street photographer is an essentially neutral bystander. He is not concerned to draw any evidentiary conclusions from the snapshot. Instead the street photograph should 'speak for itself'. That said, there can be a thinner dividing line between the two genres when it comes to early works before the widespread use of instant cameras. In general, the more factual or educational the photo, the more likely it is to be documentary. Conversely, the more instantaneous or opportunistic the snapshot, the more likely it is to be a 'street photograph'.

Compared to Pictorialist Photos

Street photography has nothing to do with Pictorialism, or staged photography, since authenticity remains a key attribute. However, as stated above, this does not mean that a street photographer lacks the means to influence the viewer. Cropping a photo to exclude certain details may radically transform the impact and/or meaning of the snapshot. However, if the street artist interferes with the authenticity of the shot, it becomes pictorialist. Thus, for instance, if the photographer takes a snapshot of a film crew filming a pickpocket lifting a wallet from an unsuspecting victim, but then crops the photo to remove all traces of the film crew, then he is creating an artificial shot more akin to a staged example of pictorialism. A street photo should be real.

How Technical Developments Affected Street Photography

Street photography did not develop into a distinct or independent genre until the 20th century. The early daguerreotype photo of the "Boulevard du Temple" taken by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) in 1838, with its ten-minute exposure time, shows that photographic optics and chemistry were not yet speedy enough to capture moving traffic or bustling crowds - both important elements in street photography. Indeed, the wet collodion negatives upon which most photographers relied in the 1850s and 1860s, were not much faster, and did not encourage spontaneity - the very quality that street photography demands. Fortunately, the introduction of dry-plate negatives in the 1870s, followed by gelatin silver roll film in the 1880s, made the whole process more amenable to street work. Furthermore, the appearance of the 35mm camera in the mid-1920s was a particular benefit for street photographers, since its hand-held size enabled easy movement through busy areas, while 35mm film was sensitive enough to record images even in areas of reduced light. Unlike previous snapshot cameras, the 35mm version allowed the cameraman to look directly through the viewfinder instead of looking down onto it all the time, which made street movement much easier. These technological developments in camera equipment led to a boom in street photography notably during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

History of Street Photography

Although both Charles Bossu (1813-79) (pseudonym Charles Marville) - best known for his pictures of Parisian neighbourhoods prior to their clearance by the famous urban planner Baron Haussmann - and Eugene Atget (1857-1927) - noted for his photos of disappearing Parisian architecture around the turn of the century - were pioneer camera artists on the streets of Paris, their photos were really documentary shots designed to chronicle a fading era, rather than true street photography. Even so, their success in conveying everyday life in the French capital has established them over time as godfathers of the genre.

Some experts also claim to see the seeds of street photography in the work of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), such as "Winter, Fifth Avenue" (1893) and "The Terminal" (1893). However, these works - enhanced by natural elements including smoke, rain, and snow - should be viewed more as "artistic" pictorialist shots than genuine street photography. Even the acclaimed early 20th century photos of Paul Strand (1890-1976), such as "Wall Street, New York" and "Blind" (1916), are essentially pictorialist - the former is a menacing optical representation of Wall Street omnipotence, while the blind woman has largely documentary impact. In short, like Bossu and Atget, both Stieglitz and Strand were active on the streets but street photography was not their aim.

 

Interwar Years: 1920s, and 1930s

In the 1920s and 30s, several photographers had a significant impact on the development of street photography. They include: Andre Kertesz (1894-1985), noted for his 35mm snapshots "Meudon" (1928) and "Carrefour Blois" (1930); his younger countryman Brassai (1899-1984) whose nocturnal images of France's capital were published as "Paris de Nuit" (1933); and Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004), who championed the idea of the "decisive moment": see, for instance, his snapshot "Behind the Gare Saint Lazare (1932). Devoted to his Leica camera, and unwilling to use flash photography, or to crop his images, Cartier-Bresson recommended intuition and spontaneity as being the key components of creative street photography.

Post-War Era: 1940s and 1950s

Thanks to the technical improvements mentioned above, the post-war years were a golden age in the history of street photography, both in America and Europe. A number of street photographers in the United States - including Louis Faurer, Robert Frank, William Klein, Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt and Lisette Model - created their best work during the 40s and 50s. In 1955–56, for example, Robert Frank journeyed across the United States compiling the shots that he duly published as "The Americans" (1959). Although not exclusively devoted to street photography, the book established Frank as one of the most insightful American photographers of the day.

Street photography also flourished in Europe. In France, major practitioners included: Robert Doisneau (1912-94) - famous for his snapshot "The Kiss" (1950), showing a sailor kissing a woman in front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris - Willy Ronis (1910-2009) - the first French photographer to work for LIFE magazine - and Izis (Israelis Bidermanas) (1911-80) - a major figure in the mid-century French movement of humanist photography. In 1953, works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Ronis, Izis and Brassai were included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), curated by Edward Steichen (1879-1973), entitled "Five French Photographers". John Szarkowski (1925-2007), Steichen's successor at MOMA from 1962 to 1991, also championed the snapshot aesthetic - a genre taken up in New York with great flair by Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), some of whose photos contain a mass of interactions and mini-storylines.

Postmodernism: Mid-60s-present

Like most forms of postmodernist art, the genre of street photography fragmented during the late 60s and 70s as postmodernist artists - like Douglas Huebler and Sophie Calle, engaging in conceptual art - began to incorporate a less spontaneous style of street photography into their work. During the following decades, this somewhat contrived style of snapshot has been developed further in the work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971), Joel Meyerowitz (b.1938), Philip-Lorca diCorcia (b 1951), Nan Goldin (b.1953) and Zoe Strauss (b 1970), all of whom have come close either to pictorialism or documentary. Less contrived has been the work of Bruce Davidson (b.1933), notably his series on Harlem, and Ed Ruscha (b.1937).

But the two biggest threats to street photography are photojournalism and computer art, notably graphics software. Contemporary art is becoming saturated with sharp-focus media images capturing moments of high drama, as well as computerized enhancements and miniaturized keyhole photography. And this is before we count the effects of video film. This saturization has tended to devalue - or at least overshadow - the efforts of individual artists operating outside the ambit of photojournalism. As a result, and notwithstanding the work of 21st century lens-based artists like Graeme Williams (b.1961) and Alexey Titarenko (b 1962), it is not easy to see how street photography can continue to maintain a thriving niche between documentary and photojournalism in the 21st century, unless cell phone camera technology together with social media platforms like Facebook can provide a significant additional impetus.

World's Top Photographers

For biographies of some of the world's finest photographers, please see the following:

Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
American portrait/fashion photographer.

Walker Evans (1903–1975)
Depression-era portraitist.

Annie Leibovitz (b.1949)
Celebrity portrait photographer.

Norman Parkinson (1913-90)
Famous for outdoor portraiture.

Cindy Sherman (b.1954)
Noted for Surreal self-portraits.

Jeff Wall (b.1946)
Canadian specialist in staged photography.

Edward Weston (1886-1958)
Important exponent of pictorialism.

Exhibitions of street photographs are regularly shown in some of the best galleries of contemporary art around America.

• For more about "street photography", see: Homepage.


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