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Street Photography

Street Photography Collage

Started: 1890

"I think private moments make the interesting picture."

Robert Frank

Summary of Street Photography

Associated initially with Paris, and figures such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and André Kertész, Street Photography became recognized as a genre in its own right during the early 1930s. While there are precedents, and areas of overlap with documentary and architectural photography, Street Photography is unique in the way it is associated with the photographer's skill in capturing something of the mystery and aura of everyday city living. As such, the human figure becomes the Street photograph's most vivid and defining feature. Street Photographers will sometimes engage directly with their subjects (Brassaï, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand) but it became more common for the photographer to roam the streets with a concealed 35mm camera. The Street Photographer is then often likened to the historical figure of the flâneur: namely someone who mingles anonymously amongst the crowd observing and recording the ways the unsuspecting city dweller interacts with his or her environment.

While the early French pioneers formed close associations with the Surrealists, the improvisational quality that embraces the uneven and spontaneous Snapshot Aesthetic carried across the Atlantic where it lent itself perfectly to the post-war urban experience. Possibly the most important Street Photographer of all, the Swiss-American Robert Frank, raised the status of the Snapshot to art and his influence was to enthuse the next generation of American photographers. The mid-1960s and early-1970s became the "golden-age" of Street Photography when the likes of the Arbus, Winogrand and Lee Friedlander allowed their own sassy personalities to impinge on the images of their subjects. Joel Meyerowitz completed this new dynamic by raising the status of color, hitherto thought of as somewhat artless and vulgar, to a new level of credibility.

Key Ideas

Street Photography tends to be spontaneous and seeks to capture a moment - or a split second - that would have, without the photographer's intervention, gone unnoticed. It is closely associated with a Snapshot Aesthetic which describes a technique in which a loose and informal composition brings an intense energy and a new truth to the image.
Street Photography emerged as a genre in its own right as a direct result of advances in camera technology. It is associated (if not exclusively so) with the hand-held 35mm SLR camera and especially the emergence of the very compact Leica and its superior lens quality.
Street Photography can certainly qualify as Documentary Photography, yet documentary asks for a different type of intention from that of the Street Photographer. The documentary photographer tends to be less spontaneous, more prosaic, in their approach with the documentarian invariably using his or her lens to expose social injustices or involved stories.
Though there remains a strong lineage to documentary, street photography tends to position itself as art. Street Photographers want their audience to think more profoundly about the meanings behind the images they produce.
The latter-day Street Photographer is typically possessed of a particular attitude; someone who sees their art as a calling or vocation. Street Photography is as much about a "state of mind" and a Street Photographer is someone who tends to treat their camera as a constant companion.
Street Photography Image

Henri Cartier-Bresson once described his behavior as that of a “thief” pilfering people’s belongings; taking their private moments and their culture. He thought of himself as a pickpocket, stealing through the Parisian streets, helping himself to what he wanted. He even went as far as painting his camera black to hide it from his unsuspecting subjects. His spoils were groundbreaking however, and Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries' work documented in a new and intriguing way the ordinary lives of the people on the street.

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